Mamata Banerjee generally travels light. But when the West Bengal Chief Minister returned to her state on July 30 after a five-day visit to New Delhi, she carried a heavy bag. It was one full of political expectations! At this point in time, she needs to lug it alone, and no one can offer a helping hand and share the burden. The reason: she is the main protagonist of a new script that is being written now. This was evident from the number of journalists and cameras that followed her during the high-profile visit. She gloated in the glory. Which leader wouldn’t want the national media’s glare?
A Bengal reporter tweeted: “A journalist friend from Maharashtra was unable to recollect when so much media presence was seen last at Nitin Gadkari (Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways) residence in Delhi.” Mamata met the BJP politician, who represents Maharashtra’s Nagpur Lok Sabha constituency in Parliament.
By the time she returned from Delhi, there were several storms brewing in political and journalistic teacups. The media debated whether she could be the “face” of a united Opposition against Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Or was it more likely that she would transform into a kingmaker (rather, queenmaker), and work as an adhesive to get the regional satraps to bond with the Congress?
There was a third, more regional, thought. Given what happened in the 2019 national elections, and what transpired in the 2021 state polls, was Mamata keen to ensure that the Opposition stands, and stays, united to support her against the BJP only in West Bengal, her citadel? The BJP has not yet accepted its inglorious defeat in 2021, after the rousing wave in its favour in 2019. After being on the back foot, and almost being hit-wicket two years ago, the Bengal politician flamboyantly stepped out of her crease to hit an electoral six.
One cannot escape the inevitable conclusion. Mamata stands like a prickly thorn, more like a giant cactus, for the BJP. The Chanakya in the ruling party at the Centre – like the historical character who vowed to uproot and eradicate all thorns on earth, and remove one thorn with the aid of another – did it successfully in several states. But he failed in West Bengal. Another Chanakya-like strategist advised Mamata to remove the thorn stuck in her body with other thorns, i.e. the enemies of the enemy (who may be lesser foes). The chief minister thinks that she is capable of dealing with the thorns that assail her.
In the historical account, Chanakya helped Chandragupta to become the Indian Emperor – which is believed to be a revenge plot. So, does Mamata, the Chanakya, wish to seek her Chandragupta? Or does she see herself as the Chandragupta who can garner support from several Chanakyas, who wish to overturn the BJP’s reign at the Centre? The national elections in 2024 are three years away. The political journey from Kolkata to New Delhi is tougher and farther than the geographical distance. But tongues will wag, political pundits will pontificate, and newspapers and news channels will argue. They will continue to speculate, and analyse the hidden meanings behind Mamata’s “body language”.
Indeed, as people said, the gait and walk of the Trinamool Congress’ head was different in July this year, compared to her earlier visits to the national Capital. She was calm, she beamed, and she unexpectedly addressed the national media, which, according to her past utterances and criticisms, is “biased”. Mamata is prone to ignore or snap at unpleasant questions, or cold-shoulder unfriendly journalists. This time, “Didi” sportingly shared an hour with the Delhi journalists, and exchanged pleasantries with the hacks she earlier shied away from. On their part, several Mamata-baiters enjoyed her company, and some merely gawked at her.
Nothing succeeds like success. A decade ago, she achieved the unthinkable as she bulldozed the Red citadel in the state. In 2011, the regime of the God-like, seemingly omnipresent, Left Front folded like a pack of cards after standing tall and dominant for more than three decades. Its large palace crumbled to dust before Mamata’s political gambit, and persistence. A decade later, in 2021, she suddenly stopped the BJP juggernaut in its tracks.
Once known for tantrums, and labelled a “stormy petrel”, experts attribute Mamata’s comparatively milder persona these days to the work of political strategist Prashant Kishor, or PK. The Chanakya-adviser has direct access to the chief minister, and she listens to him. The duo met earlier in 2016, ahead of the assembly elections, when a Trinamool MP organised a meeting at the party headquarters in Kolkata. It ended “cordially” but the professional relationship did not go anywhere. PK had his “hands full”, and Didi “could not afford his fees”. It seemed like the end of a potential political partnership.
In the recent past, public discourse altered. The fiery and unpredictable Mamata gave way to a mellow avatar, which possibly helped her win in the 2021 state elections. A year ago, she had slammed her party leaders over “cut money”
It didn’t matter because two years before the meeting, in 2014, the Trinamool Congress had steamrollered the opposition in the parliamentary elections, and won 34 of the 42 seats in the state. The BJP managed two. Hence, there was euphoria in the air, and everyone on the street knew which party held the winning aces in the forthcoming assembly polls. When the results were out in 2016, Mamata bettered her previous tally in 2011.
