Mamata Banerjee's challenge needs no Congress reaction, for now

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took on the Congress in Goa to show that she was an emerging force nationally, hoping to defeat it electorally. Her calculations floundered when Vijay Sardesai’s Goa Forward Party refused to merge with her Trinamul Congress (TMC) and preferred to ally with the Congress. However, her new confrontationist attitude towards the Congress has not ended. She is now apparently being advised to contest all the seats in Uttarakhand, if not to win, then to defeat the Congress. The calculation is that the defeat of the Congress in the five state elect.....
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took on the Congress in Goa to show that she was an emerging force nationally, hoping to defeat it electorally. Her calculations floundered when Vijay Sardesai’s Goa Forward Party refused to merge with her Trinamul Congress (TMC) and preferred to ally with the Congress.

However, her new confrontationist attitude towards the Congress has not ended. She is now apparently being advised to contest all the seats in Uttarakhand, if not to win, then to defeat the Congress. The calculation is that the defeat of the Congress in the five state elections will open up the political space for Banerjee to step in as the “natural” leader of the anti-BJP forces.

Banerjee seems to have been advised to go on the front foot to criticise Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, perceived to be the Congress’ soft underbelly. In an ideologically controlled media ecosystem that is already hostile to him and the Congress, such attacks might help her stay in the headlines.

Banerjee’s initial attempt was to accrue strength slowly by attracting disgruntled Congressmen. If a large number of Congress state units were to split and declare themselves to be the TMC in each state that would allow her to claim that she was the “real Congress”. Banerjee would then have developed a national presence more naturally. However, this was before poll strategist Prashant Kishor sought her after he was rebuffed by the Congress.

Perhaps on his advice, Banerjee has adopted a “scorched earth” strategy for building the TMC into a national party. However, the question is whether an anti-Congress stance fuelled purely by personal ambition will appeal to the public imagination? Should Banerjee defeat the Congress and hand over the advantage to the BJP in Goa and Uttarakhand, then rightly or wrongly, she might be seen as the Trojan horse of the BJP. It is a moot question if that would win her credibility with the Opposition.

This is not Mamata Banerjee’s first attempt to assume national stature. On the eve of the 2014 general election, she had joined hands with Anna Hazare who, after breaking off with Arvind Kejriwal, had formed an outfit called the Jantantra Morcha along with former Army Chief General V K Singh. Banerjee had promised to field 100 “honest” candidates in North and South India saying, “Annaji will be advising me on which candidates we should support”.

That alliance came a cropper in her very first “national” rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan on March 12, 2014. At the last minute, Hazare withdrew claiming “ill health”, leaving Banerjee to address a virtually empty rally ground.

She made her second bid as leader of the anti-BJP Opposition in the run up to the 2019 general election when along with K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi she roped in Arvind Kejriwal of Aam Adami Party to form a Federal Front, an alliance of non-Congress anti-BJP parties. At that time, she emphasised the need for an “alternative agenda, an alternative development and an alternative political force.” That alliance too fizzled out before the general election.

In each attempt, Banerjee has drawn on her electoral victories in West Bengal. Her third victory was not only definitive but helped lift the mood of the anti-BJP forces across the country. She also has the advantage of advice from an ambitious poll-strategist, raring to enter full-time politics himself, who has put her national ambitions in overdrive. She is currently visiting states with non-BJP governments to bring regional parties on to her platform. What might have come to her naturally in due process has now been converted into a contentious issue, forcing opposition parties to assess her suitability as a national leader prematurely.

Some regional leaders also may not share her agenda fully. Banerjee’s meeting with Sharad Pawar in Mumbai, for example, was a high point to mark Opposition unity. But Pawar had got his party leader Nawab Malik to make a statement to the Press on the eve of the event that, “From day one, Sharad Pawar has said, without Congress there cannot be a unity of the Opposition. The NCP has made it clear that the Opposition should come together. The TMC and Congress differences can be sorted out. We will make efforts for that.”

Apparently, Pawar was taken aback when addressing the media after their meeting Banerjee began with a sweeping dismissal of the Congress-inclusive UPA, “Where is the UPA? There is no UPA”. Pawar whose Nationalist Congress party is still a member of the UPA along with 14 other parties, has apparently conveyed to the Congress that he had no inkling that she would say this.

Pawar, however, may not be entirely averse to seeing the UPA leadership issue open up. If he can step up as UPA chairperson, he can be a potential king-maker if the opportunity arises. His health rules him out for heading a non-BJP government. Even Banerjee would find it difficult to oppose this prospect.

Meanwhile, Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamana has hit Banerjee where it must hurt by declaring that keeping the Congress out of Opposition unity “will amount to strengthening the current fascist forces'". It emphasised that the Opposition needs the UPA and that “forming a parallel alliance to the UPA'' and cautioned Banerjee against trying “to take the space of the Congress”.

The Congress has done well not to react to Banerjee’s high-pitched campaign. It must answer her with electoral victories in the five election going states. In the best case scenario if the Congress wins Punjab and Uttrakahand (or conceivably even Goa) and makes credible inroads into Uttar Pradesh, then Banerjee’s challenge would be over.

Patience and considered reactions pay in politics, The TMC chief‘s mercurial shifts of play could destroy her leadership chances much before 2024. Just one photograph of a meeting a smiling Gautam Adani tweeted from his account has already done her more damage than her party MPs in Delhi or Prashant Kishor’s public relations exercises can contain. A chief minister meeting a businessman may be no crime but it is bound to be seen differently if her party has spent considerable time painting him black as a crony capitalist of the incumbent regime.


Key stories on business-standard.com are available to premium subscribers only.

Already a premium subscriber?

Subscribe to get an across device (Website, Mobile Web, Iphone, Ipad, and Android Phone applications) access to Premium content, Breaking News alerts, Industry Newsletters, Stock and Corporate news alerts, access to Archives and a lot more.


Dear Reader,


Business Standard has always strived hard to provide up-to-date information and commentary on developments that are of interest to you and have wider political and economic implications for the country and the world. Your encouragement and constant feedback on how to improve our offering have only made our resolve and commitment to these ideals stronger. Even during these difficult times arising out of Covid-19, we continue to remain committed to keeping you informed and updated with credible news, authoritative views and incisive commentary on topical issues of relevance.

We, however, have a request.

As we battle the economic impact of the pandemic, we need your support even more, so that we can continue to offer you more quality content. Our subscription model has seen an encouraging response from many of you, who have subscribed to our online content. More subscription to our online content can only help us achieve the goals of offering you even better and more relevant content. We believe in free, fair and credible journalism. Your support through more subscriptions can help us practise the journalism to which we are committed.

Support quality journalism and subscribe to Business Standard.

Digital Editor

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel
Read More on

MAMATA BANERJEE

RAHUL GANDHI

ALL INDIA TRINAMOOL CONGRESS

CONGRESS

OPINION

COLUMNS


Most Read

Markets

Companies

Opinion

Latest News

Todays Paper

News you can use