IN THE MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS IN TRIPURA, THE results of which were declared on November 28th, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made a clean sweep, winning 329 out of 334 seats. The Trinamool Congress (TMC), which had earlier this year won spectacularly in West Bengal, won just one seat. This drubbing evoked sarcasm by BJP supporters on social media. But the Trinamool may have just got what it wanted. In the state now, which was once ruled by the Left just like West Bengal, TMC has unseated the Left and Congress and become the “principal opposition”, as TMC’s general secretary and its chief Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, said after the civic body poll results.
This is what Mamata’s game looks like, at least till the next General Election to be held in 2024. The recent activities of the party, especially after its victory in the West Bengal Assembly elections, points at its plans to project Mamata Banerjee as the only leader who can dent Narendra Modi’s image.
“She is the only leader BJP has not been able to shut up. Electorally, she is far behind BJP, but in terms of the narrative, she is now the main face of the opposition,” says political analyst Neelanjan Sircar.
The game became much more serious earlier this year when Mamata Banerjee won the West Bengal elections, fighting in a much polarised environment, with BJP using her pro-Muslim image to try and consolidate Hindu votes. But it did not work.
Afterwards, contrary to the national scenario, where leaders from other parties are joining BJP, some BJP leaders from the state defected to TMC.
In the past few weeks, many other leaders from other parties have joined TMC as well. These include Ashok Tanwar and Kirti Azad from Congress, and former Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), leader Pavan K Varma. Earlier, in August, Congress national spokesperson Sushmita Dev quit the party and is now a TMC MP in Rajya Sabha. These are not leaders who are electorally significant, but a certain message is going out that TMC offers a viable option for those looking at a non-Congress alternative to BJP. To include more leaders from outside Bengal in its working committee, it is also planning to make amends to the party constitution.
On November 25th, TMC scored a significant victory in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya where 12 Congress MLAs, led by former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, joined it, making it the main opposition party in the state. Afterwards, Sangma said that his decision was made after gauging the feelings of thousands of Congress workers who, he said, wanted an alternative.
“In the Northeast, many states are paranoid about BJP’s Hindutva politics and for them someone like Mamata Banerjee, who has shown incredible spunk in taking on BJP in her home state despite the latter having unleashed its present political clout, resonates certainly,” says Patricia Mukhim, the editor of The Shillong Times. In Meghalaya, specifically, Mukhim is of the view that TMC may not have many takers in the Khasi and Jaintia areas where there is an inherent antipathy for Bengalis, but Mamata will have takers in the Garo Hills area of the state. “But again, when did people of Meghalaya ever vote ideology? They have always voted for personalities and their ability to address the immediate needs of the constituents,” she adds.
The Trinamool strategy, political watchers believe, is to focus currently on smaller states, mostly those going to polls soon. Top among these is Goa, where Mamata made a three-day visit recently, naming its campaign “Goa’s new dawn”. In the last few months, several senior state politicians, including former Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro (from Congress) and the Goa Forward Party’s working president Kiran Kandolkar have joined hands with Mamata. Kandolkar quit the party in protest against a possible alliance with Congress in the upcoming Assembly polls.
The Trinamool strategy is to focus currently on smaller states, mostly those going to polls soon. Top among these is Goa, where Mamata made a three-day visit recently. But her challenges remain
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Recently, Mamata Banerjee went for the political jugular by saying that she would soon visit Modi’s constituency, Varanasi. As part of her outreach, she met Shiv Sena’s Aaditya Thackeray in Mumbai on November 30th and the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Sharad Pawar on December 1st. She also said that she is ready to extend help to Samajwadi Party’s (SP) Akhilesh Yadav in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh (UP) polls. Gradually, Mamata is building her image as someone who can become a rallying point in the fight against BJP. In July, in a speech, she had called upon parties to put up a united front against BJP.
But her challenges remain. Despite suffering defeats in the last few years, Congress still has a national presence. It is a formidable challenge to become a presence against BJP in several big states, especially in the Hindi heartland, like UP that electorally make a huge difference to numbers.
“It took her decades to bring down the Left in West Bengal. So, she understands that it is going to be a long battle,” says Sircar. Calling her politics the politics of the poor, Sircar, who extensively worked in West Bengal during the last Assembly elections, feels that it certainly gives her a national USP in terms of class politics. “Her image is that of a street fighter, which many in the political circles of India find admirable,” he says.
That Congress is feeling the TMC heat was evident when Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury called Mamata a “Trojan horse of the BJP”. Although TMC leaders have said the party would remain a part of the opposition at the national level, Mamata herself made it clear that she was not in a mood to play second fiddle to Congress. In Delhi, on her recent visit, Mamata said that whenever she came to the national capital it was not mandatory to meet Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. Not only did TMC not attend the opposition meeting called by Congress on November 29th but it asked regional parties like SP and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) not to attend as well. TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh recently told the Press Trust of India that Congress had done nothing to fight BJP in the last seven years and that though the party was not inimical to an alliance with Congress, it must realise that its “big brother attitude” is not acceptable.
Like BJP, TMC also largely depends on one-person charisma. In the minds of their supporters, both Modi and Mamata have an ascetic-like quality, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out around the next General Election. In the past, two leaders, Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal, have presented themselves as alternatives to Modi. While Nitish’s chances collapsed soon afterwards, Kejriwal’s image also took a hit as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) took decisions in a hurry to expand outside Delhi. However, now it looks to enter the fight once again, eyeing a chance in Punjab and Goa. The party has also made overtures to SP in UP. So, Kejriwal in some ways is still in the race. But with Mamata’s far more aggressive politics, and more acceptability among the opposition, it is clearly a battle between the two Ms.