Opposition unity rally today is Mamata Banerjee’s crowning glory
Mamata Banerjee is a phenomenon in West Bengal politics. Her party, Trinamool Congress, born only 21 years and 18 days ago, has achieved two landmarks already.
One, it has ousted the world’s longest running elected Communist government in the state. Two, it has helped rewrite the land acquisition laws of the country after Singur and Nandigram movements between 2006 and 2007 — in the 10th and 11th year of its existence.
On Saturday, the Trinamool Congress chief is going to have a third feather in her cap. On the dais of the United India Rally that she has convened at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata, as many as two dozen leaders of anti-Bharatiya Janata Party outfits will be present.
Despite her lack of visible warmth towards Rahul Gandhi — Mamata Banerjee did not congratulate him after Congress’s victory in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh assembly polls — the Congress president sent a letter to her on Friday hailing the rally.
“It will be a big step in our opposition to the NDA. It’s going to be a historic show, no less significant than the show of unity organised by former CPI(M) stalwart (and then-West Bengal chief minister) Jyoti Basu in 1988 (when Basu, V P Singh and A B Vajpayee stood hand in hand),” said Sharad Yadav of Loktantric Janata Dal and seven-time MP, who was also present in that meeting 31 years ago.
If Mamata Banerjee has been able to attract leaders from such a rainbow collection of parties, it’s due to the anti-Bharatiya Janata Party stance, especially the staunch opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and an image that she cultivated since the Modi took over in 2014.
The Bengal chief minister has consistently kept up her opposition in well-calibrated moves, be it during the lynching of people for cow slaughter and storing beef, demonetisation, introduction of Goods and Services Tax, the National Register of Citizens, Aadhaar, the Centre’s run-ins with the Reserve Bank of India, Central Bureau of Investigation and even the judiciary, after the unprecedented press conference of four judges of the Supreme Court.
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One of Mamata Banerjee’s most remarkable faculties is her acute political gut and the lightning speed with which she responds.
A few minutes after PM Modi announced demonetisation at 8 pm on November 8, 2016, the Trinamool chief was the first politician to criticise the controversial move.
The streak was also visible on January 12, 2019, when she proclaimed her support for the alliance announced by Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, even when they were halfway through the conference and Yadav was yet to make his address.
“I welcome the alliance of the SP and the BSP for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections,” she tweeted.
In the past few years, Mamata has also scored with liberal use of rhetoric. On the NRC in Assam, she went as far as to suggesting that the step can unleash civil war in the country.
The first mover advantage and her abundant hyperbole have ensured that she gets eyes and ears around the country.
For example, this month, throwing propriety to the winds, Mamata announced that her government will not fund Bengal’s contribution to Modi’s pet Ayushman Bharat health insurance project, accusing the Centre for taking unilateral credit for a jointly-funded project.
“She has combined long-term planning with lightning fast reflexes. She has displayed farsightedness and knows how to leverage her probable position as the leader of the third largest party (in Lok Sabha) after the elections,” said psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, who teaches political science at Rabindra Bharati University.
“Mamata is the most charismatic among all the regional party leaders right now. She is in a position to mobilise the biggest crowd in this part of the country,” said former principal of Presidency College and a professor of political science, Amal Mukhopadhyay.
Saturday’s rally of opposition leaders was announced as far back as July 21 last year, when she was addressing the annual flagship programme of Trinamool Congress in Kolkata.
Political analysts also said that one of Mamata Banerjee’s key strategies has been to attack her opponent right in their home turf. “The more the BJP leaders wanted to fuel anti-incumbency in Bengal, the more she stepped out from her crease and raised the pitch of her anti-BJP moves in the national theatre,” said Chakraborty.
Chakraborty also pointed out that other regional parties are perhaps more comfortable with the Trinamool Congress rather than the Congress, which can have designs to grow in their states.
“If Congress is at the Centre, it will certainly try to recover its lost position in different states, while a regional outfit like the Trinamool Congress is less likely to intrude upon the territory of others,” he said.
Mamata Banerjee’s quest to emerge as an anti-BJP leader suffered a few setbacks but she never quit the chase. In March 2014, she was embarrassed before the nation when Anna Hazare did not turn up in a proposed rally in Delhi and the Trinamool chief had to deliver a speech in front of a sea of empty red and green chairs at Ramlila Maidan.
The 63-year-old two-time chief minister from Bengal has been consistently attracting opposition leaders down the past few years. After her party won the Assembly polls in 2016 for the second time, anti-BJP leaders — Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal, Akhilesh Yadav, M Kanimozhi (DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s daughter) — converged in Kolkata.
“All like-minded parties will sit together to resist the spread of the BJP. If we don’t come together now, BJP and the Sangh Parivar will end up dividing the country,” Rashtriya Janata Dal (Dal) chief Lalu Prasad said after the swearing in.
Mamata Banerjee’s triumph in the courts against the BJP’s rath yatra in Bengal also consolidated her position as an anti-BJP leader. The rath yatra touching all 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in Bengal was the party’s most spectacular and long-drawn programme in the state and the party went all out to get approval from the courts.
This has been quite a remarkable feat for a politician, who, the Left leaders have been constantly reminding the people, had been a part of the NDA government in two instalments between 1999 and 2004.
“The Trinamool Congress and the BJP are two sides of the same coin,” CPI(M) leaders claim in every interaction, formal or informal, with the media.
Mamata Banerjee has also consolidated her position by pulverising not only the BJP, but the entire opposition in the bypolls at all levels — parliamentary, assembly, civic — and the rural elections in her home turf. At each level, her party won with more than 50% votes, which means the Trinamool candidate could have won against even a combined opposition.
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In Uluberia Lok Sabha constituency, the Trinamool won 61% of the votes in the January 2018 bypoll. In the three Assembly by elections held in Sabang (West Midnapore district), Noapara (North 24 Parganas) and Mahestala (South 24 Parganas) in 2018, the ruling party secured 51.21%, 53.51% and 58.13% votes.
In December 2018, in a Kolkata municipal contest, the Trinamool candidate won 66% of the votes and in January, Kolkata’s first Muslim mayor since Independence, Bobby Hakim, secured close to 77% votes.
In the three-tier panchayat polls last year, Trinamool Congress swept all the layers winning 78.37% of the 48,636 gram panchayat seats, 87.49% of the 9,214 panchayat samiti seats and 96.23% of the zilla parishad seats.