Mamata Banerjee has fanned out across the country, in search of a political step forward, after her triumph in the West Bengal assembly elections. Her stopovers in places as far away from the east as Goa in the west created a perception that the Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) president and chief minister has punched above her weight. Arguments have stacked up, in favour of Mamata and against her as the Opposition remains fragmented and possibly in search of a gravitational force.
Unlike the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the Congress ruled the roost, the demarcation between a “national” party and the “regional” entities was sharp and undisputed. Doubtless, the BJP is now in that pole position but unlike the Congress that was entrenched at the Centre right after Independence, the BJP owes its success to its regional leaders, whose victories in their states, hoisted the party and its national leaders to power at the Centre. Narendra Modi was the product of the enormous latitude the BJP granted to its state leaders. That privilege, coupled with Modi’s ability to work hard and build on the advantage he derived, catapulted him to the top. His ascendancy from a state to the Centre was relatively easy. HD Deve Gowda too emerged from a region, Karnataka, and went on to become the PM but till this day he is identified with a state. Therefore, to contend that Mamata’s national aspirations and ambitions are constricted by geography, by virtue of being a state satrap, is flawed. A chief minister can work and hope to become the PM.
This argument is in the realm of theory and probability. A more realistic factor catalysing the desire and energy of a state CM like Mamata is the Congress’s decrement. Even until 2019, speculations around the formation of a non-BJP front centred around the Congress that was regarded as the “fulcrum” of such an endeavour because it was the only other party that had a pan Indian presence and recognition. In the past, it was almost inconceivable that Mamata would be thought of as a sheet anchor of the Opposition. Two serial Lok Sabha defeats, a wipe-out in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and setbacks in other states that used to be its fiefs, the Congress has all but forfeited its place as the Opposition’s pivot. Its depletion has opened up space for the regional aspirants and Mamata was the first to plot her trajectory, based on this understanding.
A major prong of Mamata’s strategy is hollowing out the Congress from within. She attained her first big success on this score in Meghalaya on November 24. The former CM Mukul Sangma and 12 of the 17 Congress MLAs are set to join the TMC. The TMC effectively displaces the Congress as Meghalaya’s main Opposition in the legislature.
However, she will have to earn her stripes by picking up seats in states outside West Bengal, independently or with an ally. That’s easier said than done. As the Gujarat CM with an eye to the Centre, Modi was more advantageously positioned than Mamata because the BJP was already an established national party and part of a large coalition, the National Democratic Alliance. Modi had only to prove he deserved to be the BJP’s preeminent national leader. Mamata’s TMC has an organisation of sorts only in another eastern state, Tripura. Therefore, she seems to have taken another route, scouting for reinforcements from another party.
Mamata’s ongoing visit to Delhi was meant to achieve that objective and not try and forge an Opposition front before the winter session of Parliament, as some believed. She earlier demonstrated her acquisition skills first by netting a former Congress MP, Sushmita Dev, in Assam, followed by Luizinho Faleiro in Goa. Acquiring Sushmita made sense from the viewpoint of Mamata’s expansion blueprint. A former MP from Silchar in Lower Assam, Sushmita represents the predominantly Bengal-speaking Barak Valley which Mamata would have to cut in on before looking at the rest of Assam. Sushmita is the TMC’s Assam conduit. But Faleiro, a former CM, is regarded as a “has been” in Goa politics. Like Sushmita, Faleiro was gifted a Rajya Sabha seat, which strengthened another factor in the TMC’s favour. The leader of a political party must be in a position to disburse favours if she is to stay and thrive in the business of electoral politics. The TMC has the bench strength to reward entrants; the Congress doesn’t have the numbers and must privilege its own members over a newcomer. But Faleiro is most unlikely to be Mamata’s ticket to finding a niche in Goa where the TMC plans to contest all 40 assembly seats. The TMC could become a magnet to pull in rebels from the BJP and Congress and damage both the parties. In Goa’s laissez faire political economy, the TMC’s presence has upped the bargaining power of sitting MLAs with their respective parties.
The TMC will face its first test outside West Bengal in Tripura, where civic polls will be held on November 25 and the results declared on November 28. The ruling BJP won 112 of the 334 seats uncontested while the Congress, TMC and the Left Front will fight separately against the BJP in the remaining 222 seats.
The TMC lost its organisational base in Tripura in 2017 when all its six MLAs, led by Sudip Roy Burman, joined the BJP. But Burman, who was dropped from the cabinet by the chief minister Biplab Deb, has since turned a rebel with a few other migrants. The TMC went for the kill, sounding its trademark West Bengal slogan, “Khela Hobe” (the game is on), enough for the BJP government to arrest a leader, Saayoni Ghosh and periodically attack the convoys of visiting TMC leaders. Abhishek Banerjee, Dola Sen and Aparupa Poddar.
The TMC has enough fire in its belly for the BJP to reckon its potential to emerge as the main contender in parts of the East.
Nationally, Mamata has a long way to go but she has not abandoned her plans to emerge as the Opposition’s nucleus. In early December, she plans to visit Mumbai to attend a wedding in Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam’s family. She will meet the CM Uddhav Thackeray and address citizens’ meetings. Indeed, her countrywide sorties might not go beyond civic engagements to begin with.