Mamata in Delhi: Can She Take On Modi With an Anti-BJP Coalition?
During her capital call, Mamata Banerjee has projected the image of a confident, mature, and formidable leader.
As a politician who probably understands the nuances of optics better than anyone else, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not have been happy with the picture. Yet, there it was, the picture spreading quickly through social media — West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee standing ramrod straight, palms together in a formal namaskar (greeting), and the Prime Minister bowing before her, his hands folded in a gesture almost of supplication.
Mamata met Modi on her first visit to the capital after defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by a thumping majority in the West Bengal Assembly election in May. Hence, as symbolisms go, the picture was eloquent, to say the least. And, of course, social media went wild and let loose an avalanche of witty remarks to describe it.
But Can The Opposition Unite Against Modi?
But could the picture have resonance beyond the here and now? The Trinamool Congress chief, who has been meeting a raft of opposition leaders, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, has set off feverish speculation as to whether she could be the catalyst for ‘poriborton’ (transformation) on the national stage, and the face of a united front to take on Modi’s BJP in 2024.
While it may be too early to ponder that question, there’s no doubt that Mamata will be a key piece in the smorgasbord of a united Opposition, if and when it comes to pass.
Will it, though? Mamata met Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and said the talks had been positive and that the issue of Opposition unity was also discussed. But can the very disparate Opposition parties, including the proverbially self-obsessed Congress, which has been giving ever-diminishing returns in the Lok Sabha elections, sink their differences and join forces against the BJP? And could Mamata be the one to play a pivotal role in bringing them together?
Mamata’s Comments on Meeting PM Modi Were Calibrated
As a mass leader who has returned to power in Bengal by a huge majority for the third time, and as one who led the battle to trounce the BJP despite the saffron party’s vast financial resources and no-holds-barred, often dirty electoral campaign, Mamata does bring a lot of energy to the Opposition table. And it’s not just her indomitable can-do spirit that could be a magnet for Opposition unity. After pulling off such a resounding victory over the supposedly invincible BJP, Mamata also spells formidable political heft and maturity, and hence, could well be an important voice in the effort to unite anti-BJP forces.
On the current five-day visit to Delhi, Mamata seems to have made up her mind to project the image of a mature senior leader, who can afford to be courteous to a bitter political enemy.
Note her cool and politically astute comments in the wake of her meeting with the Prime Minister. She described the meeting as a “courtesy” call, as this was her first trip to Delhi after winning her third term as Chief Minister. From what she told reporters, it seemed that the meeting had been cordial enough. And no, she said she had not mentioned her and the entire Opposition’s demand that the government investigate the Pegasus spyware controversy. This despite the fact that earlier this week, she set up a two-member panel comprising former Supreme Court Justice M.B. Lokur and former Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya, to probe the matter.
A High-Octane West Bengal Poll And Continuing Hostility
Mamata’s cordial meeting with Modi comes less than two months after she was furiously referring to the Centre (read: Modi-Shah) as “Hitler” and “Stalin”. This was when she skipped a meeting with the Prime Minister in Kalaikunda on May 28 to review the devastation caused by Cyclone Yaas. The Central government, in a bizarre show of vindictiveness, hit back by issuing a show-cause notice to then Bengal Chief Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay — who had left the Kalaikunda meeting along with Mamata — and charged him under the Disaster Management Act.
To be sure, the hostility between Mamata and Modi and his party has festered well beyond the heat of the electoral battle, where personal comments, bordering on the abusive, were exchanged by both camps. Starting from its humiliating defeat, after having bragged that the party would garner more than 200 seats (it ended up with 77 to the Trinamool’s 213), the BJP called for President’s rule as soon as there were some incidents of post-poll violence in the state.
Rahul Gandhi apart, no Opposition leader is a harsher critic of Modi than Mamata. Unlike Rahul, though, she has the distinction of scoring a trophy win against Modi.
Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who has assiduously — and it must be said, ridiculously — lived up to the perception that he is the Centre’s stooge in Bengal, did his best to exploit the incidents, shedding copious tears of outrage and alleging that the Trinamool Congress had been solely responsible for them.
Again, inviting Mamata’s one-time protege and current bete noire, Suvendu Adhikari, who defected to the BJP and defeated her by a slim margin from the Nandigram seat, to the PM’s Kalaikunda meeting in May was also meant to needle her. Duly needled, Mamata left the meeting, sparking a torrent of criticism from BJP leaders, who claimed that she had insulted the Prime Minister.
Mamata Is Here To Stay
But on the current five-day visit to Delhi, Mamata seems to have made up her mind to project the image of a mature senior leader, who can afford to be courteous to a bitter political enemy. Tellingly, she also fielded questions on Opposition unity and its likely leadership with remarkable tact and equipoise: “I think all these will happen automatically… I am hopeful,” she said. “I will not lead, the country will lead … We are all followers.”
Mamata’s capital call on this occasion may, in fact, be nothing more than a series of courtesy meetings with friends, foes and likely allies. But it could well mark the beginning of her testing the waters of a coalition against the BJP. Rahul Gandhi apart, no Opposition leader is a harsher critic of Modi than Mamata. Unlike Rahul, though, she has the distinction of scoring a trophy win against Modi.
It’s a long way between now and 2024, and Opposition unity could prove to be fractious and elusive. But whatever shape and form it takes, make no mistake, Mamata will be in the game. Khela hobe — and Didi will be there to draw blood.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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