FOR the ruling Trinamool Congress, victory in the recent byelection for the Howrah Lok Sabha seat came as a relief from the multiple concerns it was facing, not least among them being the growing disenchantment of its urban supporters.

Its candidate Prasun Banerjee, a former footballer, defeated his nearest rival, Sridip Bhattacharjee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), by 26,965 votes—a commendable margin in a three-way contest between the Trinamool, the CPI(M) and the Congress. He emerged on top in five of the seven Assembly segments in the constituency. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election when the Trinamool Congress and the Congress contested unitedly, its victory margin against the CPI(M) was 37,655 votes.

The victory will serve to boost the flagging morale of the Trinamool workers before the upcoming panchayat elections scheduled for July. More significantly, the party’s worst fear of an adverse backlash from the Saradha scam did not happen.

The ruling party and the government have been under tremendous pressure because of the party’s perceived proximity to the Saradha Group, whose fund-collection scam has ruined lakhs of people mostly from the poorer sections of the society.

The Trinamool’s overall vote tally stood at 4,26,387, a vote share of 44.5 per cent; and the Congress secured 96,731 votes, a vote share of a little over 10 per cent. “This election has ushered in a new arithmetic and a new chapter in West Bengal’s politics. We fought the election alone, and the message of the people has been to go it alone,” said Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee after the victory.

However, her detractors pointed out that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has around 50,000 dedicated votes in the region, did not contest the polls, giving a clear advantage to the Trinamool. “Our decision not to contest in Howrah helped Trinamool retain its seat,” said Rahul Sinha, State BJP president. Had the BJP contested, there was a possibility of the Trinamool losing, said some political analysts.

The CPI(M)-led Left Front’s vote percentage in Howrah was 41.85 per cent, a four percentage point increase from 37.02 per cent in the 2011 Assembly elections, but down from the 44.25 per cent it registered in the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

But the Left can take heart from the fact that its decline in vote percentage in the successive byelections since losing power in the State in 2011 has been arrested in this election. “If our supporters were not hindered by intimidation by the ruling party, then our results would have been better,” said Surjya Kanta Mishra, Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member.

The Congress remained a distant third once again. “We are disappointed. Politically it was triangular contest, but electorally it became polarised. However, the stranglehold of the Trinamool has become loose in the State,” said Om Prakash Mishra, general secretary of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress. Mishra added that with the BJP contributing to the Trinamool’s win, it was “time for the ruling party to rethink its options”.

Mamata Banerjee is well aware of the need for these options. She said she endorsed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s view that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, and did not rule out the possibility of a future tie-up with the United Progressive Alliance(UPA). “Let a proposal come from the Congress, only then can I consider it. But we shall not go to them with any proposal,” she said after the results.

Though this victory was crucial to Mamata Banerjee, it also pointed to breaches in her political fortress. As Surjya Kanta Mishra put it: “The mood of the people and the direction in which the State’s politics is heading has become very clear in this election. The present government should learn a lesson from this or worse fate may await them.”

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay