By all accounts, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is a crusader. The battle she had waged for decades to rise to power, defeating the mighty Communists in 2011, earned her the credentials as an indomitable, firebrand politician ready to take on any adversary.
The belief was further reinforced by her incredible fight and subsequent win against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) aggressive bid to expand the saffron footprints in West Bengal in the 2021 state elections.
In more recent times, disparate Opposition political entities have found in her – an identical predicament in which the ED, the CBI, and other central agencies are hounding rival political leaders to the BJP.
In the emerging political scenario, 'Didi' – as Mamata is popularly known – has become the rallying point for political parties looking for an umbrella of a lasting coalition to take on the “autocratic” BJP.
Kejriwal’s Opposition Unity Outreach to Mamata
On 23 May, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal flew to Kolkata with Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Singh Mann and a host of important AAP leaders to seek Mamata’s support in forging an alliance in the Rajya Sabha to block the Central Ordinance to set up a National Capital Civil Service Authority.
Beyond the immediate crisis of the Kejriwal government, the talks centered around the possibility of a wider national coalition of Opposition parties to defeat the BJP in the 2024 Parliament elections.
Prior to Kejriwal, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, and Tejashwi Yadav visited Mamata Banerjee with the same mission of Opposition solidarity. In between, Mamata Banerjee herself held parleys with MK Stalin of Tamil Nadu and Uddhav Thackeray of Maharashtra.
Every participant in these parleys seemed to have realised the need for unity. But the political reality and compulsions have weighed strongly against a cohesive and spontaneous bonding of forces. The Opposition parties know there are roadblocks. The bone of contention, as far as Mamata Banerjee is concerned, is the Indian National Congress, the most critical component of any worthwhile national Opposition alliance.
The Impact of the Karnataka Outcome on TMC
The Karnataka poll outcome has catapulted the Congress into a far greater bargaining position than it ever was. Pre-Karnataka polls, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) had laid down the conditions for any opposition unity move.
First, the regional parties (read the TMC in West Bengal) would have to be given priority in shaping the alliance. Second, no leader (read Rahul Gandhi) in the Opposition should be projected as the prime ministerial candidate. The leader would be chosen after the polls through consensus building.
Post-Karnataka polls, Mamata Banerjee softened her stance a bit to declare that the TMC, in the larger interest of an Opposition unity, was ready to leave space to the Congress in states where it was in majority and in power.
Read between the lines, and there is hardly any substantive change in her pre- and post-Karnataka stance. She looked jittery and even evasive when asked about the Congress’ decisive victory in Karnataka. Both Didi and Kejriwal avoided taking the Congress' name after their meeting in Kolkata. There are deep-rooted problems in fixing a coalition that is still splintered and incongruous. In the collective act of forging a coalition, stakeholders are unwilling to yield grounds.
TMC’s Defensive Stance & Distance From the Congress
The TMC’s senior leadership in West Bengal admits it is a tightrope walk for the party. On one hand, it can hardly afford to walk the path alone and isolate itself from national political trends with the ED, CBI and other central agencies’ mounting pressure on several ongoing cases, including the unfolding of a cash-for-job scam in West Bengal. The TMC’s topmost leader, Secretary General Partha Chatterjee, is in jail on corruption charges for over 300 days and had been suspended from the party.
Investigations are also underway in connection with coal and cow smuggling cases in which the West Bengal chief minister’s nephew MP Abhishek Banerjee, another TMC minister, and top state bureaucrats had been summoned and questioned several times. The TMC finds a “politics of vendetta” in all these and vows to fight it out.
On the political plane, an alliance between the Congress and the Communists (CPM) in West Bengal has been another stumbling block for the TMC to wholeheartedly push for a robust Opposition unity.
The Congress-CPM combine dealt a humiliating blow to the TMC when it clinched a victory in a recent state Assembly bye-poll in Sagardighi in Muslim-majority Murshidabad district of West Bengal. The seat was held by the TMC for three consecutive terms earlier, and over 60 percent of the electorate was from the Muslim community, considered a Didi vote bank in Bengal.
Banerjee accused the Congress-CPM and the BJP of joining hands in an “immoral alliance” to defeat the TMC. Further, the fissures between the TMC and the Congress have risen several notches up post the Karnataka results.
With the panchayat polls due in the state in a short while, the Congress is sensing whiffs of change in ground situations and is eager to reap the benefits.
The top leadership of both the Congress and the TMC are involved in acrimonious attacks on each other everyday. The state’s PCC president and leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, openly advocates that to join hands with a “discredited” TMC would be suicidal for the party in West Bengal witnessing a rising tide of support after Karnataka.
Is Mamata Against Coalition Politics?
Political analysts in the state also point out that Mamata Banerjee had strategically and carefully chartered a course of discarding coalition politics in West Bengal after she defeated the Communists in 2011.
In her battle against the Communists, however, she had stitched together a rainbow coalition including the Congress and the ultra-left forces to dislodge the Left.
But in later years, she decided to shape her own destiny and set up a single-party rule in Bengal. Therefore, the political compulsions in her home turf, the mutual mistrusts among coalition partners threaten to derail and subvert the opposition unity moves.
(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.