Mamata Banerjee's plans to oust BJP

Mamata Banerjee rallying opposition forces against BJP

Print edition : August 27, 2021

With Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, in New Delhi on July 28. Photo: PTI

During a meeting with the poet Javed Akhtar and the actor Shabana Azmi, in New Delhi on July 29. Photo: PTI

Abhishek Banerjee, general secretary of Trinamool Congress Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a rally ahead of the West Bengal Assembly election, in Kolkata on March 7, 2021. Photo: BIKAS DAS/AP

After her resounding victory in the West Bengal Assembly election, Mamata Banerjee announces her intent to overthrow the BJP at the Centre in 2024 and takes the first step towards cobbling together a front of opposition parties.

In the run-up to the 2021 Assembly election in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had stated that the fight to oust the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre would begin with the West Bengal election. True to her words, after her dramatic triumph in the election, in which her party, the Trinamool Congress, roared back to power with a massive majority against the BJP, Mamata Banerjee almost immediately set her sights on Delhi and began working towards expanding her party’s base and trying to unify all parties opposed to the BJP.

Armed with a massive electoral mandate and with the Central government in the eye of the storm after the Pegasus scandal, in which it has been accused of spying on politicians, journalists and activists, Mamata Banerjee went to Delhi for the first time in two years and held meetings with leaders of different political parties, including Sonia Gandhi and other senior representatives of the Congress.

Mamata Banerjee’s historic victory in West Bengal was one of the most significant wins in the country’s recent political history. In a fight that was largely perceived as a direct contest between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal Chief Minister managed to puncture the saffron party’s claims of the invincibility of the duo of Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah and shattered the myth of the unstoppable BJP election juggernaut.

Also read: Bengal returns Mamata to power

The Trinamool was fighting what many felt was a losing battle against a much stronger opponent, especially since it was also weighed down by a pronounced anti-incumbency sentiment and allegations of corruption. But the party’s victory in 211 out of the 294 seats was more a resounding rejection of Modi’s policies by the electorate than an overwhelming acceptance of the Trinamool. More importantly, it exposed the chinks in the BJP’s armour and set the tone for building an alternative force at the Centre.

The emergence of the Pegasus spyware controversy gave Mamata Banerjee the impetus to sound a clarion call to the opposition parties to set aside their differences and self-interest and come together to form a front to oust the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Call to unity

On July 21, amid outrage over the Pegasus issue in Parliament and across the nation, Mamata Banerjee chose to strike during her annual Martyrs’ Day speech, in which she called for a united opposition against the Modi government.

(The speech was telecast live in several States and several national-level leaders from different parties attended the event. They included Sharad Pawar from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), P. Chidambaram and Digvijaya Singh from the Congress, Jaya Bachchan from the Samajwadi Party (S.P), Tiruchi Siva from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), K. Keshav Rao from the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), Manoj Jha from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Priyanka Chaturvedi from the Shiv Sena.)

The West Bengal Chief Minister said: “Today we should stand united and forget our self-interest. We have only one interest and that is to save this country, to save the people, to save each and every State and to save the federal structure,” She also exhorted parties in all States to start working towards the formation of a formidable front to take on the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Also read: Mamata Banerjee asks opposition parties to form an alliance now to overthrow the BJP at the Centre in 2024

This was not the first time that Mamata Banerjee had tried to forge an alliance of parties opposed to the BJP. In 2019, a few months before the Lok Sabha election, leaders from 23 opposition parties gathered at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata in response to her call and resolved to form a “rainbow coalition” to defeat the BJP. She had then said: “The Modi government has crossed its expiry date….the BJP’s achche din will not come back.”

In 2019, too, the election campaigns of both the BJP and the Trinamool for the 42 seats in West Bengal ensured that the battle was perceived as a direct contest between Mamata Banerjee’s popularity and the ‘Modi factor’. The BJP secured an unprecedented 18 seats and its vote share increased from 18 per cent in 2014 to 40.5 per cent. But in the 2021 Assembly election, Mamata Banerjee succeeded in trouncing the BJP, which was widely expected to come to power on the back of ‘Modi factor’.

