Mamata's predatory and high risk politics

When her party men were leaving in droves in the summer of 2019 to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the chief of Trinamool Congress (TMC) Mamata Banerjee, had alleged that the saffron party was “collecting garbage” that her party had dumped. Two years, later, Banerjee seems to be on a similar collection spree to further her image as a leader with national appeal. Banerjee does not seem to realise that there is no alternative to the natural growth of a party. New leaders can bring value addition only if they have a substantial mass base which they can bring in tow. Collec.....
When her party men were leaving in droves in the summer of 2019 to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the chief of Trinamool Congress (TMC) Mamata Banerjee, had alleged that the saffron party was “collecting garbage” that her party had dumped. Two years, later, Banerjee seems to be on a similar collection spree to further her image as a leader with national appeal.

Banerjee does not seem to realise that there is no alternative to the natural growth of a party. New leaders can bring value addition only if they have a substantial mass base which they can bring in tow. Collecting political rejects and frustrated politicians from other parties can hardly be the basis of building the foundation that Banerjee needs to catapult herself on the national stage. Not attending the meeting of the Opposition parties on the first day of the winter session of parliament, called by the Congress, will not give the TMC a bigger voice. It will only underline that the party is as temperamental as its chief.

If she has to displace the Congress, even in its dilapidated state, she will have to do well in the Hindi-speaking belt of North India as well as the non-Hindi belt of Southern and Western India. Her recent moves are unlikely to take her in that direction.

Her party’s latest acquisitions in North India bring nothing more to the table than their own ambition. In Bihar they include former diplomat Pavan Verma who was expelled from the Janata Dal (United) and former cricketer Kirti Azad who lost the last general election with a record margin of 4.8 lakh votes. In UP the TMC has recruited Rajeshpati Tripathi a former MLC and Laliteshpati Tripathi, grandson and a great grandson of Kamalapati Tripathi. In Haryana it is Ashok Tanwar who left the party ahead of the assembly elections in 2019 after his dismissal as state Congress president. 

Just how many seats can Mamata hope to win in Bihar which sends 40 MPs to Parliament on the back of Verma and Azad, with the near-diminished political capital of the Late Kamalapati Tripathi in UP (80 Lok Sabha seats) or on the back of Tanwar in Haryana (10)?

In South India, the TMC is totally absent. For its Western India foray the party chose Goa which has 2 Lok Sabha seats. Former Congress Chief Minister of Goa, Luzhino Falerio along with nine others joined the TMC and was promptly rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat. Poll-strategist Prashant Kishor, as Banerjee’s new Consiglieri was given the credit for his defection. Others roped in were tennis player Leander Paes, actor and socialite Nafisa Ali and entrepreneur Mrinalini Deshprabhu. However their glamour quotient failed to light up Banerjee’s public meetings in Goa. Vijay Sardesai of the Goa Forward Party balked at merging his party with the TMC during Banerjee’s visit.

Mamata Banerjee’s greatest victory came last week when 12 of the 17 Congress legislators in Meghalaya including former chief minister Mukul Sangma defected to the TMC. The Congress leadership did not manage to retain him despite meetings in Delhi on November 18 with Sangma, his bete noir and state unit president Vincent Pala, and other senior leaders. Sangma’s defection is also traceable to Prashant Kishor. That his team is said to have been camping in Meghalaya for two months indicates the substantial financial resources the TMC was willing to commit for a state with just 2 Lok Sabha seats. In Assam, the party but has no state-wide presence despite having poached Sushmita Dev from the Congress.

There is speculation that nearer the general elections, several disgruntled Congressmen, especially those at the forefront of criticising the Congress leadership, would leave the party and join TMC. They could argue that the TMC is the ‘real’ Congress which alone can effectively challenge the BJP.

Banerjee’s definitive victory over the BJP against massive odds in West Bengal has inspired her to a greater and legitimate ambition to lead the nation after the general election of 2024. Projection as a pan-India figure, ideologically similar to the Congress but with seemingly greater determination to take on the BJP could make her more attractive to the smaller opposition parties than the Congress. She may also be able to tone down her temperamental and angular persona.

The BJP’s ouster in 2024 because of anti-incumbency is also not a foregone conclusion. She may be correct in thinking that she could enjoy greater acceptability than the Congress as the sheet anchor of Opposition unity, and better elicit cooperation from the regional parties. However, Banerjee must know that Congress with its 19.5% vote share in the 2019 general election is way ahead of her party’s best ever performance of 4.1% vote share in that election.

Banerjee and her party cannot play the crucial role of defeating the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, where the saffron party has won 90 of its 303 seats, without fighting the regional parties there. Does she have the wherewithal to fight the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Janata Dal (United) or the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha? More importantly, are these not the very parties whose cooperation she would need to seek for the Opposition coalition after the general election?  

However, her strategy of destroying the Congress to strengthen herself is a high risk strategy. By splitting the Congress vote – for that is what she will do -- Banerjee’s chances of being the next prime minister will be virtually nil. In destroying the Congress she would give a definitive advantage to the BJP – after all, Congress had finished second after the BJP in 179 seats in 2019. So even if she manages to acquire a national image as the sole rallying point of the anti-BJP forces she may not get the top job.

Her national ambition may be realised only if the Congress gets about 100 seats and the rest of the anti-BJP Opposition gets about 150. Then, to emerge as the leader of an anti-BJP coalition she cannot only bank on her greater acceptability to the non-Congress anti-BJP parties. She would also have to build bridges with the Congress rather than setting its house on fire.


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