However, a shocking result awaited the Trinamool in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. A “Modi wave” swept the state. Trinamool managed to win a mere 22 seats, or more than a third less, while the BJP cornered 18, a jump by nine times. It was evident that the BJP had polarised the state, and was getting stronger by the day. Enter PK. Yet again! After a two-hour meeting at the new secretariat building, ‘Nabanna’, this time, Didi realised that Chanakya – she wished to be Bengal’s Chandragupta then – knew more about the state than she had anticipated. PK invariably does his homework.
The UN public health expert, who flew in from Africa, entered India’s political theatre in 2011, and later set up a unit of the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) in the east. His professional fees cannot be ascertained. But it is whispered and rumoured in political and media circles that the figure is a 10-digit number.
Within days of the early-June meeting in 2019, the changes were apparent. PK soon gained overriding access to the CM. A website was launched, a grievance cell was set up, and people were offered online access to the chief minister with “Didike Bolo”. In a surprising move in politics, Mamata slammed her party leaders publicly over “cut money” or taking money from financial packages meant for those affected by Cyclone Amphan in 2020.
The public discourse, it was clear, was “altered”. It ended with a mellow avatar of the once fiery and unpredictable leader. Many believed that this helped Mamata in the 2021 assembly elections. Others maintained that the results would have been the same, “with or without an ‘outsider’ as an ‘adviser’”.
However, the astute political analyst has a penchant for details. He is credited with the successful campaign strategies of several politicians. PK is believed to be the brain behind Narendra Modi’s first national campaign in 2014, which was the former’s initial tryst with fame. Later, he helped in the formation of Bihar’s “Grand Alliance” of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav in 2015. The other feathers in his cap include the successes of Punjab’s Amarinder Singh in 2017, YSR Congress Party leader S. Jagan Mohan Reddy in 2019, and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal in 2020. It is little surprise that PK is the country’s numero uno poll strategist! However, his record with the Congress is dismal, and the party lost badly in the Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017.
One is, therefore, unsure if PK’s skills lie in backing the right horses most of the time, whether the credit should be given to the political jockeys, or it is his training and advice that matter. But, following the resounding victory in West Bengal, PK is really flying high. He may turn out to be the Opposition’s backroom mastermind to take on Modi in 2024. This too was visible in the recent past. PK made a few house calls on leaders like Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, and the Congress’ topmost leadership that comprises the triumvirate (the Gandhi family members).
What transpired at those meetings remains a mystery. However, there are two speculative and theoretical hypotheses doing the rounds. The first is that he wanted to assess the viability of Mamata as the PM face of a combined Opposition in 2024. Alternatively, he wished to test the waters for his own re-entry into politics. He was briefly the vice-president of the Janata Dal (United), and quit after falling out with the party chief and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. This was after Nitish broke the Grand Alliance with Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and reunited with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Hypothesis number one seemed less far-fetched when Yashwant Sinha, the BJP veteran and ex-Union minister who later joined the Trinamool, held parleys with several Opposition leaders and a few intellectuals at Pawar’s Delhi residence. This leads to the question everyone wants answered: Is a “united Opposition” possible in the present circumstances?
Mamata has the capabilities and shrewdness to oust the BJP, as was declared by Congress politician Kamal Nath after he met her in Delhi. Kamal Nath is close to West Bengal politics, and was the Congress’ general secretary in charge of the state. His colleague, Anand Sharma, felt that like-minded parties need to get together to halt the indomitable ascent of the BJP.
According to Sambit Pal, associate professor, International School of Broadcasting and Journalism, MIT ADT University, Pune, “It is a tough choice for the Opposition parties. There is no doubt that Mamata Banerjee has proved her might by defeating the BJP in West Bengal. She has every right to position herself as the face against Modi. But will the Congress leave Rahul Gandhi’s space to Mamata? When Sonia Gandhi is not ready to sacrifice her son’s position in the Congress, will she do it for Mamata or a larger interest? Will Sharad Pawar be happy to be led by the Trinamool chief?”
