The present and future of Mamata Banerjee
Mamata Banerjee’s political victory in the West Bengal elections is remarkably impressive. Here was a chief minister (CM) who successfully defied two-term anti-incumbency — and while there have been other CMs who have successfully returned to power for a third time (Narendra Modi is a prime example), Banerjee was facing the most formidable challenger in India’s political theatre.
She had suffered a setback in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its well-oiled machine and drive, was out to wrest power. Yet, Banerjee succeeded through a mix of four elements — sub-nationalism, politics of welfare and gender, minority consolidation, and robust organisational strength.
The Bengal win has now prompted observers to suggest that Banerjee may well be the glue of possible opposition unity against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024, and that there is a Bengal model to be deployed to challenge the BJP’s might. Many, dissatisfied with the centralising impulses of the central government, are banking on this hope.
But as Banerjee contemplates the possibilities of 2024, she has to make a set of choices. And it is these choices which will determine her political future, the political future of Bengal, and potentially the future of national politics.
The fundamental question for Banerjee is this — does she want to remain focused on Bengal and are her aspirations limited to retaining power in Kolkata’s Nabanna, or does she want to build a national alternative, assume leadership of such an alternative, and, therefore, aim straight for Delhi’s 7, Lok Kalyan Marg?
If Banerjee decides to focus only on her state — and there are precedents of CMs who have done so despite electoral success; her neighbour Naveen Patnaik is an example — she will have to focus on a set of priorities.
In terms of policy, this involves battling the second wave of Covid-19; tackling the economic distress that will only grow due to the pandemic; restoring a degree of communal harmony in a state that has been battered by the most polarising election campaign in recent history; and working with the Centre on a range of issues, particularly state finances.
In terms of politics, this involves dealing with a strong and belligerent opposition in the assembly, and pushing back against the rise of the BJP (for there will be elections again, from the local to the national, where the BJP will remain a formidable force). And ideally, Banerjee should focus on creating a new political culture where Trinamool Congress (TMC) cadres are not engaged in the kind of coercion and violence that was visible during and after the election results — she may have won this time, but the reason that the BJP grew was because of resentment against local TMC units. Unfortunately, politicians often see this form of organisational strength as a source of power, and whether she lets her democratic instinct prevail over undemocratic (and unacceptable) short cuts is to be seen.
Taking the state route will give Banerjee an opportunity to consolidate power in Bengal, sort out her internal line of succession (her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, is already the second-most powerful person in the party and is widely seen as the heir apparent, in a sign that yet another Indian party is falling to the seduction of dynastic politics), establish a bigger presence in Parliament in 2024 with a sole focus on championing Bengal’s interests, and return to power — yet again — in 2026.
The disadvantage is that she will remain just another CM — a powerful CM of a powerful state — but a CM nonetheless, and the one thing Indian politicians can’t be faulted for is lack of ambition. It also means less political and policy space within the state, for the national hegemon will constantly be on the lookout to weaken Banerjee.
And so, for Banerjee, while continuing to use this period to consolidate her local strength, there is an equally tempting alternative. If she calculates that state politics and national politics cannot be divorced; that there is a political possibility of challenging the BJP (the national political mood is undergoing a shift, given the Centre’s mismanagement of Covid-19, though its electoral implications are less than clear); and that there is a leadership vacuum and only she has the stature among all regional leaders to emerge as a candidate of an alternative front to take on Modi, Banerjee may well take the plunge.
But this brings its own set of political challenges and choices.
For one, Banerjee will need an entirely new vocabulary and what worked in Bengal will not work nationally. Take all the four elements of her success. She can’t play the Bengali sub-nationalism card while seeking votes from the rest of country (remember how Modi switched from the Gujarati asmita narrative as his national ambitions grew). She cannot depend on welfare — for nationally, the BJP is now seen as a party of welfare and her state-level achievements are not enough to ignite excitement nationally. Minority consolidation is a tricky route — you rely on that and run the risk of majoritarian consolidation, which the BJP is adept at exploiting. And in any case, minority votes will be fragmented across non-BJP forces, depending on who is strong in which region. And the TMC does not have the organisational strength elsewhere in the country (remember, Modi had both the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP machinery to help him catapult from the state to the national stage).
This means that all that Banerjee can realistically aim for is a stellar performance in her own state in 2024. This also means she will have to rely on friendly and aligned parties in the rest of the country. This brings its own set of two choices.
One, Banerjee and the Congress have to decide on their relationship. Rahul Gandhi was happy to sit out the Bengal election, knowing well that the Congress had little chance and his politics was better served by a BJP defeat, irrespective of who was the victor. This will, however, not happen nationally. Remember, the Congress still commands the votes of over 120 million Indians — it will not give way to another party easily. For Banerjee, to reconcile her leadership ambitions with the Congress’s sense of self won’t be easy.
The second is working with other regional forces. Some leaders may support her ambitions — Arvind Kejriwal is an example. Some leaders will work with Banerjee, but have their own ambitions — for instance, Sharad Pawar. And then there will be others who would rather live with a BJP government at the Centre than allow some of their other competitors to have a chance at power if they don’t get the crown. All of this will shape the question of leadership within the opposition in the run-up to the 2024 battle.
But either way, the Bengal election has opened up possibilities. Banerjee’s political choices and how she navigates the national and the local will be a significant variable in national politics.