The Trinamool Congress (TMC) has been on an expansion spree. The people who joined or are set to join the Mamata Banerjee-led party in the past few days include former Goa Forward Party working president and ex-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kiran Kandolkar, former Janata Dal (United) leader Pavan Kumar Varma, Congress-turned-Jannayak Janata Party leader MP Ashok Tanwar, BJP-turned-Congress leader Kirti Azad and finally the politically most significant – former Meghalaya CM Mukul Sangma and 12 out of 17 Congress MLAs in the Meghalaya Assembly.
Then nominated Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy also met Mamata Banerjee in Delhi, praised her, and criticised the Narendra Modi government, triggering speculation that he may also be considering a shift from the BJP to the TMC.
The political events in Meghalaya are no doubt most significant and may make the TMC the main Opposition party in the state Assembly.
But the other new recruits, though not as politically significant, are also interesting as they hail from states where the TMC isn't a player at all – Varma is from Bihar, Azad is also from Bihar but has contested elections in Jharkhand and Delhi as well, and Ashok Tanwar is from Haryana and was MP from Sirsa from 2009 to 2014. Kiran Kandolkar's case is slightly different since it is part of the TMC's sudden plans to expand in poll-bound Goa.
Two questions are important here:
Is there a pattern to the TMC's seemingly haphazard expansion?
How do these tie in with the TMC's national plans?
The Pattern – Four Kinds of Mergers or Acquisitions by TMC
The TMC's acquisitions from other parties can broadly be broken down into the following categories:
1. Acquisitions in Bengal: This is a no-brainer. The defection of a number of BJP MLAs and MP Babul Supriyo are no doubt aimed at establishing TMC's dominance in the state. Irrespective of whether the TMC expands outside or not, its national ambitions would come to nought if it doesn't get over 35 seats from West Bengal alone in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Therefore, it is essential for the party to cut the BJP to size.
2. Expansion in the Northeast: The TMC's expansion in the Northeast needs to be seen as separate from other states as the party's presence in the region isn't entirely new. The TMC is recognised as a state party in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Tripura, besides West Bengal, which helped it gain national party status in 2016.
But the BJP's aggressive expansion in states like Tripura and TMC's own troubles in Bengal had stalled the party's plans in the Northeast.
The TMC's efforts also got delayed due to its main in-charge for outreach in the region – Mukul Roy – defecting to the BJP for three and a half years between 2017 and 2021.
Therefore, the defections in Meghalaya and Tripura as well as Congress leader Sushmita Dev's deployment in the latter are a revival of its earlier expansion efforts, at a much larger scale than before.
As of now, the Northeast probably represents the TMC's best chance of electoral expansion outside Bengal.
3. Local Notables Outside TMC's Core Area: These include leaders like Kiran Kandolkar in Goa or Lalitesh Pati Tripathi in Uttar Pradesh who may not be prominent nationally but could have some support in their respective areas. At one point, senior Punjab Congress leader Jagmeet Brar had also joined the TMC for a brief while before he shifted to the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Of course, it is not clear whether these leaders would retain their electoral support if they contest on the TMC tickets. But at least their entry could give the TMC some electoral presence in a few areas.
Unlike the previous two categories, this is for areas where the TMC has no organic influence. Under this arrangement, the party would provide resources but electoral success would mostly be dependent on these individual notables.
Such figures may also become important in another context, for the TMC to get some token representation as part of a larger anti-BJP alliance. For instance, hypothetically, if Lalitesh Pati Tripathi were to contest from Mirzapur Lok Sabha seat in 2024 on a TMC ticket in a Samajwadi Party (SP)-led alliance in the state or Kirti Azad in a Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led alliance in Bihar. This is purely hypothetical, just to indicate what's possible.
4. Prominent Personalities: These individuals are largely not being taken for any electoral value. They are being taken as they help build TMC's brand as a national party with a national recall value and a national vision.