Congress’ Kamal Nath says that Didi has the capabilities and shrewedness to oust the BJP from the centre in 2024. But leaders of several parties like the NCP, SP and BSP have to accept Mamata as the leader of a united front. This will take time
As the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party lick their wounds after consecutive poll defeats in UP, they may prefer to wait for the outcome of the state assembly elections in 2022. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Reddy, and his counterparts in Jharkhand (Hemant Soren) and Odisha (Naveen Patnaik), among others, are yet to declare their stance. Incidentally, most regional parties came into existence as anti-Congress alternatives. But many may now accept the Congress as the thorn that can be used against the bigger enemy – the BJP heading a Union government.
This opinion was publicly stated by the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation or CPI (ML)-L, Dipankar Bhattacharya, who urged the Left parties to support Mamata in the West Bengal assembly elections this year. Asked for his views, Left Front chairman Biman Bose shot back at reporters, “It may be the statement of an individual, but that does not mean that the Left Front will agree to it.” The Left, and its ally, Congress, were wiped out in the 2021 elections.
Bhattacharya had his reasons to voice thoughts supporting the leader who initiated the process that buried the Left in West Bengal’s political graveyard. It was a Chanakya-like idea of a “thorn-for-a-thorn”. He was wary of the BJP finding a foothold in a state considered religiously tolerant, where guesstimates put the Muslim population at well over 30 percent.
Another factor that influenced Bhattacharya was the results of the Bihar assembly elections in 2020. The major opposition parties formed a “Mahagathbandhan” or Grand Alliance, and the Left parties achieved their best-ever performance in the state since 1995. The CPI (ML)-L, along with the Communist Party of India, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), clinched 16 of the 29 seats they contested. Against this strike rate of 55 percent, in the 2015 state elections, they won three seats.
The CPI (ML)-L stood out in 2020, and won 12 seats, while the other two Left parties bagged two each. In the final outcome, the Grand Alliance had 110 of the 243 seats, or just 16 behind the ruling NDA, which was led by Nitish Kumar. Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) clinched five seats.
Owaisi, the wily politician from Hyderabad, kept both Bihar’s NDA government and the Opposition guessing about the role his five MLAs would play given a standoff in the assembly. Similarly, he is silent on his stand regarding Opposition unity in 2024. Following the AIMIM’s revival in fortunes in Bihar, Owaisi decided to enter the fray in adjoining West Bengal in 2021. However, his intended ally, the newly-launched Indian Secular Front (ISF), led by Abbas Siddique, a cleric at the shrine of Furfura Sharif, did a volte face and joined hands with the Left-Congress combine. Interestingly, the ISF chief’s uncle and eldest pir at the dargah, Qutubuddin Siddique, has always supported Trinamool. The ISF managed to corner a lone seat in West Bengal.
If the Opposition has to rally against the BJP, it has to do so before the 2024 election results are out. But this will happen if the anti-BJP parties feel that they are closer to power
During the eight rounds of polling in the state this year, the campaigning was so intense that veteran election analysts were misled. Add to this the narrative built up over “polarisation”. Kolkata-based journalist and author Diptendra Raychaudhuri says, “I thought a rejuvenated Left-Congress-ISF morcha would play an important role in this election. But this morcha was decimated. The Muslims en bloc voted for the Trinamool. That is a solid 30 percent of votes. It appears a section of the Left-Congress Hindu voters voted for Mamata to stall the BJP.”
Many within the Trinamool had doubts whether the party could retain West Bengal for a third successive term. This was palpable as several anxious leaders called friendly journalists through the preceding night, and during the day of counting on May 2. By the afternoon, “Mamata Banerjee proved she was the Bengal tigress. She not only won but proved to be the most able leader from the entire Opposition camp,” adds Raychaudhuri.
But will Delhi hear the next roar of the tigress? Will Mamata emerge as the face of a united Opposition? Raychaudhuri assumes it is too early to predict the fallout of the West Bengal results at the national level. “Any attempt at Opposition unity at this time is premature. Bengal may be a loss of face for the BJP, but it will not decide the course of national politics. A bundle of small units is always fragile. So, things will take shape by the end of 2023,” he feels.
Adds Pal, author of Bengal Conundrum: The Rise of the BJP and the Future of the TMC, which chronicles past events seen through the eyes of the reporter that he was formerly, “It is absolutely possible – only if they are closer to power. However, in their fight against Modi, the Opposition cannot wait till the results come out. We have seen how the idea of the United India Front in 2019 died before it could even take off. They (the Opposition parties) need to pull up their socks before the elections.”
