Mamata’s Goa Leap Is Based on Cong Rout – And It Can Pay Off
The TMC chief hopes to woo Cong voters, who have largely given up on the party, and give them an alternative.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee doesn’t pull any punches. And on Saturday, she punched the Congress hard – right where it hurts – by declaring that the grand old party was responsible for bolstering the power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“Modiji is going to be more powerful because of the Congress ... because the Congress is the BJP’s TRP [television rating points]. If they [the Congress] cannot take a decision ... the country will suffer. Why [should] the country suffer ... they have had enough opportunity,” the Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief remarked sharply during the last leg of her three-day tour of Goa, where her party is contesting the upcoming Assembly elections for the first time.
It was a typical Mamata remark – whiplash, headline-grabbing and not without a hard kernel of truth. It was also a clear signal that she has ruled out an alliance with the Congress in Goa.
As she ratchets up the tempo of her campaign to make a mark in the state polls early next year, she is leaving no one in any doubt that her Goa gambit will be built on the ruins of the Congress.
The Congress Is Struggling in Goa
Thanks to its apathy, ineptitude and wobbly leadership, the Congress lost the state government to the BJP in October 2019, even though it had garnered 17 seats in the last Assembly election, while the BJP won just 13. The party stood by and watched helplessly as the BJP engineered a defection and stole the government from under its nose. Today, the Congress has just four MLAs in the state legislature. The latest to leave was former Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro, who resigned from the party and joined the Trinamool in September, followed by two more Congress MLAs soon after.
But what lies beneath Mamata’s bold move to take the TMC so far afield – from the east of the country to the west, from a state where she has won a thundering majority for the third time, and where she is a hugely popular mass leader, to one where she is a virtual nobody and where her party has no base whatsoever? And why does she think she can succeed?
To be sure, Mamata wants to widen the TMC’s footprint and transform it from a regional party to a national one.
She has already launched a high-octane campaign for the 2023 Assembly election in Tripura, with her nephew and party general secretary Abhishek Banerjee engaging in a war of words with the state BJP leadership over the holding of a rally.
Goa is one more piece in her expansionist game plan, as is Uttar Pradesh, and perhaps even Punjab.
TMC sources say that in each of these states – except Punjab, they are all ruled by the BJP – Mamata intends to tap into, consolidate and revive the constituency of demoralised Congress voters. The Congress is wiped out in Tripura, embroiled in a shambolic, internecine mess in Punjab, sunk into hopelessness in Goa, and despite the luminous Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s high-profile efforts, is yet to get its act together in Uttar Pradesh.
“Basically, she wants to rescue Congress voters from their apathy by providing them with an alternative — the TMC — which has the guts and the energy to take on the BJP and give it a hard fight,” says a source in the party. “She may have quit the INC in 1997, but she cut her teeth in the party. She knows its leaders, she knows its ethos, and she knows that there is a huge number of people out there who have given up on the Congress as lacklustre and rudderless, but would like to vote for a secular party.”
As Jawhar Sircar, TMC Rajya Sabha MP and former CEO of Prasar Bharati, puts it, “The idea is to use the ‘Banerjee-energy’ to galvanise the Congress voters.”
The Congress says that by joining the fray in these states, Mamata is really fighting it rather than the BJP. The argument goes that she will end up splintering the anti-BJP votes, and that will benefit the ruling party. The same charge is levelled at the Aam Aadmi Party, which has a similar electoral strategy.
A Low-Hanging Fruit?
But the TMC chief clearly does not see it that way. She seems to regard the dispirited Congress vote bank as a low-hanging fruit, there for the taking, and absolutely crucial if the BJP is to be defeated in any election. To facilitate that process in Goa, she has been employing every means possible — from poaching from the Congress to exploring alliances with local parties, such as the Goa Forward Party.
Even so, it is unlikely that without an adequate base, Mamata will manage to win many seats in the state polls next year. Goa-based author and columnist Sudeep Chakravarti says, “Though there is a strong anti-BJP sentiment here for the usual reasons — unemployment, inflation, response to Covid, and communalism, among other factors — Mamata doesn’t yet have the base in Goa to immediately win an election. There is the recognition that the minorities in Bengal, Muslims and Christians, endorsed Mamata/TMC in the state election earlier this year. So, people are interested in her, they want to see what she does. But she is regarded as an outsider and hence there is a certain wariness as well.”
Mamata knows this, of course.
However, even if she does not win a single seat in Goa this time, pitching herself in the state as a decisive, can-do, super-spunky leader who knows how to make love and how to make war, could pay her dividends in the long run.
And there’s no doubt that Mamata is here for the long haul. There’s no doubt that her eyes are trained on the Lok Sabha election in 2024.
Goa Is a Testing Ground for 2024
“She sees a Janata-type experiment emerging in 2024,” says the TMC source. In that context, her current forays in Goa and elsewhere could be all-important. If she manages to win, say, 36-odd parliamentary seats out of the 42 in Bengal, and is able to garner a few more from the states where she is launching electoral campaigns now, then the numbers will become critical in any coalition effort to dislodge the BJP from power.
Goa is really a testing ground for Mamata. At this point, it seems like a small step in her path to recasting the TMC as a national party. But it could well prove to be a giant leap — one that eventually catapults her into the task of challenging the BJP on the national stage.
(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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