This would include a range of people, from former finance minister Yashwant Sinha to actor Nafisa Ali, former diplomat turned Janata Dal (United) (JD-U) leader Pavan Varma, Right to Information (RTI) activist Saket Gokhale, and tennis star Leander Paes. It is a way of creating an ecosystem of influencers the way Congress or BJP has influencers pushing their narrative outside of electoral politics.
In a way, the TMC learnt this trick in West Bengal where it brought on board diverse individuals such as historian Sugata Bose, economist and former Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) secretary general Amit Mitra, singer Kabir Sumon, and actors like Mithun Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan, to name a few. It helped the TMC create a parallel ecosystem for itself in the public sphere the way the left had its ecosystem.
However, obviously not all the personalities are the same.
Now, some of these personalities are mainly to function as influencers and get people talking about the TMC, as influencers would do for any brand. But few others would have another crucial task to accomplish – build TMC's brand among two key stakeholders in Indian politics – corporates and the media.
The TMC is in touch with several such prominent people, both through its own efforts as well as through strategist Prashant Kishor, and many more may join the party in the days to come. These include film personalities, academics, and activists, including a few involved in the farmers' agitation.
How Does This Tie-In With the TMC's Strategy for 2024?
As of now, two parties are trying to challenge the Congress' status as the main Opposition party in the country – the TMC and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Both parties rightly recognise that there is a vacuum in the Opposition which the Congress is somehow not being able to completely address. Both parties are approaching it in very different ways.
Partly the difference stems from the different DNA of the two parties: the TMC being a breakaway from the Congress and AAP being the product of an anti-corruption agitation that mainly targeted the then Congress-led government.
But the difference also stems from the two parties' different diagnosis of the vacuum in the Opposition.
AAP seems to think that the vacuum is more ideological. It believes that focusing on opposing the BJP's communal politics could alienate voters who may want to shift away from the BJP. Therefore, in AAP's view, the country needs a party that doesn't get into the communal-secular debate at all and instead focuses only on service delivery and populism.
'Post-ideological populism' or 'pragmatic populism' is how AAP likes to characterise it. This approach would firmly place it in a space ideologically between the BJP and the Congress.
The TMC on the other hand is firmly in the Congress mould. Like the Congress, it does recognise the pitfalls of being seen as a 'pro-Muslim' party, however unjustified the tag might be. But it doesn't feel the need to dilute its stand on secularism beyond a point.
The TMC's belief is that the Congress' problem isn't so much its secularism but its leadership. It seems to believe that the Congress' present leadership (mainly Rahul Gandhi) suffers from three main problems: Lack of political will to take on the BJP in a decisive manner, alienation from the masses, and a negative image among big corporates.
The TMC and AAP also seem to be working with different timelines.
The TMC seems to be working towards the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and seems at peace with the idea of co-existing with the Congress so long as the latter doesn't try to dominate the Opposition space.
AAP, on the other hand, seems to be working more towards 2029 and hoping that the Congress would have declined by then, creating a vacuum in the Opposition in key states which have so far been purely 'BJP vs Congress'.
The 2024 timeline of the TMC also means another crucial difference with AAP – a higher number of potential allies.
Besides the TMC, Prashant Kishor has also worked closely with the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh and the DMK in Tamil Nadu. Then, Banerjee and Kishor have also has been in close touch with the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Banerjee also got the support of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the RJD in the West Bengal elections, indicating some goodwill with the two parties.
If one were to hazard a guess, the TMC's strategy in the next couple of years would be the following:
(i) To expand as much as possible through mergers and acquisitions across the country, like the ones above.
(ii) To closely watch the internal elections in the Congress due next year. In all likelihood, these elections will lead to a greater concentration of power in the hands of Rahul Gandhi and his supporters, which in turn may trigger a churn in the party. Those left out in the new power equations will be easy pickings for the TMC.
(iii) To keep potential 'allies' in good humour and come up with a pre-poll alliance, if not a limited version of a Janata Party-like merger with a few parties, just before the 2024 elections.