In the last week, as the Centre and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee fought over a senior Bengal cadre bureaucrat, an interesting hashtag trended on Twitter. #BengaliPrimeMinister trended on Twitter as Mamata Banerjee dismissed the Centre’s instruction to send her Chief Secretary, IAS officer Alapan Bandyopadhyay, to Delhi. Bandyopadhyay then retired and was immediately appointed her Chief Advisor. Many would agree that Banerjee’s direct face-off and most importantly, irreverence for Prime Minister Modi and his diktats, has many now finding the answer to – “If not Modi, then who?”.
Others, however, caution that this might be a competition that is being set up too early. What can be said without doubt, though, is this- Bengal and its (sometimes annoyingly chauvinistic) people have long awaited a Bengali Prime Minister. A wait that goes back to the time of Netaji Bose.
Whether that wait comes to an end in 2024 remains to be seen, but it is definitely something that will be a topic of political discussion at every cha-er dokaan in the state for some time to come.
Bengal’s Tryst With Possible PMs
The Bengalis’ longing for a PM is exacerbated by the fact that over the years many “sons of soil” have been perceived to have “just missed out” on the chair. Most notable among these are CPI(M) leader and former state CM Jyoti Basu and Congress leader and former President Pranab Mukherjee.
Depending on which side of the political spectrum your family falls on, one grows up hearing stories of how both these political stalwarts almost did but then didn’t make it as PM. Irrespective of which side of the political spectrum your family is, however, these stories usually ended with – “They just could not digest the fact that a Bengali will hold the country’s highest office”.
Jyoti Basu, one of the state’s longest serving Chief Ministers, was allegedly in contention to become PM in 1996 when the coalition of party’s known as the United Front came to power. Basu, who was considered to be the most experienced administrator of all the leaders in the Front, was suggested as a possible PM contender. However, the story goes that the CPI(M) Politburo and its Kerala lobby opposed his nomination. The reason given was that a Marxist leader like Basu should not be the face of a coalition that was an amalgamation of many parties with differing ideologies. A regimented party man, Basu accepted the decision, but within months spoke out against it. This was one of the few times that Basu deviated from the party line in his decades long political career.
The case with Pranab Mukherjee was slightly different. Though not a mass leader in Bengal, Mukherjee was influential in the Delhi circles and was very close to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. After her assassination in 1984, it was expected that Mukherjee would be offered the PM’s chair, but Rajiv Gandhi was appointed . During this transition, though, Mukherjee’s Prime Ministerial ambitions were out in the open for all to see and senior party leaders, some his rivals, would not let the Gandhis forget about the same.
In 2009, when the UPA government came to power, Mukherjee’s name was once again doing the rounds as a possible PM candidate. It is said that when Manmohan Singh was announced as PM instead, Mukherjee was saddened that a man who was once junior minister in his department was considered over him. It is said that his evident ambition made the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress high command think that he would take power away from the Gandhis.
Mukherjee’s appointment as President later, however, ensured that this ambition gained some amount of fruition. Therefore, while he couldn’t give Bengal its first PM, it gave the state its first President.
Mamata Vs Modi
The discussion of a possible Bengali Prime Minister was revived after the Trinamool Congress’ resounding defeat of the BJP in the recently concluded West Bengal Assembly elections. The election was important because PM Modi himself was one of the star campaigners for the BJP, holding over 20 rallies in the state during the campaign period. The saffron party did not declare a Chief Ministerial candidate and like the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the 2021 state elections too, was a direct battle between Mamata and Modi.
And in this battle, Mamata has come out on top. Quite definitively so.
The TMC’s Mamta-centric campaign meant that elections were seen as Mamata’s alone, which meant that the victory was seen as hers alone as well.
This makes Mamata the only seasoned and veteran politician in the country now to have defeated Modi in an all-out, direct battle.
Her direct confrontation with the PM like during the Netaji Bose event in Kolkata in January or the episode with Bandyopadhyay has shown the public that she is not one to be intimidated by the might of the Centre.
But between now and Lok Sabha 2024, there is three years and other crucial state elections like that of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat.
How the Opposition performs vis-à-vis the BJP in these elections will decide whether the “Modi wave” will cede in 2024.
It is also important to remember that Banerjee did try to put up a united front for the opposition in 2019 as well. Weeks before the election, she gathered leaders of opposing regional parties like the RJD, AAP, TDP etc at Kolkata’s historic Brigade Parade Ground for a “show of strength”. However, apart from that specific rally these opposition parties had nothing much planned, and the show of unity convinced no one – not even the TMC supporters at the rally.
Subsequently as the BJP won 18 out of the 42 parliamentary seats in West Bengal, analysts said that Mamata taking her eyes away from Bengal could’ve cost her many seats. Others also pointed out that the 2019 election was a fight between Modi’s government and Mamata’s party. For her to have a shot at becoming PM, the fight will have to be between Modi’s government and Mamata’s (possible) government in 2024.
“She later accepted that displaying national ambitions in 2019 may have been a mistake. Especially because that stance was taken without almost any ground work or inter-party coordination”, said a TMC insider.
“Therefore, in 2024, even if she is eyeing the PM’s seat, she will hold her cards close and reveal only when the time is right”, he added.
TMC leaders also point towards the fact that Mamata going national would mean that she’d have to chalk out a succession plan for the TMC in Bengal.
Will Abhishek Banerjee, her nephew, be accepted by the party and the masses? Will the TMC survive in Bengal without a Mamata Banerjee? Those close to her say that no matter what, Bengal will remain priority and national plans will not take precedence over power in the state.
As of now, though, Mamata Banerjee is enjoying her status as one of the few in the country who can directly take on (and defeat) Modi. Whether she will emerge as the leader around whom the opposition rallies in 2024, remains to be seen.
As for the Bengalis, until they get an actual #BengaliPrimeMinister, may be they can take solace in a reel one as has been depicted in Family Man season 2.