Mamata Banerjee and the Arithmetic Behind the Opposition Alliance

The West Bengal chief minister has prophesised that the BJP will be restricted to 125 seats because it will do poorly in key states such as UP, Rajasthan, MP and others.

Back in the day, to sense the mood of voters, poll pundits talked about hawa, that is, which way the wind was blowing. Now, they watch the water; is there a wave, or is the water still and flat? Between the air benders of the past and the water benders of today, there is the arithmetic.

In Vishakhapatnam, Mamata Banerjee declared that the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, was a foregone conclusion. She said, “the arithmetic” reveals the real picture. Unsure if the audience had understood her correctly, Mamata Banerjee elaborated that it was all in the math.

The summation is that the BJP and its allies will not win more than 125 seats in 2019. The arithmetic is that in 2014, when there was a “Modi wave”, the BJP and its allies of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), won a mere 21 seats out of 191 in West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and Odisha. Of these, Karnataka contributed 17 seats. She said this time, the party will not win as many seats in Karanataka and will get nothing in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh; it will win a token number of seats in the other states.

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In Uttar Pradesh, Banerjee predicted that the BJP would get between 15 and 20 seats, way down from the 73 it won in 2014. In the National Capital Region, Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Admi Party would hold the BJP at bay, she added. In Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the BJP would do poorly, she prophesied.

Having said this once before in Kolkata, it is evident that Banerjee is not budging. She believes that the Modi government had exceeded its “expiry date”.

The Vishakhapatnam rally is important. It was the first rally after the election dates were announced pivoting around the idea of a united and allied India locked in a deadly battle against the BJP. The Kolkata and New Delhi rallies were declarations of intention, but the Andhra Pradesh meeting on Sunday, was part of the real political contest between the opposition and the ruling regime. It lacked the star power of the Kolkata rally; it could be dismissed as a damp squib, a confirmation that the mahagahtbandhan is unravelling.

A different assessment

A different way of assessing the rally would be to consider that among the stars who came to Kolkata – Akhilesh Yadav, Tejashwi Yadav, Farooq Abdullah, Sharad Pawar, M.K. Stalin – are locked in battles unto death in their states. Therefore, it could be argued that it was enough that Mamata Banerjee was there as the anchor-godmother of the United Alliance. Arvind Kejriwal too was there because in his fight against the BJP in the NCR, he needs to be seen as appealing to every segment of India’s population with votes in New Delhi.

It was also a moment, when by studiously omitting to identify the Congress as outside the anti-BJP mahagathbandhan, Banerjee delivered an important message: parties that were fighting against the BJP, were friends, even if they were not formally or directly involved with the United Alliance. If this was one way of communicating that the Congress has friends, even if it has been unsuccessful in stitching up alliances for itself, it was far too oblique to appeal to the part of the social media consuming masses that needs politics to be simplified to a black and white choice.

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The Congress, which is in contest against several of the regional parties within the United Alliance, including the TMC in West Bengal, was clearly part of the calculation of restricting the BJP to 125 seats. Parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and the Nationalist Congress Party that have tied up with the Congress were, by extension, included in the larger alliance. The Left was also part of the anti-BJP offensive, because Banerjee did not identify them as a separate political platform.

In contrast, allies of the BJP were included by Mamata Banerjee as targets for the parties in the United Alliance. She was specific in mentioning that the BJP’s allies too should be defeated. This indicates that the fight against the BJP has expanded to all political entities that are on its side.

A host of leaders addressed the rally in Kolkata on January 20. Credit: PTI

Presenting an alternate narrative

Banerjee’s efforts can be seen as an attempt to change the narrative of the inevitability of Modi’s return to a new one. In this narrative, not only is Modi defeated, but so will regional parties in alliance with it. Her pitch was sharply focused on the role of regional parties in governing the nation and the star power that they possessed for stepping into the role of prime minister and running the government in New Delhi.

By juxtaposing the collective strength and combined wisdom-experience of the United Alliance against the one-man-one party battle that the BJP is waging, Banerjee made it clear the former is the best choice for running the government at the Centre. She said this was so because these parties worked closely with the people in fulfilling their aspirations and dealing with their needs.

The truth is that almost every major programme for development or welfare that has been unrolled by the Centre in recent times was a replication of a model piloted and perfected by state governments. Some of these include rural employment guarantee scheme, reservation for the most backward, farmers insurance, crop and electricity subsidies, scholarships, pensions and targeted schemes for girls and women.

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The pitch that the anti-BJP collective is effectively leaderless, because there are too many claimants for the prime minister’s job has been amplified and multiplied by social media. It is also the BJP’s principal argument against the United Alliance. It has expanded this argument by singling out regional leaders for personal attacks for alleged corruption and dysfunctional governance.

The alliance of regional parties, as its leadership has explained before the election was called and now, is a coming together of parties that have a common purpose: dominating the turfs where they are contenders for power. They say the BJP and the Congress are parties that threaten the aspirations of regional parties by appropriating the right to represent the significant constituents in the states. The BJP is the bigger threat, because it has established a strategy of carving up and decimating regional parties, the latest being the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party in Goa.

Modi and his man of war, Shah, are working to make another wave in 2019. Credit: PTI

Compulsions of regional parties

The idea of a one-on-one fight against the BJP floated by Mamata Banerjee in 2018 has died a natural death. Blaming the Congress for its failure to negotiate with potential allies is as true as the compulsion of smaller regional parties and even the dominant ones, to be seen to represent their clients and constituents. Not doing so jeopardises the value of the party and its leader in state level elections, that is, for the legislative assemblies, panchayati raj institutions, municipalities and corporations. This is also true for various elected bodies, including colleges and universities, frontal organisations representing teachers and government employees among others.

These problems and complexities were around in 2014, when the “Modi wave” hit India. They are still around in 2019, when Modi and his man of war, Shah, are working to make a wave. The essence of the arithmetic that Banerjee unveiled is an assessment that the BJP will fail to win an overwhelming number of seats in the key states of UP, MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and that it will do badly in other heartland states like Bihar and Gujarat.

Regional parties are working to make this happen, so that the United Alliance becomes a viable proposition to run the government at the Centre. If that happens, the alliance is confident that the rest will fall into place.