From Ally to Opposition, Can Mamata Turn the Tables on BJP?

The mammoth crowd in Kolkata was assembled to negate the BJP’s claims of making significant inroads in West Bengal.

5 min read
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at United India Rally. 

Before picking up my bunch of newspapers this morning, I chose to open the iPad. The intention was to first check how Kolkata's The Telegraph depicted the 'United India Rally'.

The newspaper has created waves, secured kudos, raised eyebrows and collected heckles in ample measure over several years for blunt headlines critical of the Narendra Modi regime and its emblematic leaders.

Sure enough, the headline did not make it necessary to read the story, for it made the slant obvious.

Too busy to read? Listen to this instead.

Without using the H-word, or making any direct reference to either the fallen German dictator, or D-Day, when an estimated 1,56,000 American, British and Canadian forces landed on five French beaches to begin the liberation of western Europe, the newspaper editors likened Mamata Banerjee to American President Dwight D Eisenhower.

Then an Army General, he led the most important invasion of France and Germany in 1944-45, which paved the way for the Allies’ victory.

The headline does little to camouflage the allusion of the Brigade Ground rally being nothing short of the landing of troops, and that Mamata Banerjee was depicted as Eisenhower. And the rest too!

Ananda Bazaar Patrika, the Bengali paper from the same house, too, subtly drew parallels between the Opposition joining forces for the rally with allied power combining for the final push.

The point may have been lapped up by readers of the papers based in West Bengal. After all, an important message sent to the state’s voters was that virtually the crème de la crème of the Indian Opposition had turned out for a show of strength organised by the Trinamool Congress leader.

The mammoth crowd was assembled to negate the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) claims of making significant inroads in West Bengal.

Although this was not stated explicitly, the message was clear: a landslide in favour of the ruling party in the state would ensure that the chief minister would get to play a national role post elections.

Does the Rally Take Mamata Closer to Realising Her Ambition?

The question, thus, is if Saturday's rally in anyway takes Mamata Banerjee anywhere closer to realising her ambition. And if her aspiration has any basis and if she has the capability for the top job.

To begin with, the West Bengal chief minister is a seven-term member of Parliament and a central minister, not once but thrice. Moreover, she has been part of both the NDA and UPA ministries, thereby making her not only ideologically ambidextrous, but also giving her the innate capacity to work with diverse groups, essential to successfully run a coalition with just a smattering of MPs completely loyal to her.

Time was when the Trinamool Congress was considered a potential Modi ally, but the ambition of the BJP in West Bengal to emerge as an alternative put an end to this.

It was after sweeping West Bengal in May 2016 that she began to be looked as a serious challenger to Modi.

Prior to this, the Bihar elections raised hopes of Nitish Kumar, but Mamata Banerjee emerged as a more serious candidate because she lorded over a bigger territory and additionally, did not have to share spoils with another party like the Janata Dal (U) in Bihar.

She was asked at a press conference if she had any ambition to be prime minister, but she dismissed it. In fact, she skirted the question without ever saying she was interested in the top job.

Her response was similar to what Modi had told this writer in the course of an interview in 2012: "It is very loaded question. If I say no, it would be interpreted as weakness. But if I say yes, it would read as sign of over-ambition and anxiety. Best is, all of you decide what you think is best for the party."

In Mamata Banerjee's case, it was something similar. When asked by a news magazine in July 2018, she too dismissed the query as "a very silly question”.

“First, I will say I have no intent. I am a simple person and happy with my job. But we want to help everybody as members of a collective family. Instead of preparing for PM candidature, let us work together," she had said.

Her response of that time echoed on Saturday in her speech. “Post elections, we will decide who is to become prime minister,” she said. The quiet confidence, this time, was unmistakable.

Reasons are not difficult to seek.

In fact, with the BJP finding it hard to evolve a narrative which may assure it of a tally similar to 2014, it is getting important to not just track the two parties which will end at the top of the medals table.

Instead, it is getting increasingly important who is placed third in the final head count in Lok Sabha. This situation reminiscent of the Bronze winner in track and field events eventually being awarded the Gold after the top two have been disqualified.

Will 1996-Like Scenario be Repeated?

The Indian political reality currently makes it quite possible that a 1996-like scenario may be repeated.

It must be recollected that the BJP, with 161 seats, ended at the top of the table, but failed to prove a majority in Parliament and Atal Bihari Vajpayee resigned dramatically before putting his confidence motion to vote.

Thereafter, once the Congress expressed inability to form the government, it offered outside support to the HD Deve Gowda-led coalition. It is often forgotten that the Janata Dal, with 46 seats in the 11th Lok Sabha, was the third largest party, after the BJP and Congress.

Eyes, in May this year when the results will be likely to be declared, must also remain on look out for the third-largest party for its leader would become a front runner in the event of the BJP and Congress falling short of numbers.

In such a scenario, the three ‘Ms’ – Mayawati, Mamata and MK Stalin – become critical players with a chance of becoming India’s next prime minister.

All three realistically have a chance of heading the third-largest contingent in Lok Sabha by virtue of having potential to be heading 30 plus brigades. Of the three, the BSP leader will have the additional backing of the SP, but because the Congress support would become critical, the race remains wide open.

Mamata Banerjee and her supporters would like to remind the Congress president and others what he said at his interaction last July with the capital’s women journalists.

Rahul Gandhi had stated that the Congress was willing to back anyone as prime minister provided the person was not supported by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

When specific names came up, he did not beat around the bush, candidly admitting that "Mamataji is ideologically closer to the Congress", despite not ruling out Mayawati as possible choice. Can we see someone's face light up?

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. 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.)

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