After her massive victory over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Assembly elections, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee immediately set her sights on defeating the Narendra Modi government at the Centre in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. She went to Delhi after a gap of two years and held talks with various political parties, including the Congress, and urged them to put up a united front against the BJP. However, less than three months later, Mamata Banerjee and her party began to train their guns on the Congress, giving rise to fresh political speculation and prompting the Congress to question the Trinamool’s motives.
Both Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, the all-India general secretary of the Trinamool, have not been pulling any punches in their recent statements against the Congress and its central leadership. During a recent trip to Goa, where the Trinamool is trying to establish a political base, Mamata Banerjee lashed out at the Congress, which is the main opposition in the State. “They contested for 70 years, what have they done? Last time, Congress MLAs went to the BJP to help them form the government. You [Congress] cannot control your MLAs. You cannot take a decision in proper time. You allowed the BJP to form a government. Who can say this won’t be repeated? How do we trust you?” she said. Ironically, she herself is trying to build her party in Goa with the support of dissidents from the Congress. Led by former Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro, these dissidents recently joined the Trinamool.
Faleiro, at the time of his joining the Trinamool, spoke of a “unification of the Congress family” to take on the BJP. But Abhishek Banerjee adopted a belligerent tone as he accused the Congress of being an “armchair warrior” that ought to “hit the streets” like the Trinamool had done. “If the Congress cannot defeat the BJP, the Trinamool will do it,” he said.
The statements by Mamata Banerjee and her nephew have been interpreted as a rejection of the Congress in the upcoming fight against the BJP. In fact, their attacks against the grand old party have been as consistent and scathing as their barbs at the saffron party. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Congress stalwart from West Bengal and Leader of the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha, told Frontline : “She is more vituperative against the Congress than even the BJP. Sometimes I am confused as to who her political opponent is. I am really getting dumbfounded.”
Also read: Mamata Banerjee’s Project Tripura
A section of political observers interprets the Trinamool’s moves as nothing more than blatant political expansionism. But the Congress believes they form a concerted effort to destroy the party and thereby help the BJP. Labelling Mamata Banerjee as “the Trojan horse of the Modi government”, Adhir Chowdhury said: “Electoral politics is nothing but electoral arithmetic to capture power. I don’t know what kind of arithmetic the Trinamool is following. In order to ascend to power we need as many as 273 Lok Sabha seats. I don’t know how and by what magic the Trinamool supremo can harness the numbers required to replace the BJP. We can easily come to the conclusion that 63 per cent of the popular votes have been cast against the BJP. Out of the 63 per cent, the Congress alone accounts for 20 per cent, and the Trinamool accounts for around 4 per cent. I don’t see the merit of any argument that says Modi can be dethroned without the Congress.”
According to Adhir Chowdhury, the Trinamool may be trying to help the BJP by targeting the Congress in order to escape from the clutches of the Central investigative agencies that are looking into alleged malpractices of some Trinamool leaders. “It is intriguing to note that on August 20, the Trinamool supremo attended a meeting with nine parties convened by Sonia Gandhi, and it was unanimously decided that all opposition parties would act together to dislodge the ruling dispensation. The very same supremo had earlier met all the opposition leaders, including Sonia Gandhi. But on September 6, soon after her nephew was examined by the Enforcement Directorate in Delhi, both the nephew and the supremo started hurling diatribes against the Congress without any rhyme or reason. Within a few days the entire Trinamool party started going hammer and tongs at us,” said Adhir Chowdhury.
Even a local Trinamool leader like Kunal Ghosh, who has no substantial mass base, took a swipe at Rahul Gandhi on social media, calling him a “part-time politician who has failed to combat the BJP”. Ghosh’s reaction came after Rahul Gandhi’s observation that while the Congress was prevented by the Uttar Pradesh government from visiting Lakhimpur Kheri, the Trinamool and the Bhim Army were allowed. “Rahul Gandhi should know: @AITCofficial MPs are in Lakhimpur after a long fight. In Tripura, BJP imposed 144 throughout Agartala only to prevent @abhishekaitc. INC is a loser in their traditional UP including Amethi. But TMC defeated BJP in Bengal. INC made Punjab a mess,” Ghosh tweeted.
