Mamata Di Future of national politics?
Mamata Banerjee’s political victory in the West Bengal elections was remarkably impressive. There was a chief minister (CM) who successfully defied two-term anti-incumbency — and while there have been other CMs who have successfully returned to power for a third time (Narendra Modi is a prime example), Banerjee was facing the most formidable challenger in India’s political theatre. She had suffered a setback in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its well-oiled machine and drive, was out to wrest power. Yet, Banerjee succeeded through a mix of four elements — sub-nationalism, politics of welfare and gender, minority consolidation, and robust organisational strength.
The Bengal win has ultimately gave a reason to observers to suggest that Banerjee may well be the glue of possible opposition unity against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024, and that there is a Bengal model to be deployed to challenge the BJP’s might. Many, dissatisfied with the centralising impulses of the central government, are banking on this hope.
Famous for her fiery speeches, welfare programs geared toward women and the simple white cotton saris she wears, Banerjee, 66, is beloved in her home state, especially among the poor and women. She preaches inclusivity and accuses Modi’s Hindu nationalists of trying to divide Indians along sectarian lines. With the national opposition to Modi in shambles, Banerjee — already one of Modi’s fiercest critics — has emerged as secular, liberal Indians’ best hope, analysts say, for ending what they see as Modi’s authoritarian rule.
In a recent turn of events Mamata Banerjee held a closed door meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi for close to an hour. What transpired inside is anybody’s guess but Mamata came out of the meeting saying she had come to get the dues the Centres owes to the state. Mamata quoted a figure of Rs 90,655 crore the state was expecting on account of unreleased grants, central share of schemes, compensation assistance for Cyclone Yaas etc. The release of funds is crucial, for the financial condition of Bengal is now alarming. The huge burden of social welfare schemes is taking a toll on infrastructure development and PWD works. Amid this situation, Mamata apparently came in to build bridges with the prime minister. She also invited Prime Minister to inaugurate her state’s annual industrial meet–Bengal Global Business Summit scheduled on April 20th 2022. The meeting could look like very foundation of the federal structure which our country boasts of, the reality could be all together different. It was more like that Mamata Banerjee, who resolutely halted the BJP juggernaut in West Bengal, speaking to her bete noire from a position of strength.
Mamata Di is slowly and steadily making inroads in the national arena. According to Prabhu Chawla “Winners are predators. From Congress to BJP, national parties draw disgruntled leaders and minnows with big dreams into their net after every election. The search for an individual or a coalition to pick up the saffron gauntlet is on after Mamata Banerjee’s high-stakes Bengal win and the Congress’ sterling performance in the recent by-elections.
Akhilesh Yadav is increasing the footprint of his Samajwadi Party by taking over smaller caste- and community-based parties. Didi leads the predatory pack, unleashing a high voltage campaign to snaffle local leaders, academics, entertainers to widen her geographical and cultural dominion of acceptability. TMC is on the prowl from Meghalaya to Maharashtra looking for easy prey. Her objective: convert herself from a regional leader to a pan-Indian political personality. For the second time, a regional outfit is making a serious bid to become a third national party after the BJP and the Congress. “
If going by the standards set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Didi has all the requisite qualities of a national leader. With over two decades of administrative experience and a three-time public mandate, it is but natural that she feels the time has come to spread wings beyond Bengal’s skies. Veteran journalist Prabhu Chawla says “Mamata is a street fighter and has established herself as the only real warrior taking on the BJP and its super-powerful, popular leader Narendra Modi. She has borrowed from her own playbook by corralling celebrities or personalities with national recall. And, she is wooing lost causes in the Congress, which she had herself chucked to form TMC in 1998.”
Mamta Didi feels that there is a political possibility of challenging the BJP (the national political mood is undergoing a shift, given the Centre’s mismanagement of Covid-19, Kisan movementinflation, though its electoral implications are less than clear); and that there is a leadership vacuum and only she has the stature among all regional leaders to emerge as a candidate of an alternative front to take on Modi, she is ready to take the plunge.
But this brings its own set of political challenges and choices. These challenges and choices are very well laid out by an author by the name of Chanakya on Hindustan Times. He says “For one, Banerjee will need an entirely new vocabulary and what worked in Bengal will not work nationally. Take all the four elements of her success in Bengal till date. She can’t play the Bengali sub-nationalism card while seeking votes from the rest of country (remember how Modi switched from the Gujarati asmita narrative as his national ambitions grew). She cannot depend on welfare — for nationally, the BJP is now seen as a party of welfare and her state-level achievements are not enough to ignite excitement nationally. Minority consolidation is a tricky route — you rely on that and run the risk of majoritarian consolidation, which the BJP is adept at exploiting. And in any case, minority votes will be fragmented across non-BJP forces, depending on who is strong in which region. And the TMC does not have the organisational strength elsewhere in the country (remember, Modi had both the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP machinery to help him catapult from the state to the national stage). This means that all that Banerjee can realistically aim for is a stellar performance in her own state in 2024. This also means she will have to rely on friendly and aligned parties in the rest of the country. This brings its own set of two choices.
One, Banerjee and the Congress have to decide on their relationship. Rahul Gandhi was happy to sit out the Bengal election, knowing well that the Congress had little chance and his politics was better served by a BJP defeat, irrespective of who was the victor. This will, however, not happen nationally. Remember, the Congress still commands the votes of over 120 million Indians — it will not give way to another party easily. For Banerjee, to reconcile her leadership ambitions with the Congress’s sense of self won’t be easy.”
With national politics becoming mainly personally driven, India is looking for an alternative leader who can provide a better model of politics and governance than Modified BJP, whose ‘One Leader, One Slogan, One Agenda’ aims to make India ‘Congress Mukt Bharat.’ Modi has broken all community and caste affiliations in large parts of India and has established himself a messiah of all castes, communities and a man for all causes. No leader other than Indira Gandhi has acquired such a national stature. It cannot be denied that Mamata is a regional supremo who is yet to evolve into a national mandate magnet. Even Sharad Pawar, one of the tallest national leaders, couldn’t shed his regional label. Didi’s publicists are ignoring the fact that even now, it is the Congress which can give the BJP a fight in over 200 Lok Sabha seats. Even if the Bengal tigress lures away a few Congress leaders, she can only divide anti-BJP votes and thereby shoot herself in the foot. Unless, she brings the Congress on board, her grand adventure to nationalise her regional party will fizzle out. At the moment, Didi is neither an individual nor an ideological alternative to Modi. To become a national level player in the political game of the country she has to do her homework better. With just 22 Lok Sabha seats, the TMC is the fourth largest party. But difference between the largest and TMC is over 270-plus seats. Mamata has many miles to go before she even makes it to the borders of Lutyen’s New Delhi. But as Banerjee contemplates the possibilities of 2024, she has to make a set of choices. And it is these choices which will determine her political future, the political future of Bengal, and potentially the future of national politics.
By Nilabh Krishna