Planned approach

Mamata Banerjee appears to have learnt some valuable lessons and does not want to repeat the mistakes she made in 2019. Even though the Lok Sabha election is nearly three years away, she urged political leaders to not leave matters for the last moment. She said: “If the doctor comes after death, nothing will happen. If the treatment is done on time, the patient can be cured. Now is your time. The more time you waste the more the situation will worsen.” But she also said that it would not be wise to rush matters and begin too early.

In her speech, she even made her first 2024 election promise: “In our State we give free rations….It will be our promise to the whole nation. If our front comes to power, then we are ready to give free rations to all the people in the country.”

After winning the Assembly election, Mamata Banerjee’s moves have been systematic and planned so far. Within a month of returning to power she overhauled her party organisation, clearly with an eye to expanding its base outside West Bengal.

She appointed Abhishek Banerjee, her nephew and Lok Sabha member, as all-India general secretary in charge of strengthening the party and growing its influence in other States. One of the first targets for the party is BJP-ruled Tripura, where the Assembly election is due in 2023.

Also read: Mamata Banerjee vs New Delhi: Wrong arm of the Centre

On August 2, Abhishek Banerjee, for long considered Mamata Banerjee’s heir apparent, issued a challenge to the Tripura government, stating: “Write it down, in the next one and half years, Trinamool Congress will form the next government in Tripura.” Both Mamata Banerjee and Abhishek Banerjee have made no secret of their ambition to make Trinamool Congress a major political power beyond West Bengal, especially in the North-Eastern States such as Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.

Biswanath Chakraborty, psephologist and professor of international relations at Rabindra Bharati University, pointed out that the political situation in the country had changed since 2019 and Prime Minister Modi may find it tough to face the electorate.

Speaking to Frontline, he said; “This time, Modi will have completed 10 years, and the pandemic has brought a lot of problems for him, particularly in the economic area. The BJP has been losing one State after another since 2019, and its humiliating defeat in West Bengal has been very hard to live down. This has generated greater energy in Mamata Banerjee against the Modi-Shah duo, and she has also managed to touch a pan-India social support base, particularly among the minority population, just as [S.P. leader] Mulayam Singh Yadav did in the 1990s. She has also managed to make a connection with the Left liberal population with her strong anti-CAA and anti-NRC stand. She may well end up being the main face of the opposition against Modi,”

Boost from Pegasus

While Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool have consistently criticised the Centre for its policies, the escalating petrol and cooking gas prices, and the mishandling of the COVID crisis, the Pegasus controversy and the political turmoil it has created led Mamata Banerjee to move into top gear in her quest for change.

After calling for the establishment of a united front of opposition parties, Mamata Banerjee made her first trip to Delhi in two years to meet with opposition leaders. During her visit she also called on the Prime Minister. But just before departing for the capital on July 26, she scored a crucial political point over the BJP by setting up a commission of inquiry to look into the Pegasus spyware issue. West Bengal is the first State to do so.

She said: “We thought that with the Parliament in session, the Central government would surely start an investigation headed by a Supreme Court judge and under the court’s supervision. But when we saw that this government was totally unconcerned, I decided to set up a commission of inquiry….If someone is not waking up, then there is the need to wake that person up. We hope this small step we have taken will help wake others up.”

Also read: Javed Akhtar endorses Mamata’s call for change of government at the Centre

In Delhi, Mamata Banerjee made it abundantly clear as to how serious she was about her national-level plans. She met a large number of leaders across the political spectrum, including Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, and began the process of chalking out a political strategy. It also became clear that she was planning to apply some of the strategies that worked for her in the West Bengal election at the national level.

‘Khela Hobe’ (the game will be played), her battle cry for the Assembly elections, will be her slogan in the battle for the Centre too. She said: “The game will be played not just in Bengal but all over the country. The cry of ‘Khela Hobe’ will reverberate in every State.”

Mamata Banerjee is also trying to rope in icons and representatives from the world of arts and culture, just as she had done in 2011 when she defeated the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front. During her visit to Delhi she held a much-publicised meeting with Javed Akhtar, the celebrated lyricist and poet, and the actor Shabana Azmi, who endorsed her call for a change of government at the Centre.

Buoyed by the success of her trip, Mamata Banerjee said that she intended to visit Delhi every two months. She has set the ball rolling; it remains to be seen how far it will go.

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