TMC chief Mamata Banerjee. (HT archive) PREMIUM
TMC chief Mamata Banerjee. (HT archive)

TMC wants to expand beyond Bengal. But it won’t be easy

To political observers, the TMC’s announcement is ambitious as no regional party has so far been able to form government outside the state it is based in
UPDATED ON JUN 16, 2021 06:04 PM IST

West Bengal chief minister (CM) and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee’s plans to contest polls in other states with a target to win assembly elections has triggered questions about the limitations of regional parties beyond their regions, whether TMC will able to break the pattern, and the possible areas of its expansion.

The CM’s nephew and TMC national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee, who is seen as the driving force behind the expansion plan, announced on June 8 that his party will set up units in other states with the sole aim to win elections and face the BJP head-on. He said, “If we go to any state we will not do so only to win one or two seats. We want to be the platform of choice for people of that state.”

He did not specify any region but, on Tuesday, a senior TMC leader said, “We are exploring the possibility of contesting in some big states rather than eyeing the smaller ones first.”

Buoyed by the resounding victory over the BJP in Bengal, the TMC has renewed its contract with Indian Political Action Committee, or I-PAC, the company launched by election strategist Prashant Kishor — the renewed contract will cover the crucial 2024 Lok Sabha polls in which Banerjee wishes to see her party playing a bigger role in national politics. Kishor has, on paper, left I-Pac to let his team function on its own. Top TMC leaders told HT that Kishor will play a different role from now on, though this wasn’t specified.

To political observers, the TMC’s announcement is ambitious as no regional party has so far been able to form government outside the state it is based in.

Of regional parties beyond their regions

Regional parties have had limited success outside their regions. Take a few examples:

The Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has legislators in Congress-ruled Punjab. But this has been its only substantial success. It has fought elections in over a dozen states since 2013, a feat no other regional party has tried to match in this period, without the electoral dividends it had hoped for.

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The Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party (SP) has two members each in legislative assemblies in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Bihar’s main Opposition party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), has one legislator in the adjoining state of Jharkhand.

Bihar’s ruling party, the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), is the second largest party in BJP-ruled Arunachal Pradesh where it has seven MLAs. Though it is an ally of the BJP at the Centre, the JD(U), in 2019, contested against the BJP in Arunachal Pradesh where the assembly has 60 seats.

The TMC itself is limited by geography. In Manipur, the TMC bagged seven assembly seats in 2012 but subsequently lost its ground to the Congress and BJP. The party won one seat in Assam in 2001 but never resurfaced. Among other states in the country, the TMC has a unit in Left-ruled Kerala.

An eye on Tripura

TMC leaders, who did not want to be quoted, said the leadership has its eyes on Tripura where Bengali-speaking people constitute a sizeable part of the population and the TMC still has a unit.

With 60 seats in the assembly, Tripura goes to the polls in 2023 along with Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telengana. The TMC has no presence in the other states.

States that go to the polls in 2022 are Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. The TMC has no presence in these states as well.

And so Tripura may well be the only state where the party can realistically hope to make a dent. Bengal TMC leaders said Mukul Roy, who left the BJP, where he was a national vice-president, and returned to the ruling party last week, played the key role in building the TMC’s base in Tripura by breaking the Congress.

“Under Roy’s leadership, Sudip Roy Barman, who was Leader of the Opposition in the assembly during the Left regime and who is the son of former Congress chief minister Samir Ranjan Barman, left the Congress and joined TMC along with five MLAs in 2016. Barman left and joined the BJP with his followers in 2017 when Roy switched sides. Roy may be entrusted with the task of rebuilding the organisation,” a senior TMC office-bearer said on condition of anonymity.

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After Roy joined the BJP, the TMC had put Sabyasachi Dutta, the former mayor of Salt Lake township in the eastern outskirts of Kolkata, in charge of the Tripura unit but he, too, joined the BJP after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Ashish Lal Singh, the son of Tripura’s first chief minister Sachindra Lal Singh, heads the TMC state unit right now.

Manik Saha, the BJP’s Tripura state unit president, said the TMC is free to try its luck but the efforts will be futile.

“The TMC tried twice to win elections in Tripura but failed. On those occasions, people believed that the TMC supremo would overthrow the Left government. They had faith and the situation was conducive. Some Congress MLAs, who are now in the BJP, joined the TMC. But ultimately nothing materialised. The ground realities in Tripura and Bengal are quite different now. In a democracy, every party is free to contest polls but I don’t think the TMC can fulfill its dream,” said Saha.

Leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), who ruled Tripura from 1978 to 1988 and again from 1993 to 2018, said the TMC’s base in the state eroded drastically after a mass defection to the BJP and efforts to reverse the process may not work.

“The TMC is running a dictatorial government in Bengal, just like the BJP in Tripura. No other party is allowed to work. I doubt if people will accept this. Moreover, TMC never enjoyed the support of the Tripuris, the biggest tribal community,” said CPI(M) state secretary Gautam Das.

Kolkata-based political science professor Udayan Bandopadhyay said, “The TMC can make a breakthrough in Tripura only if there is an exodus from the BJP. It has to win the trust of tribal voters as well. Biplab Deb came to power by using the anti-incumbency factor. The CPI(M) is still alienated from the people although Manik Sarkar was a good chief minister.”

The views of allies and adversaries

The TMC’s decision has sparked contrasting responses from its political friends and adversaries.

SP and RJD leaders, who recognise Mamata Banerjee as an ally against the BJP, told HT that they welcome the TMC’s decision to emerge as a bigger force at the national level.

SP vice-president Kiranmoy Nanda, a close aide of former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, said, “It is only natural that TMC will now try to expand in other states. It formed units in the Northeast in the past. Mamata Banerjee’s victory was the outcome of a challenge people across India posed before the BJP. The SP not only supported her but campaigned for her in Bengal. Jaya Bachchan led roadshows. Like us, the BJP took the Bengal polls as the most crucial contest. If a third force emerges under Banerjee’s leadership, we will welcome it.”

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“Our sole target is to defeat the BJP. If Abhishek Banerjee wants to expand the TMC to other states, he has our best wishes. We want a strong anti-BJP platform that will focus on the plight of youths, essential needs of people and of course, secularism,” said Shyam Rajak, RJD national general secretary. President of the RJD’s Bengal unit, B P Rai, said, “We supported the Left Front for decades. But Tejashwi Yadav (son of Lalu Prasad Yadav) met Mamata Banerjee before the polls and severed ties with the Left although we were not given a seat to contest.”

But regional parties on the other side of the divide are skeptical.

JD(U) spokesperson Rajeev Ranjan, however, described the TMC’s target to win assembly polls in other states as impractical.

“One can understand that the TMC is excited but this is an unrealistic ambition that can lead to misunderstanding among regional parties. As far as becoming part of a national alliance is concerned, Prashant Kishor is making his efforts. However, no viable alternative is possible without the Congress or BJP. The federal front has no future because people did not accept such alternatives in the past. It will be wrong to think that the TMC’s victory, no matter how big, can make it acceptable in other states,” said Ranjan.

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