Friday, August 12th, 2022 04:50:14

Mamata’s campaign bid to be PM for 2024 leaves her nowhere but Congress is further diminished

By Shekhar Iyer
Updated: December 8, 2021 11:35 am

As a former Congress leader herself, Mamata does not see a grand revival of the grand old party in India in the near future– because of Sonia Gandhi’s firm stand that nobody other than Rahul Gandhi should lead the party (no matter how reluctant he is to play the role now). Mamata has also sensed Sonia’s unwillingness to abdicate claims over the leadership of the opposition, which she has reserved for herself or her son only. On August 20 this year, Sonia Gandhi held a virtual meeting with leaders of 19 opposition parties.  Mamata was livid to find that CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury was entrusted with the task of preparing a draft statement, which was to be issued for the meeting.

Buoyed by her phenomenal success in West Bengal assembly polls, which saw her getting a third term in office, Mamata Banerjee has set her eyes on Delhi.

Egged on by her supporters as well as election strategist Prashant Kishor, she has made no bones about her desire to be the prime ministerial candidate of a combined opposition for the 2024 parliamentary elections.

Whether Mamata has in her qualities and abilities to be juxtaposed against that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi may appear to be a moot question but she does think that she represents a better choice– than any other opposition leader, particularly Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Vadra or even Sonia Gandhi.

Mamata thinks that time is running out for the opposition parties and if they don’t get their act together and present an alternative to the BJP, Modi-led BJP remains unstoppable.

She believes that arraying together regional leaders like  Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray, Naveen Patnaik,  K Chandrashekar Rao, Y Jaganmohan Reddy, M K Stalin, Akhilesh Yadav, Tejaswhi Yadav for a common front against the BJP is better option rather than counting on the Congress to set its house in order.

It is no surprise that the highlight of her visit to Mumbai recently was her assertion that there is no United Progressive Alliance (UPA) any more, and that the opposition umbrella led by the Congress is over.

Her pointed remarks against Rahul Gandhi that no one can do politics by staying abroad “half the time” when “there should be continuous endeavour” signalled that the West Bengal Chief Minister was more than exasperated with his style. “If all regional parties are together, it is a very easy game to defeat the BJP,” she concluded, putting in a nutshell as to what is on her mind.

Significantly, Mamata’s dismissal of the UPA as a closed chapter came in response to a media query whether Sharad Pawar should become UPA chairperson now (instead of Sonia Gandhi who still holds the post).

 

Why is Mamata’s disgust with the Congress more pronounced now?

On July 28, during her visit to Delhi, the first after the Bengal poll results, Mamata had called on Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. In fact, this meeting (between Mamata and Sonia Gandhi) took place after six years.

However, Mamata’s meeting with the mother and son left her chemistry with them totally changed.

Following her stunning return to power in her state for a third time, Mamata made no bones about her importance because she had defeated a massive BJP campaign build-up against her. Her body language made it clear that she considered herself as having arrived on the national scene with a bang.

During the last meeting in 2015, Mamata was countered by Sonia when she had suggested that the Congress must not insist on the role of leadership of a combined opposition to Modi for the 2019 polls. At that time, Sonia had apparently pointed out to Mamata that how could the Congress abdicate its role as the main opposition to the BJP.  A disappointed Mamata did not pursue the matter further with the Gandhi family.

The 2019 polls saw Modi earning a  mandate bigger than the 2014 one.

Since the 2019 polls, the Congress may have shrunk in political size. But it is certainly in no mood to concede its role as the main opposition  just because other parties want to get together to vanquish Modi-led BJP at the hustings.

This has upset Mamata. As a former Congress leader herself, she does not see a grand revival of the grand old party in India in the near future– because of Sonia Gandhi’s firm stand that nobody other than Rahul Gandhi should lead the party (no matter how reluctant he is to play the role now).

Mamata has also sensed Sonia’s unwillingness to abdicate claims over the leadership of the opposition, which she has reserved for herself or her son only.

On August 20 this, Sonia Gandhi held a virtual meeting with leaders of 19 opposition parties.

Mamata was livid to find that CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury was entrusted with the task of preparing a draft statement, which was to be issued for the meeting.

Also, the original agenda of the meeting from the Congress president’s office showed the order of speakers on the list, which read — Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Mallikarjun Kharge, and Sitaram Yechury in that order, and then her name and that of other chief ministers.  Mamata felt that Yechury had a big role and influence on Rahul Gandhi.

Of course, after the Trinamool Congress made noises, Sonia Gandhi herself intervened to change the order of speakers. Mamata did not hesitate to question why a draft statement had to be prepared (by Yechury) even before the meeting. She also questioned why Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was not invited.

Seeing her ambition, the Sonia Gandhi family-led Congress is even in greater mood not to oblige Mamata or submit to her pressure tactics, knowing well that any prospect of an opposition government emerging in 2024 hinges on the Congress party’s own performance across the country in the next Lok Sabha polls.

On the other hand, Mamata feels that neither the Congress will improve itself nor let other opposition parties improve the situation in their favour.

However, what is clear now is that the Congress stands further diminished after Mamata’s assertion of her importance and role.

