Mamata’s Delhi Visit Will Set Tone For TMC’s National Plans & Her Role In 2024
This is Mamata Banerjee's first visit to Delhi after her huge win in the Bengal state elections earlier this year.
A day before West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was to land in Delhi for a three-day visit – her first since her emphatic win in the West Bengal assembly elections earlier this year – it was a tweet by the Congress Twitter handle that created more buzz than her own party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), and the media.
“PM Modi took the adage, “keep your enemies closer” a little too far. #PegasusSnoopGate”, said a tweet by Congress’ official Twitter handle, with a picture of Abhishek Banerjee, who is Ms Banerjee’s nephew and a Member of Parliament from the TMC.
Abhishek was, a few days ago, named as a possible target of the Pegasus spyware, an Israeli hacking software, used by its clients to remotely hack cellphones. That he was a target was revealed by an investigation called the “Project Pegasus”, by an international consortium of journalists. NSO, the Israeli group that owns Pegasus, says that as per policy, it only sells the spyware to governments and its affiliates. This has led to many questioning the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)- led Union government in India, as the series of reports revealed names of scores of journalists, politicians, activists, judges and more who were possibly under surveillance.
Mamata Banerjee spoke out against the findings of the report – now called the Pegasus Snoop Gate – during her address at the TMC’s annual Shahid Dibas event on 21 July. The event, held virtually this year, was attended by top opposition leaders who joined at a screening organized in Delhi’s Constitution Club. On the list of attendees were NCP Chief Sharad Pawar, Congress’ P Chidambaram and Digvijaya Singh, and representatives from the RJD, Shiv Sena, TRS, DMK, AAP and more.
At the event, Mamata said that she’d be looking forward to meeting opposition leaders during her Delhi visit, scheduled for 26 to 29 July. Banerjee’s open call to the opposition, in her quintessential style, in a Shahid Dibas speech, that for the first time, was delivered in Hindi and English along with Bengali, enunciates why her visit may be the first in many to come till the Lok Sabha elections of 2024.
Is a TMC-Congress Handshake Around The Corner?
While the Bengal Chief Minister’s exact itinerary is not known, she announced in a press conference in Kolkata that she will be meeting Prime Minister Modi on 28 July. On 27 July, she is also reportedly meeting Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. An opposition meeting at Delhi's Banga Bhawan has also tentatively been scheduled during the visit.
This will be Banerjee's first meeting with Modi since she skipped the Cyclone Yass review meet with him earlier this year.
The Congress’ tweet is significant in this context amidst reports that the party’s Bengal unit and the TMC may come together. Since the 2016 Bengal elections, the Congress in Bengal has been in an alliance with the Left Front in the state, attacking Banerjee and the TMC at every opportunity. Even in the 2021 state elections, the Congress campaign seemed arguably more focused on attacking the TMC than the BJP, their principle adversary in the national stage.
This also comes amidst news of another possible political development. Political strategist Prashant Kishor, who was Mamata’s principle advisor for the TMC’s 2021 election campaign, has now emerged as the glue trying to get all BJP-opposed forces together ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. A couple of weeks ago, it was reported that Kishor may soon be joining the Congress, after he had a meeting with Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi.
Kishor, who also flew down to Kolkata for a few hours to attend the Shahid Dibas event, held multiple meetings with Sharad Pawar in the last month as well. It is therefore speculated that he may have a role in the thawing between Congress-TMC relations. The Pegasus investigation also revealed that Kishor’s phone had been hacked by the spyware during the Bengal elections.
There's also been a thaw from the side of the Congress since the Bengal elections. Besides Prashant Kishor's meeting with the Gandhis and having a common adversary on the Pegasus controversy, there's also an increasing sense in the party leadership that it took an unnecessarily adversarial stance towards Mamata during the West Bengal elections.
This stance was mainly at the insistence of state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. But with the party or its ally the Left Front failing to even open their account in the state in the Assembly election, Chowdhury's anti-TMC model has suffered a great deal.
