Can the Trinamool Congress replace the Congress as the main opposition party?
The 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal gave a double boost to Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC). Not only did the TMC inflict a crushing victory on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the BJP won 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 general elections and gave a huge scare to the TMC in the run-up to the 2021 polls – it also managed the vanquish other anti-BJP parties in the state. Both the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) and its left allies did not get even one MLA in the new assembly.
Six months after this significant achievement, the TMC seems to be taking this verdict to a next level. It continues to poach leaders from the BJP in West Bengal and the opposition, especially the Congress in other Indian states. The latest is the defection of 12 Congress MLAs in Meghalaya, which will make the TMC the main opposition party in the north-eastern state. The poaching on the ground has been accompanied by a shrill rhetoric not just against the BJP, but also the Congress, largely on account of it being a poor challenger to the BJP.
Can the TMC replace the Congress as the major opposition party in India? Although neither the TMC nor Banerjee have made an explicit claim to this effect, their actions clearly showcase this ambition.
Purely mathematically, there is a possibility of the TMC overtaking the Congress in terms of Lok Sabha seats
Predicting electoral outcomes is always hazardous. And the 2024 elections are a very long time away. With this caveat in place, a logical case of the TMC getting more Lok Sabha seats than the Congress can be made. The TMC’s best performance in the Lok Sabha elections was in 2014, when it won 34 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal with a 39.8% vote share. The TMC had a vote share of 48.5% in the 2021 assembly elections and a parliamentary constituency (PC) wise extrapolation of the 2021 assembly constituency results gives it 32 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state. As things stand today, the BJP is a weaker force in West Bengal than it was before the elections took place. This means that the TMC would be hoping to take its Lok Sabha tally from West Bengal significantly above its 2019, and perhaps even the 2014 tally.
The Congress managed to win 52 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 general elections. 31 of these came from just three states: Kerala (15) and Punjab (8) and Tamil Nadu (8). The Congress’s assembly performance in the 2021 Kerala elections raises serious question on the possibility of replication of the 2019 tally. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress’s fortunes will depend on the seat sharing formula with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and in Punjab, the party has suffered a split with Captain Amarinder Singh walking out. Assam, where the Congress managed to get three Lok Sabha seats in 2019 might also pose some challenges. The Congress’s alliance with the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) failed badly in the 2021 assembly elections and it is facing a two-way erosion of its Hindu base at the hands of the BJP as well as the TMC (Sushmita Mohan Dev’s defection is a case in point).
Of course, these possibilities are pure speculation and the Congress’s tally could increase significantly from other states.
Just more Lok Sabha seats than the Congress will not make the TMC a national alternative
Even if the TMC manages to edge past the Congress in terms of Lok Sabha seats, its claim to be recognized as the primary opposition party will not have the desired credibility. This is for the simple reason that even in its hour of crisis, the Congress has a much larger national footprint than the TMC. This is best seen in terms of vote share . In the 2019 general elections, the Congress’s all-India vote share was 19.5%. The TMC, when it achieved its best ever performance in the 2014 general elections, had a national vote share of just 4.1%. A prediction that the TMC’s vote share will not exceed that of the Congress in 2024 is far more robust than that of the TMC getting more seats than the Congress.
Will the TMC be a better challenger than the Congress?
Not necessarily. The onus of preventing the BJP from winning a third consecutive election in 2024 lies largely on the Congress and regional parties in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. 115 out of the BJP’s 303 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 came from states where the contest was directly between the Congress and the BJP. Another 90 came from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Except having poached Sushmita Mohan Dev in the state of Assam, the TMC is hardly a factor in these states. So, its claims of having a better strategy to fight the BJP, at least as of now, do not inspire much confidence.
Is Mamata Banerjee eyeing a return of Jyoti Basu’s 1996 moment?
Astute politician that she is, the arguments made here will not be unknown to Mamata Banerjee and her party. What explains the TMC’s push for a national footprint and voice?
A possible explanation could be that Banerjee is fancying a return of the 1996 moment in Indian politics, when the BJP was the single largest party but short of majority and looked for friends who would help it find a majority. After the 13-day old first Atal Bihari Vajpayee government collapsed, opposition parties offered the prime minister’s post to the then West Bengal chief minister and veteran communist leader Jyoti Basu. Basu was willing to accept the offer, but saw his party vetoed the idea.
One of the biggest reasons the Congress did not have a rightful claim to the prime minister’s post in 1996 was a leadership crisis in the party. The outgoing Prime Minister Narsimha Rao lost his political capital after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and an election defeat. Sonia Gandhi was yet to take over the reins of the party. While the current crisis in the Congress is not comparable, it has definitely raised serious questions about the ability or lack of it of the Gandhi family in rejuvenating the party.
The TMC has the right to hope that it could be biggest non-Congress non-BJP party in 2024 and this feat will take Banerjee’s clout in national politics to an all-time high. However, her national ambitions have a problem. The United Front experiment of the 1990s was contingent on the Congress crossing the 100-seat barrier, not collapsing. Banerjee actually wants to expedite the latter process. If the Congress recovers significant ground in 2024, Banerjee’s leadership claims will be significantly diminished. If it collapses even more, her West Bengal seats will have little use.