For some years now, old-timers in the Congress discussing ways to revive the Grand Old Party would suggest the possible uniting and absorption of all its splinter factions – Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) and YS Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress – into the original organisation. That would help the party regain three states, they would say, as the NCP remains a major factor in Maharashtra, while the Trinamool and the YSR Congress are in power in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, respectively. But with both Banerjee and Reddy very clear that neither was prepared to give up their independence for a return to the Congress, the idea never flew.
Instead, ever since Banerjee crafted a spectacular win in the West Bengal elections earlier this year, halting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut in its tracks, it is the Trinamool that has become the magnet, the party of hope.
So, when 12 of the Congress’s 17 MLAs in Meghalaya – including former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma – took Trinamool membership last week, it caused little surprise. Of late, politicians of all hues have been lining up to join the party, with the largest number emerging from the Congress, those who have lost faith in the ability of the Gandhis to inject new life into the party. For them, the Trinamool has been a happy option.
'Homecomings' for Erstwhile Trinamool Members
The Trinamool, under Banerjee, has demonstrated that Hindu majoritarianism can be successfully challenged and the BJP’s use of “money power, misuse of the Election Commission, the central agencies and central forces”, as freshly minted Trinamool MP Sushmita Dev described it, can be defeated.
Immediately after winning a third term as Chief Minister, Banerjee began to organise homecomings for Trinamool members who had abandoned her for the BJP, while mopping up what was left of the Congress in West Bengal. Then, she turned her attention elsewhere, recruiting like-minded politicians in the Tripura, Assam, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Goa and now Meghalaya.
Those who have joined the Trinamool include former Union Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, the Congress’s Kirti Azad, and former Janata Dal-United MP Pavan Varma in Bihar, former Congress Haryana state chief Ashok Tanwar, ex-Congress Mahila Morcha chief Sushmita Dev in Assam, former Congress Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro in Goa, the Congress’s Rajesh and Lalitesh Tripathi (grandson and great-grandson respectively of the once formidable Kamalapati Tripathi) in Uttar Pradesh and several leaders in Tripura. Of these, Faleiro and Dev have already been made Rajya Sabha MPs.
As Banerjee works to expand the TMC’s footprint in the country, Bengali-dominated Tripura has emerged as a laboratory for the party. Its workers have been engaging the state’s ruling BJP activists and administration in street battles, with both sides accusing the other of provoking violence in the run-up to the recent polls to 13 civic bodies on 25 November.
The Trinamool even took the matter to the Supreme Court, which had earlier asked the Tripura Police to ensure that no political party was prevented from exercising its rights in accordance with the law for political campaigning in a peaceful manner.
Simultaneously, Trinamool MPs met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi over the alleged police brutality in Tripura.
Banerjee’s Primary Target is the BJP
Indeed, if Banerjee made it clear during the West Bengal elections that her chief target was the BJP and its divisive ideology, now she is taking her Bengal battle cry of “khela hobe” (the game is on) to the rest of India.
Banerjee has even offered the Trinamool’s services to Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav in the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh election. The Samajwadi Party, in turn, has paid the Trinamool a compliment by adapting the “khela hobe” slogan to Bhojpuri. Her next port of call is Mumbai: on 30 November, she will meet Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and her old mentor, Pawar, all part of her efforts to bring Opposition parties onto one platform against the BJP.
Her relationship with the Congress is understandably troubled: on her recent visit to Delhi, she did not meet Congress President Sonia Gandhi, with whom she has shared a good equation in the past. That soured after Adhir Ranjan Choudhury, Bannerjee’s bete noire in West Bengal, was made Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha.
But she continues to have a line to former Congress colleagues like former Union Minister Anand Sharma, who are members of the G-23 (a group that has questioned the functioning of the Congress, stopping short of challenging the leadership), as well as ex-Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath who has been mediating between Gandhi and the G-23.
Who Will Lead the Opposition?
Clearly, without a leader who can pose a serious challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his brand of swashbuckling take-no-prisoners-style of politics, the Opposition will be a non-starter in 2024. And this is where Banerjee could make a difference. For, unlike many other Opposition stalwarts who retreated the moment central agencies are unleashed on them in cases of alleged or real corruption, Banerjee is entirely fearless. Threats to jail her or her lieutenants have left her even more determined to take on the BJP. She is also a disruptor, capable of confusing her opponents.
The Congress, as the country’s largest opposition party, should have led this battle. But with Rahul Gandhi reluctant even to take on the reins of his own party officially, it seems an unlikely prospect, at least for now. For instance, under his leadership, a state like Punjab – where it is still in power – is floundering even after Captain Amarinder Singh’s exit.
If state president Navjot Singh Sidhu was allowed to give the Captain a hard time when he was Chief Minister, he is being allowed to do a repeat with the latter’s replacement, Charanjit Singh Channi, with impunity.
As for her counterparts in the other states, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar, once seen as a Prime Ministerial hopeful, has aligned himself repeatedly with the BJP, Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik has made it clear that his ambitions are restricted to his home state, and Tamil Nadu’s MK Stalin and Andhra Pradesh’s YS Jagan Reddy have yet to gain national recognition. And Pawar appears to prefer the mentor role.
It All Depends on 2024 Performance
Banerjee has, therefore, slowly but surely positioned herself as Modi’s principal challenger. Next, she needs to get her political colleagues to agree to make her the face. Then she will have to ensure that the Trinamool wins more seats than the Congress in 2024. In 2014, her party won 34 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats; in 2019, it dipped to 22. But after this year’s Assembly polls and her increased visibility, she is hoping to win all 42 seats in 2024, riding on regional pride. If she picks up another half a dozen seats outside, that figure could well rise to 48.
The Congress had won 44 seats in 2014, and 52 in 2019. Unless it transforms itself into a fighting machine with an imaginative alternate narrative and a credible leader, it might find itself fighting to retain the number one slot in the opposition camp. Indeed, its claim of being the natural leader of the Opposition rests on its ability to win the largest number of Lok Sabha MPs among all the opposition parties singly. Now, if the Trinamool wins even one more seat than the Congress, it can put in a legitimate claim that its leader has the right to lead a conglomeration of opposition parties.
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and Hindustan Times. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)