West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has finally made her position clear on the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party. A week ago, in an interview with a private news channel, the possibility of an anti-BJP alliance in West Bengal similar to the alliance of the centre-left parties in Bihar was mooted. Banerjee said that no one in politics should be considered untouchable, a clear indication that she is re-considering her strident opposition to working with the Communists of West Bengal, whom she fought bitterly for decades.

The interview then asked specifically about arch-rival, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Her response: “We had a state level alliance with the Socialist Unity Centre of India during the second United Progressive Alliance administration. Former Naxal leaders like Purnendu Basu and Pradip Banerjee have joined us. I believe that the space for dialogue should always be open. If a proposal of an alliance with CPM comes to us, we will think about it.”

The comment has set off a storm in Bengal politics. This is the first time Banerjee has publicly discussed the possibility of bringing anti-saffron forces in the state together. She has spoken previously on the challenges of fighting communalism in Bengal, but has not discussed an anti-BJP alliance.

The BJP is benefitting from an unprecedented surge in popularity in the state. Workers and leaders from both the left parties and Congress are joining it in large numbers. Banerjee’s party, Trinamool Congress, is nervous about this growth, while the central and state leadership of the BJP is determined to replace the left as the primary opposition by the next Assembly elections.

Saradha fallout

So what has made Mamata consider an anti-BJP alliance now? The success of the alliance between erstwhile rival socialist leaders Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad in the recent by-poll elections in Bihar has certainly been an encouragement.

Yet the crucial factor seems to be the heavy damage that the Saradha chit scam has done to her reputation and that of her party members. Everyday in Bengal local newspapers have banner headlines about TMC members of Parliament being questioned by the Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate, and even the possibility of raids on their homes. The CBI has become noticeably more aggressive in its investigation since the government changed, with the investigative agency’s head, Ranjit Sinha, warning political leaders to cooperate or be arrested.

In turn, senior TMC leader Mukul Roy has pointed to past instances of political interference in CBI investigations, suggesting there is a political conspiracy by the centre to malign their party.

Heat is on

The investigation now threatens to singe Mamata, as one of her closest aides, West Bengal transport minister Madan Mitra, will be questioned by the CBI next. Mitra was the head of the union of the Saradha employees association, and it is alleged he was involved in some illegal financial transactions dealing with the refurbishment of a temple. The CBI quizzed Bapi Karim, the former personal assistant of the transport minister, to record his statement on these issues.

But forging an alliance between such bitter – and ego-driven – rivals will not be easy. The CPM has already rejected Banerjee’s hesitant overture. “Democracy and secularism is intrinsically linked,” senior CPM leader Suryakanta Mishra told a news channel last week. “The person who is destroying democracy in West Bengal today is Mamata Banerjee. So this talk of alliance doesn’t suit her. And what about her previous association with BJP during the NDA regime? Let her first apologise for that.”

Attacks continue

The pointed snub does not simply stem from political rivalry. Attacks on CPM workers by suspected TMC cadre continue unabated. Left workers are joining the BJP for increased protection. This month’s gang-rape and murder of the wife of a CPM worker, allegedly by TMC supporters in Sunia village in East Midnapore district, has left things particularly bitter at the moment.

Another reason the CPM does not favour an alliance with TMC at this stage is because it fears this will leave them an electoral irrelevance in the state. They feel they still have a shot at renewing their own prospects. Unlike the Mandal parties of Bihar, in the last Lok Sabha elections the Communist parties won more than every other party other than the ruling Trinamool. Therefore it may risk a tripartite battle in Bengal, hoping for revival in the long run.

The BJP leadership in the state has taken heart from these exchanges because it positions them as a serious contender for power in the public imagination. State BJP President Rahul Sinha has made an appeal to the old and “real” Trinamool workers to join his party, saying that their didi (the term of affection Banerjee’s supporters use for her) will now join hands with the Communists they fought so earnestly once.