The political heat in West Bengal is far from settling any time soon. In a latest development, the mouthpiece of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), "Jago Bangla" on Friday, 17 September, published its lead article with the headline, “Rahul Gandhi failed to succeed; Mamata Banerjee is the only Alternative Face”.
This has sparked a controversy and questions are being raised over the unity of Opposition parties in India. Two months ago, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee visited the national capital for the first time after winning the Assembly election with a landslide margin. During the five-day visit she met top leaders from Opposition parties including interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi and senior leader Rahul Gandhi. Since then, talk of a "united Opposition front" against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, with Mamata at its helm, has been the topic of much discussion.
TMC's National Push Post the Bengal Elections
Banerjee’s move stoked speculations as many thought she was pitching herself as the prime ministerial candidate for the 2024 parliamentary elections.
But every time she's been questioned about her role in national politics since then, she's categorically ruled out her prime ministerial ambitions.
“I have a sweet home in Kolkata and want to stay there. I do not want to be a leader but a cadre. I am not a VIP but a LIP (Less Important Person). There must be a platform from which we can work together. After the Parliament session, we should sit together and decide the Opposition's strategy. In politics, there are times when all have to bury their differences and come together for the sake of the country. This is that time,” Banerjee said during her Delhi visit.
Two months later, TMC’s leader of Lok Sabha, Sudip Bandyopadhyay, while addressing party workers in a close-door meeting in North Kolkata said, “I have observed Rahul Gandhi for a long time and he has not developed himself as an alternative to Modi. The entire country wants Mamata so we will keep Mamata’s face and will campaign.” He, however, also added that the TMC is in no way advocating an alliance without the Congress.
"We will talk to all the Opposition parties and project Mamata as the alternate face before starting the election campaign," he added.
On 20 August, Banerjee attended a virtual meeting of 19 Opposition parties organised by Sonia Gandhi. There, she stressed that parties not allied with Congress should also be invited to be a part of the Opposition bloc to take on the saffron party unitedly. Parties like AAP, BJD, TRS, YSRCP and BSP were not part of the Opposition meeting. Barring BSP, the other four are ruling parties of states like Delhi, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh.
Even during the 2019 general election, Banerjee was one of the first leaders to step forward and strategise a united Opposition. TMC organised a mega United India rally at the iconic Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata, which was attended by 19 different political parties.
On Saturday, 18 September, after former Union Minister and sitting BJP MP of West Bengal's Asansol, Babul Supriyo, joined TMC, veteran party leader and three-time MP Kalyan Banerjee said, “Picture is becoming very clear. Mamata Banerjee will be the face against Narendra Modi across India for the 2024 Lok Sabha election.”
These statements are not made in merely a personal capacity. There is a well-coordinated effort by TMC to propel Mamata on the national stage. And the direction for such statements are coming right from the top leadership of the party.
A senior party MLA, Madan Mitra has composed a song named “India wants her betiya'' (India wants her daughter). "Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chay" (Bengal wants its own daughter) was the TMC election slogan for the 2021 Assembly election.
"The TMC mouthpiece promoting Mamata's name needs to be understood in a political context. When Mamata went to Delhi to meet political leaders, she was gauging the political mood. Now her party has rolled out a strategy to effectively project her as the face of the Opposition. Even in 2019, we have seen a conflict of interest within the regional parties. Mamata, Pawar and other regional parties are trying to drive the Opposition front rather than the Congress. Most likely, these leaders are looking for a 1996-like situation where Congress supported the government from outside. The present Congress is even weaker than the Congress in 1996, so the regional parties are trying their best to call shots rather than Congress," said political analyst Maidul Islam to The Quint. Islam is a professor of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata.
The TMC-Congress Faultlines
Earlier this month, the TMC's national general secretary and MP Abhishek Banerjee, was summoned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in Delhi in a money laundering case linked to an alleged coal pilferage scam in Bengal. After facing questions for eight hours straight, Abhishek while speaking to the media, came down heavily against BJP and said, “BJP's tyranny will be defeated. Let BJP put all its might, vigour, threat and resources, mind my words, their resources are going to fall flat. TMC will defeat BJP in the next polls.”
However, the most significant statement by him was, “If they (BJP) think TMC will accept defeat like Congress and other parties, they are wrong. We will fight more vigorously. We'll go to every state where they've killed democracy.”
Over the last two months, seven Congress leaders of Tripura including former minister Prakash Chandra Das and former Congress MLA Subal Bhowmik joined TMC.
Rahul Gandhi’s close aide, Sushmita Dev, president of All India Mahila Congress and a former MP from Assam’s Silchar broke ties with Congress party after three decades of association and joined the TMC. TMC has now nominated Dev for a Rajya Sabha berth.
Speculations are rife that more senior Congress leaders are likely to join TMC in the coming days, that too at a time when the unity among the Opposition parties is still being worked out. In this context, will the TMC's aggressive expansion plan deter political consensus?
Last Wednesday, TIME magazine unveiled its annual list of 'The 100 Most Influential People of 2021’. The TMC supremo is the only politician from India featured in the list apart from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This publicity has further boosted TMC leaders in projecting Banerjee as the only credible face to take on Modi.
“By deliberately promoting Mamata Banerjee as the only capable face of the Opposition, TMC wanted to send a message to voters of Bhabanipur, where the bypoll will take place on 30 September. Secondly, perhaps TMC is trying to take over the Congress. In the near future, important national-level Congress leaders are likely to join TMC. Prashant Kishor is steering TMC’s strategy. This type of take over can go both ways, either it will propel TMC as principal challenger of Modi in the 2024 Lok Sabha election or split the Opposition votes and ensure Modi's third time victory,” said political commentator Biswanath Chakraborty.
(Himadri Ghosh is a Kolkata-based journalist reporting on politics and policy in the state of West Bengal. He tweets @onlineghosh. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)