She has already started demolishing the Congress set-ups in different states– by inducting its leaders who are upset with Rahul Gandhi’s style of functioning. She has roped in disgruntled leaders to expand the Trinamool Congress footprint in the North-East, Goa, Manipur and other states. In Meghalaya, she got all 17 Congress MLAs led by former CM Mukul Sangma to switch sides.

Interestingly, election strategist Prashant Kishor  is advising Mamata in her expansion plans. Until a few months ago, Kishor was negotiating with the Congress leadership for a grand plan for the party. But his entry was frozen as  his demands were found to be unworkable and the idea was abandoned by Rahul Gandhi.

 

Mamata’s campaign bid to be PM candidate for 2024 without Congress leaves her nowhere?

A flurry of meetings, joint protests inside and outside the Parliament and declaration of facing elections together may make some of us believe that the Opposition parties have finally got their act together.

But how effective will these efforts be by the opposition parties? Beyond the current stalemate in Parliament, do the opposition parties promise unity for long? Can they actually sit together and forget their individual ambitions, egos and domination of their respective turf to let a true alternative emerge?

Sonia Gandhi had suggested a few years ago that the opposition must put up one candidate against the BJP nominee in all Lok Sabha seats all over the country. Is this workable today? These questions will get asked as the focus shifts to  the next round of assembly elections in 2022 and 2023.

Winning each of these polls is, of course crucial, for the BJP and its allies. But they are very important for the leading opposition parties too if they have to set the narrative in their favour. These opposition parties will have to go beyond the current plain anti-BJP plank and speak out on larger issues of governance. They must present an alternative model of governance beyond populism and welfarism to catch the imagination of voters across India.

Like Mamata, there may be some opposition leaders (even Congress leaders) who think that Rahul Gandhi should publicly declare that he would never be a prime minister candidate. That will free the Congress from the clutches of the Sonia Gandhi family and evolve a new leadership to tackle the BJP.

Hurt by criticism the 2019 Lok Sabha was lost by the Congress due to him, Rahul Gandhi had quit as Congress chief in the wake of his party’s debacle. He has not returned to his post. But he has not given up his control of the party either.

Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar is a leader who has kept his fellow opposition leaders guessing about his moves. When Mamata trashed the UPA in his presence, Pawar was far more restrained,  saying, “There is no question of excluding anyone. All those who are against the BJP are welcome to join us… The point is to take everyone together. Those who are ready to work hard, ready to work with everyone, should be taken along.”

Pawar knows that his problems within his party, the  NCP, is mounting following the controversies involving raids by income-tax and enforcement directorate on associates close to Maharashtra Deputy CM Ajith Pawar and the episode involving former state home minister Anil Deshmukh.

Yet, Pawar would not like to give up his position in favour of Mamata for the sake of opposition unity. As his party is a part of a governing alliance in Maharashtra involving the Shiv Sena and the Congress, he cannot afford to antagonise Sonia Gandhi or the Congress.

Of course, Mamata and Pawar agree that the Congress cannot play a leading role in the run-up to the 2024 polls without reviving itself. His message is also that the Congress should not think of a commanding role in the opposition. Like Mamata, Pawar too would like to attract all disgruntled Congressmen to his party. He does not want the 2024 battle to be one between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi as it would mean a repeat of the 2019 outcome, which saw a huge mandate for Modi.

At the same time, Pawar realises that, for an opposition combine to succeed in displacing Modi from power, the Congress must also do well in the next parliamentary election. Without the Congress’ support in terms of number of seats in the next Lok Sabha, they cannot displace the dispensation led by Modi.

Mamata’s influence is still limited to West Bengal which has only 42 seats. Her party is untested outside the state. Similarly, the NCP’s presence is limited to Maharashtra, Goa, and a few Union Territories, and is dependent on an alliance with either the Congress or the Shiv Sena or both.

A test case for the opposition lies in Uttar Pradesh.  In this state, the assembly polls are supposed to be a Yogi Adityanath-led BJP versus the rest. After the 2017 drubbing when the Samajwadi Party and the Congress were together, SP leader Akhilesh Yadav has not shown any inclination for a similar tie-up or to involve the Congress in any alliance. Similarly, Mayawati who had an alliance with SP for the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, wants to go it alone.

Priyanka Vadra Gandhi, who is the face of the Congress in UP, however, realised that it may not be prudent to go it alone but the search for partners remains elusive.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress had got 52 seats and was said to have come second in 196, making it a significant player in at least 248 seats.

The Congress reckons that there are about 160 seats in the country, where it thinks it is still the main challenger to the BJP. The party presently only has 10 of those seats.

Unless the Congress performs very well in these 160 seats in 2024, Mamata or Pawar cannot hope for any opposition success, assuming that all regional parties like Biju Janata Dal, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, YSRCP, Samajwadi Party, Aam Aadmi Party, Janata Dal (Secular), the DMK, Shiv Sena, RJD, JMM, and IUML come on board.

Already, we know that the Left cannot stand Mamata, come what may.  Also, other regional leaders are also not fully enamoured by Mamata’s style of leadership. Therefore, the Congress remains the elephant in the room.

 

By Shekhar Iyer

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