He adds, “The Opposition needs a credible face against Narendra Modi, and an ideological counter-narrative against the RSS-BJP one. Given the tensions, ideological stand, and aspirations of the Opposition political parties, it is a difficult task.”
Perhaps this is why Mamata wishes to take the bull by the horns as early as possible. She wants enough time to take care of the thorns, if any – and there are many. During her recent visit to Delhi, Mamata met Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and the party’s former president, Rahul Gandhi, at 10 Janpath on July 28. Senior Congress leaders Kamal Nath, Anand Sharma, and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and DMK’s Kanimozhi called on her.
Mamata reportedly met Modi to raise issues related to Covid treatment and changing the name of her state to simply “Bengal”. (According to the logic of her party members, there is no East Bengal anymore and, hence, no need to distinguish the state as ‘West’. In addition, the ‘W’ in the West ensures that the state representative is the last one to speak at meetings of states.) She met Gadkari to discuss and review the state of infrastructure in West Bengal.
However, the grapevine was on overdrive on the day of her departure from Delhi. Why, wondered many, did Mamata not meet either Pawar or Lalu Yadav? Pawar was in the capital, attending Parliament. He left for Mumbai on July 30, or the same day as Mamata. And Lalu was convalescing at his daughter’s Delhi residence, where the Maratha strongman, Pawar, met him on July 28. Pawar later tweeted about the meeting.
Mamata said that she spoke on the telephone to both at different times during her stay. Incidentally, Lalu’s son and heir apparent, Tejaswi, had extended his party’s support to the Trinamool during the West Bengal assembly elections. According to media speculation, Mamata is keeping all her options open, including speaking to the likes of Andhra Pradesh’s Jagan Reddy and Odisha’s Patnaik.
But despite Mamata’s bonhomie with the Congress president, Raychaudhuri contends, “I don’t think Sonia Gandhi can accept anyone except Rahul (as Prime Minister). If the Opposition is to rally behind someone, it’s Rahul (for Sonia).”
Experts feel that the Congress’ Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to accept anyone else except her son, Rahul, as a future prime ministerial candidate. Hence, if the Opposition has to rally behind someone, it has to be Rahul Gandhi
Like any regional politician trying to become a national figure, Mamata may have certain ambitions. The Trinamool Congress is trying to expand its footprint beyond West Bengal. In Uttar Pradesh, it is focusing on the rural belt. Recently, a membership drive was undertaken in Lakhimpur Kheri, and is continuing through the Awadh region. It is also to be held across Purvanchal. In Jharkhand, during the 2019 parliamentary elections, the party named candidates in three of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats. And now the party is gearing up for the Tripura assembly elections, which are scheduled in 2023. The BJP wrested power from the Left Front in this state with a majority Bengali-speaking population. In 2018, the Trinamool failed to win any seats after contesting in 24 of the 60 assembly constituencies.
Recently, a team of PK’s I-PAC representatives was reportedly detained in its hotel by the Tripura police. The group reached on July 20 to assess the on-ground political situation. Senior leaders, including Mamata’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, rushed to the state to lodge a protest against the “illegal” detention.
This is not the first time that the Trinamool aims to expand in the Northeast. In the 2012 assembly polls in Manipur, the party won seven seats, but the MLAs later defected. Some of them joined the Congress, and a few joined the BJP. In 2017, Mamata won a seat in Manipur. The party made political forays in Assam, as teams from West Bengal visited the state to protest against the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
Parallel to moves that indicate her national ambitions, Mamata is planning another role for herself in the state. With the elevation of Abhishek Banerjee as the party’s general secretary, the nephew and two-time MP from Diamond Harbour in South 24-Parganas district was prominent during the 2021 state elections. He is seen as Didi’s heir apparent and de facto chief of the party. So, if Mamata leaves for New Delhi, Abhishek can take over the state apparatus.
The 66-year-old chief minister from West Bengal is known for her sudden and unexpected moves in politics. What will be her next gambit? Will she go for the kill, a checkmate, or fortify her defences in the state? Or will she take a back seat nationally, and become the kingmaker? No one knows for sure. No one wishes to hazard a guess at this stage.
Rest assured about one thing. Whatever the West Bengal chief minister does in the near future will defy norms, expectations, and speculation.
The writer has covered national and West Bengal politics for several decades