West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's meeting with Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi at 10 Janpath on Wednesday, 28 July, is being seen, quite rightly, as a sign of the thaw in the relations between Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and the Congress party.
However, some also say this is part of Banerjee's outreach aimed at a great national role following her victory against the BJP in the West Bengal elections in May this year.
Besides Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi, the meetings during the West Bengal chief minister's visit also include her Delhi counterpart Arvind Kejriwal and senior Congress leaders Anand Sharma, Kamal Nath, and Abhishek Manu Singhvi.
Banerjee's meetings with Sonia Gandhi and other Congress leaders need to be looked at more closely and this is what this article will be focusing on. There are three aspects here:
How the Congress has become a key element in her efforts to assume a greater national role
How Banerjee's meetings reflect a nuanced understanding of the Congress' internal dynamics
What lies ahead in the Mamata-Congress equation?
The Centrality of the Congress in Mamata Banerjee’s National Plans
Several regional leaders have had some success in stopping BJP's march in their respective states but until last year, only one of them was being pitched by his party as a national alternative — Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
However, this changed with Banerjee's win in Bengal, in an election in which the BJP deployed its entire might.
Banerjee's successful resistance and the role of Prashant Kishor in handling her campaign created a buzz that this combination could be the beginning of a new national alternative.
Banerjee's appeals to other Opposition parties like the Congress, NCP, AAP, and others time and again, and Kishor's meetings with key Opposition figures like Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray also gave credence to this perception.
What set Banerjee and Kishor apart from Kejriwal is their approach towards the Congress.
Except for taking Congress' help to form a government in Delhi in 2013 and a brief and unsuccessful negotiation for a possible pre-poll tie-up for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Kejriwal has mostly stood at an equidistance from both the Congress and the BJP.
Banerjee and Kishor on the other hand seem clear that the BJP is Enemy Number One and that the Congress is not an untouchable. In fact, not just this, they seem to realise that a national alternative without the Congress would make no sense.
Kishor, for instance has repeatedly said that a "third front or fourth front is a non-starter".
Of course Banerjee and Kishor may have different calculations in mind and we will discuss this difference in the last section. But they seem to be united in their belief that the path to defeating the BJP nationally goes through the Congress.
"It's perfectly fine if she (Banerjee) has national ambitions. She is also smart enough to realise that these ambitions can't be realised without the Congress' help," a Congress leader observed, regarding Banerjee's meetings with party leaders.
Banerjee's and Kishor's calculation of working with the Congress is grounded in reality. States and UTs where the political competition is directly between BJP and Congress together account for over 160 Lok Sabha seats, which is a third of the total strength of the House.
These include Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Haryana, Goa, much of Assam, and Karnataka (except for AIUDF and JD-S pockets respectively) and Jammu region in J&K.
Even if a non-Congress Opposition leader unites 'neutral' parties like SP, BSP, AAP, TRS, YSRCP, BJD — a national alternative that ignores the main non-BJP party in over 160 seats is, as Kishor rightly says, a "non-starter".
AAP's model is a tougher one, which is to grow in these two-party states by winning over disgruntled Congress and BJP voters. Its success or the lack of it in such contests would be clear after elections in Goa, Uttarakhand, and Gujarat next year.
Banerjee’s Nuanced Understanding of Congress’ Internal Dynamics
Being a former Congress leader, Banerjee has a keen understanding of the party's way of functioning and also has a good equation with a number of party leaders.
Her keen understanding of the Congress and the multiplicity of voices within the party evident, in the fact that she met Sharma, who was among the 23 leaders who wrote a letter to the Congress president complaining of the state of affairs in the party. It is believed that a few leaders in the G-23 do see Banerjee as a good choice for a greater national role.
Kamal Nath is another case in point showing the Bengal CM's awareness of the developments within the Congress.
There's speculation in the Congress that Kamal Nath could assume a more important role in the party. One option being considered is making him the Congress president's political secretary and to fill at least part of the huge vacuum left by Ahmed Patel's demise.
Both Sharma and Nath acknowledged Mamata's importance in the national scheme of things. While Sharma said that she had achieved in the Bengal elections "what secular and progressive India was praying for", Nath invited her to Bhopal and said that the "people of MP were keen to see and hear her".
Banerjee seems to be using whatever leverage she can to gain acceptability within the Congress. So if it was a Youth Congress connection with Anand Sharma and Kamal Nath, with Abhishek Manu Singhvi it was the fact that he became a Rajya Sabha MP with the TMC's help.
The West Bengal CM's proactiveness seems to be working for Congress leaders seeking a change in the party's style in functioning.
According to a report in the Economic Times, Banerjee's and NCP Chief Sharad Pawar's efforts towards uniting the Opposition seems to have spurred former Congress President Rahul Gandhi to reach out to Opposition leaders in Parliament as well.
What Lies Ahead in the Congress-Banerjee-Kishor Equation?
There is a great deal of common cause between the Congress and the TMC. The alleged snooping of Rahul Gandhi, TMC leader Abhishek Banerjee, and Prashant Kishor's phones using Pegasus has further strengthened this sense among both the parties.
The desire of both sides to defeat the BJP may compel them to work together in the near future and leave the question of PM candidate for closer to the 2024 elections.
This was clear when Banerjee said after the meeting with Sonia Gandhi that the "battle in 2024 will between the country and (PM Narendra) Modi".
While Mamata is likely to continue with her efforts, a great deal would depend on what happens in the Congress.
The increasing proactiveness of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi in recent party appointments in key states indicates that their involvement in party affairs is only likely to increase in the months to come. This may be reflected in the party's organisational overhaul as well, whether or not they take up the top position.
Kishor's case is interesting in this respect. While his company I-PAC has been officially hired by Banerjee till the 2026 Bengal elections, he has said that he won't be working in this political consulting space any longer.
Kishor seems to be seeking a greater national role in active politics. But unlike the Bengal CM, his most viable path to this may lie by joining the Congress. His meeting with the Gandhis seems to have been a step in that direction.
While it is still far from final that Kishor would join the party, the most likely role for him would be as an in-charge for election strategy possible with a general secretary rank.
What happens within the Congress will eventually decide which direction the Congress-Banerjee-Kishor equation takes.
The electoral success or failure of the Congress in next year's state elections – especially Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Punjab – and its success in carrying out an organisational overhaul may decide who between Mamata and the Congress gets the upper hand in the equation.