Besides trying to rally together anti-BJP parties for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, Mamata Banerjee has also been trying, quite openly, to spread the Trinamool’ influence and strengthen its organisation in States where the Congress has considerable sway. The Trinamool’s forays into BJP-ruled Tripura and Goa are being perceived as a two-pronged attack—to challenge the BJP and at the same time usurp the Congress’ space as the main opposition in these States. In Tripura, too, the Trinamool seems to be relying on large-scale defections from the Congress to build up a base. According to a Congress source, the Trinamool is trying to take advantage of the “present state of the Congress” in different States in order to demolish the organisation completely and replace it with its own organisation. “A section of opportunistic Congress leaders is being enticed with plum positions and Rajya Sabha nominations. They are being misled into believing this is best for their career,” said the source.
In August, Sushmita Dev, former Congress Member of Parliament from Silchar, Assam, and president of the All India Mahila Congress, joined the Trinamool. She was immediately given a Rajya Sabha nomination and important responsibilities in Assam and Tripura.
Birajit Sinha, president of the Tripura Pradesh Congress Committee, does not believe that the Trinamool’s attempts to set up base in other States will succeed. “Mamata Banerjee believes she will be able to make a dent in other States, but hers is a regional party; and a regional party is restricted to its own State. The Congress is her oxygen. She may attack it now, but when the need arises she will seek the Congress’ help,” Birajit Sinha told Frontline .
‘West Bengal model’
The well-known political observer and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty described the Trinamool’s strategy of targeting the Congress in other States as the “West Bengal model”, one which seeks to decimate the Congress and replace it with the Trinamool. “Initially, Mamata Banerjee could not manage to win over a single MLA from the Left. But she broke the Congress and ultimately destroyed the Left. Now she wants to use the same strategy in other States and at the same time question the credibility of the central leadership of the Congress. She has now taken the place that Mulayam Singh Yadav occupied in the 1990s. Just as the Muslims then believed that Mulayam could stop the BJP, they now feel it is Mamata Banerjee who can defeat the Modi-Amit Shah rule. She is virtually representing the minority vote bank of the Congress,” he said. While the strategy may work in the Trinamool’s favour, there is also a chance of it backfiring and working to the BJP’s advantage by splitting the opposition votes. “However, Mamata Banerjee’s politics is very flexible and aimed at maximising her political gains. If this strategy is not working to her advantage, she may very well take a U-turn,” said Chakraborty.
Also read: Bengal returns Mamata to power
The Congress, for its part, has not only showed restraint about the Trinamool’s repeated barbs, but also extended an olive branch to it by not fielding any candidate for the Bhabanipur seat in the byelection, which was contested and won by Mamata Banerjee. Amitabha Chakraborty, senior Congress leader from West Bengal, told Frontline : “When there are talks of a united front against the BJP, the Congress does not want to rock the boat, and that is the reason it did not even put up a candidate in Bhabanipur. The Congress is looking at the bigger picture here.”
The Prashant Kishor factor
The Trinamool’s election strategist Prashant Kishor, who incidentally met the Gandhi family to discuss Congress’s revival plans earlier this year, also got into the fray. Tweeting on the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, he posted: “People looking for a quick, spontaneous revival of GOP [Grand Old Party] led opposition based on #LakhimpurKheri incident are setting themselves up for a big disappointment. Unfortunately there are no quick fix solutions to the deep-rooted problems and structural weakness of GOP.” Later he was heard saying, in a video of a private meeting in Goa, that Rahul Gandhi was mistaken to believe that the BJP could easily be removed from Indian politics: “That is where the problem lies with Rahul Gandhi. Probably, he thinks it’s just a matter of time that people will throw him [Modi] away. That’s not happening.”
According to Adhir Chowdhury, Kishor is the “bridge” between the Trinamool and the Modi government. “He has been playing the facilitator for the Modi regime to continue. In 2014, the same Mr Poll Strategist had coined the words ‘Acche din’, and the same person in 2021 coined the battle cry for the ruling party of Bengal, ‘Duarey Sarkar’. There is certainly some hidden agenda here, and that is why, in spite of all the oppression mounted on the BJP workers in the State, the central BJP leadership is reticent,” Chowdhury said.