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Mamata Banerjee: Can ‘Didi’ aim higher?

Print edition : Jun 17, 2022 T+T-

Mamata Banerjee: Can ‘Didi’ aim higher?

Mamata Banerjee sees herself as the natural leader of any coalition that can oppose the BJP in 2024, but alienating the Congress could hurt her efforts.

In 2021, on July 21, the day the Trinamool Congress observes as ‘Martyrs’ Day’, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called for a united effort by all parties opposed to the BJP to defeat it in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Fresh from a massive victory over the BJP in the Assembly election, Mamata was not ready to take any chances. “We have to start our work and planning from now,” she said.

Mamata had been trying for a long time to establish herself as a staunch opponent of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, and was attempting to forge an alliance of non-BJP parties two years after her plans to be a national-level player in the 2019 parliamentary election failed without planning and preparation. Mamata has since tried to expand her party’s influence outside West Bengal and also gain support from the larger civil society across the country.

Mamata had to address the Martyr’s Day rally of 2021 virtually because of the COVID second wave, and among the national-level leaders who attended it were P. Chidambaram and Digvijay Singh of the Congress, Jaya Bachchan of the SP, Manoj Jha of the RJD, Sharad Pawar of the NCP, Priyanka Chaturvedi of the Shiv Sena, and Tiruchi Shiva of the DMK. “Today we should stand united and forget our self-interest,” she said, adding that one common interest should be “to save the country… and to save the federal structure”. Mamata insisted that her role would be that of a “worker”.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram. | Photo Credit: PTI/File Photo

Two months before the Martyrs’ Day meeting, Mamata had defied all odds and predictions to defeat the BJP in the Assembly election. In what appeared to be a direct contest between Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Trinamool Congress romped back to power for the third time in a row, winning 213 out of the 292 seats and 47.94 per cent of the votes. Mamata was universally hailed as the only leader to shatter the myth of invincibility associated with the Modi-Amit Shah combine. It revived her flagging profile at the national level and, her 2019 failed attempt notwithstanding, a number of regional and national leaders began to look to her again to initiate a concerted effort to overthrow the BJP.

Anti-BJP platform

Less than three months before the Lok Sabha election, Mamata held a massive rally in Kolkata on January 19, 2019. With leaders from 23 opposition parties on the podium, she announced the formation of a broad political platform, but the experiment turned out to be a damp squib as the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance swept back to power; the BJP alone won 303 of the 543 seats. The Trinamool’s seat tally fell to 22 from 34 in the previous election.

Mamata realised she had made the mistake of leaving things too late, but she was also aware of the danger of running out of steam too soon. “We have two and a half years still left for the Lok Sabha election. There is no point in rushing, nor will it work if we form an alliance just before the election,” she said in 2021.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee met Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi in New Delhi.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee met Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: PTI

Soon after returning to power, Mamata began to strengthen her party organisation within Bengal and spread the Trinamool’s influence in other States. Two years after the party’s debacle in 2019, she began to visit Delhi again and have meetings with leaders of different parties, and also reach out to eminent people from civil society. Celebrities such as Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi came out in support of Mamata’s call for a change of government at the Centre. “She believes there should be parivartan [change] like the way she wanted in Bengal [in 2011, when she defeated the Left Front]. Now she wants it in India.... The important question is what kind of India do you want? What kind of culture, atmosphere, freedom, and democracy do we want in Hindustan? We are proud of our democracy and we want it to get even stronger,” said Javed Akhtar in 2021.

The Trinamool has been aggressively trying to expand its base outside Bengal, particularly in Goa, Tripura, and Assam. In all three States, the Congress has a strong presence, and the Trinamool’s attempt at expansion is costing the grand old party dearly. Despite the fact that the Trinamool could not win a seat and secured only 5.2 per cent of the votes in the recent Assembly election in Goa, it dented the Congress’ vote share by nearly 5 per cent. The Congress also lost a number of senior leaders to the Trinamool by way of defection.

Alienating the Congress

Though Mamata was seen making friendly overtures to the Congress and even holding meetings with Sonia Gandhi and other top Congress leaders shortly after returning to power in 2021, the Trinamool leadership, particularly Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, the party’s all-India general secretary, have relentlessly targeted the Congress in their speeches, labelling it an “armchair warrior”. Abhishek’s statement that “If the Congress cannot defeat the BJP, the Trinamool will do it” is also a clear indication that the Trinamool wishes to take the Congress’ place at the national level.

MP & West Bengal Congress President Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.
MP & West Bengal Congress President Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. | Photo Credit: PTI

In fact, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha and president of the State unit, recently quipped: “She [Mamata] is more vituperative against the Congress than even the BJP. Sometimes I am confused as to who her political opponent is.”

The Trinamool’s expansion drive in other States may also be to retain its status as a ‘national party’ before the 2024 election. In order to do so, the Trinamool needs to be recognised as a State party in at least three other States besides West Bengal.

Mamata’s apparent hostility towards the Congress and her party’s attempted forays into States where the Congress has a strong presence are seen as part of the Trinamool’s strategy to project itself as the primary opponent to the BJP in 2024.. According to the psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, the electoral fortunes of the Trinamool are inversely proportion to that of the Congress. “The Trinamool will never go out of its way to help form a government in which the Congress is a dominant stakeholder; the Congress will have to be in a marginalised position. The BJP also understands that it will be difficult for the opposition to form a successful coalition with this kind of an equation between the Trinamool and the Congress. Mamata may be able to get various regional parties together to make a cloud in the political firmament of the country, but that cloud will not bear any rain,” Chakraborty told Frontline.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury alleged that Mamata’s political stance against the Congress was a clear indication that she was “in league” with the BJP. “Mamata Banerjee believes that by winning in one State, she will be able to win in the whole country. She does not even understand the nuances of opposition politics, and each and every initiative she takes will end up strengthening the BJP’s hand,” said Chowdhury. According to him, the central BJP’s measured silence on the West Bengal government’s activities suggests “some sort of understanding” between the two parties.

“The Congress is forthcoming about what needs to be done to fight the BJP—a coalition of like-minded parties. This has been conveyed to all non-BJP parties across the country. But Mamata Banerjee has been subverting the opposition citadel. The BJP was certain of defeat in Goa, but that was upended by the generosity of Mamata Banerjee,” said Chowdhury.

While it is still too early to predict Mamata’s course of action to oust the BJP in 2024, one thing is certain: the maverick mass leader from Bengal will plan her moves more carefully this time and not repeat the mistakes of 2019.