"He (Chowdhury) is a senior leader nationally and the tallest one in Bengal. But his staunch anti-Mamata sentiment isn't shared by many Congress cadres in the state. They (the cadres) were actually happy to see Didi defeat the BJP. For some of them who suffered under Left rule, the CPM is still the bigger enemy. It is a good thing that the party leadership didn't openly campaign against Mamata to the extent they could during the elections," said a party functionary.
To his credit, even Chowdhury has softened his stance towards Mamata a great deal. He publicly questioned the CBI's arrest of senior TMC ministers in May and also said that the Congress shouldn't field a candidate against Banerjee in the Bhawanipur bypoll.
Mamata too has been stressing on the need for Opposition unity.
"I don't know what will happen in 2024, but we need to start planning from now," said Mamata at the Shahid Dibas event.
"Now is the time to plan against eradicating the disease. If you don't start planning now, you will lose time," she added.
“I would request Sharad Pawar ji to organise a meeting of Opposition leaders during my time in Delhi," she said.
Will Mamata Be Opposition’s 2024 PM Face? Too Early To Answer
Since the TMC’s sweep in the recent state elections, whether Mamata Banerjee will emerge as the Prime Ministerial face against PM Modi in 2024 has been a topic of much discussion. The fact that Banerjee defeated the BJP by an astounding margin in a campaign managed by none other than Home Minister Amit Shah, with PM Modi as its face, makes her victory even more telling in the current Indian political landscape.
However, the TMC is wary of projecting her as the Prime Ministerial face just yet. Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, a similar attempt had been made by the party when Mamata tried to get all opposition leaders on the same stage. However, the attempt back-fired as the BJP won 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal, its highest tally ever.
“Right now she is the messiah who handed Modi one of his biggest defeats since 2014. Strategically, it is not right to discuss right now whether she’ll be the Prime Ministerial face. But she can definitely push herself as an example of how Modi can be defeated by an opposition party with much lesser resources. It is like saying, “Look I could do it. So if you try, you can too.” She is a victor who can bring leaders together against a common enemy”, said a TMC insider.
Last week, Mamata was also elected as the leader of the TMC’s Parliamentary Party. While many pointed out how this was an anomaly since Mamata wasn’t even a Member of Parliament, it is a step towards ensuring that she has an organizational position that directly links her to Delhi.
At the same time, reports also suggest that the Trinamool is looking at electoral expansion in other states, or at least doing the ground work for the same.
“As of now we haven’t decided which states we will contest in, but ground work and research is on. We are taking stock of our organization in states where we have chapters and also looking at states where we can make an impact by making an electoral entry. Further plan of action will be decided based on the inputs we get”, said a TMC leader.
Reports suggest that the first state the TMC is looking at is Tripura. The party had contested the previous state elections there as well. During the Shahid Dibas celebrations, TMC workers in Tripura were also allegedly attacked by the BJP. Local reports from Tripura state that a team from the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), Prashant Kishor’s strategy firm, which was retained by the TMC even after the elections, flew down to Tripura last week. However, Kishor, who has since announced that he’s “left this space” and handed I-PAC over to his colleagues, refused to confirm the same. I-PAC has not confirmed these reports either. It is also reported that Abhishek Banerjee might make a visit to Tripura in August.
After being promoted as TMC’s national general secretary after the Bengal elections, Abhishek had stated that TMC’s attempts at national expansion would be “unlike all its previous attempts”.
However, it was also made clear that no national expansion can come at the cost of Bengal. From the looks of it, Abhishek has been tasked with handling the party’s organizational expansion to states, while Mamata will handle and liaise with opposition leaders in Delhi.
Whether the culmination of this will lead to a non-BJP government in 2024 headed by Mamata is now speculation at best. But if there were to be a grand opposition alliance, it is clear that Mamata will be one of its main pillars. All eyes now on her Delhi sojourn.
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