2024: Is Mamata Banerjee punching above her weight?
Banerjee’s actions appear driven by the temptation to exploit Congress leaders’ diminished self-esteem which makes them vulnerable to switching parties
Mamata Banerjee is a gutsy challenger who has thrice proved her mettle against formidable rivals: Rooting out the deeply-entrenched Left Front from power in West Bengal in 2011, trouncing it the second time five years later, and scoring a hat-trick six months ago, roundly humbling the mighty Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) besides obliterating, electorally, the remnants of the Left and the Congress.
It took a relentless 13-year struggle after her 1998 exit from the Congress, for Banerjee to build the party she has. In Bengal, she’s the real Congress. Stellar though, her record nevertheless begs the question: How real is her promise of replacing the Grand Old Party (GOP) with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) across India? For that’s what she has set out to achieve. “What is UPA [United Progressive Alliance]; there’s is no UPA,” she declared after a meeting in Mumbai the other day with Congress ally Sharad Pawar.
Adding insult to the injury she inflicted was the fact of the Congress being the junior-most partner in the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi with Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party and the Shiv Sena (which has since asked the Congress to make UPA stronger). The irony lacing Mamata’s disdain for the UPA was hard to miss. She held the railways portfolio (2009-2011) when the Congress-helmed alliance was in power in Delhi. That she headed the same ministry in AB Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which is now Narendra Modi’s, proves starkly the adage of there being no permanent friends or enemies in politics.
Banerjee’s dim view of the UPA’s ability to fight Modi isn’t without basis. The Congress hasn’t acquitted itself honourably since its 2014 hammering. Yet, even in its derelict state, compounded by the turmoil within, the party has 87 members in Parliament against the TMC’s 35 (across both Houses). The Congress’s Tamil Nadu ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, is just one short of the Trinamool in aggregate terms, including its legislative strength in the Upper House.
Only time will tell whether Mamata is punching above her weight? Often accused of copying the Left organisationally and in social policy terms in Bengal, is she emulating Jyoti Basu? The state’s CM for 23 years, he was the United Front (UF)’s first choice for the PM’s office in 1996.
To some, she also comes across as replicating Marxist old guard Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who rallied other parties to delay the BJP’s rise. For want of a strong core constituent, the UF regimes he stitched together were short-lived. Mamata’s game-plan has identical infirmities, driven as it apparently is by diplomat-politician Pavan Varma’s theory of creating a new Congress without the Gandhi family. “Another party with many GOP personnel but not the Gandhis will be a better option,” he wrote in a newspaper column on October 11.
Since having joined the TMC, his advice is available in-house now to Mamata. The case he made out was strong: If a cohesive and organised Opposition does not exist, it must, like God, be created to save democracy. As the only party with a pan-Indian footprint, the Congress which is floundering under the Gandhis, is unable to play the role.
Mamata’s practice of Varma’s theory is flawed by the haste she’s showing in its execution which, if at all, can only be realised as a long-haul project before 2024. Her actions thus far appear driven by the temptation to exploit elected Congress representatives’ diminished self-esteem which makes them vulnerable to switching parties. Ready examples of the trend, abetted elsewhere by the Damocles sword of the BJP-controlled central investigative agencies, are exoduses from the Congress ranks in Goa and Meghalaya where not the BJP, but the TMC showed its hand to buttress Mamata’s claims to being a superior draw.
But can migratory birds such as Mukul Sangma, Luzinho Falerio, Sushmita Dev, Kirti Azad and Ashok Tanwar create the aviary of her dreams? Do these otherwise talented leaders lacking a significant mass base, qualify as the building blocks of the new Congress with or without the TMC? The scepticism is well-founded. The Congress is enfeebled. But it alone can pull off victories in poll-bound Punjab, Goa and Uttarakhand.
With political tactician Prashant Kishor playing headhunter, the beeline to the TMC might have helped Mamata make headlines at the expense of the Gandhis whose stewardship of the Congress is under scrutiny. But she’s nowhere near making history, which the creation of a new Congress will certainly be.
Never before was the TMC chief’s criticism of Sonia Gandhi’s children so stridently upfront. The face-off has its genesis in her lack of chemistry with Rahul Gandhi despite the regard she has had for his mother. Fellow thinkers, Kishor and Varma, were aggrieved as much when the Gandhis rejected a blueprint they offered as a patent with strings attached, for the Congress’ revival.
Gandhi family loyalists interpret Mamata’s overdrive as the means to buy peace with the BJP in return for insurance for her political heir and nephew, Abhishek Banerjee who’s under probe in an Enforcement Directorate case. Evidence supportive of the conspiracy theory is circumstantial, its proponents claiming the TMC timed the offensive with elections to help the BJP. Another poor show will sharpen fault lines in the Congress, helping Mamata steal more from its sheepcote.
However be it, the Congress needs to win. Or face another fall in its relevance quotient.
The views expressed are personal