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Election politics in India is now reduced to a simple contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party on the one hand and the seemingly chaotic and as of now uncoordinated challenge by regional parties and the Congress, on the other. To defeat the Sangh parivar and its undaunted ambition of establishing a Hindutva hegemony, the opposition can do two things.
It can take on the BJP and its allies in each of the state assembly elections between now and 2024, when the Lok Sabha elections are scheduled to be held to decide on the fate of Narendra Modi vs a secular, democratic, tolerant idea of India, or as Mamata Banerjee vividly summarised it, defend “Hindustan” and deliver it from “Talibanisation” or becoming a Pakistan, by which she meant a state with a religious identity.
Exhausting and exhilarating as the process would be, the anti-BJP opposition is working on a strategy of eroding, undermining and weakening the BJP, bit by bit, state by state, district by district, so that by 2024, the Sangh parivar and its particular brand of discriminatory, divisive and right-wing politics is under intense pressure.
Banerjee’s brash, reckless and risky leap into west coast Goa politics and her venturing into Tripura also slated to go to polls at the same time indicates the other way – an aggressive attack strategy designed to unsettle the political equation in states where the BJP is in power and where the opposition is either weak or in disarray.
By taking the lead as BJP’s challenger in multiple state elections, Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress have leveraged the spectacular third term two-thirds majority victory in West Bengal to sustain the momentum of confronting the BJP and grabbing a disproportionate degree of national attention. After winning in May, the TMC announced itself as a challenger in July, at its Martyrs’ Remembrance Day rally that was simultaneously organised in New Delhi, Lucknow, Kolkata and other parts of India. By September, the TMC has taken the fight from the east to the west coast, baiting and challenging the BJP by setting up a party in Goa.
As a strategy it is audacious; because it is audacious it is unsettling for the BJP and is a warning for the Congress, which has settled into its role of being the default other national party with an organisation and voter connect that still remains consistent. Anything less focused, brash and risky, and different from conventional cautious politics, in Banerjee’s view would not shake the BJP’s complacence, which has governments in 18 out of 28 states.
In doing so, the TMC has done what it urged the regional and opposition parties to do – plunge in and fight the BJP because time was of the essence. This is the message Banerjee personally delivered to the leaders of the anti-BJP opposition parties, including leading Congressmen, whom she met in July in New Delhi. Her message of ‘Khela Hobe‘ – The Game is On – was an urgent call to the regional parties and the Congress to recognise that it was necessary to challenge the BJP to a fight regardless of the asymmetries of size, power, organisation and resources.
Banerjee seems to have dumped the various versions of coalition formation that India has seen since 1967 in favour of a strategy that is as unpredictable as it is flexible. Up until 2019, she had followed the earlier blueprint of formal meetings preceded and followed by hectic back-channel consultations between like-minded parties to iron out the inevitable wrinkles that a coalition-making efforts require. She seems to have learnt lessons from her attempt to form the Federal Front, which fell apart even before it was launched when Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati pulled out, leaving Banerjee red-faced and looking ridiculous.
Sequencing the steps to formalise relationships in politics can fail; seizing an opportunity when it unexpectedly happens can succeed. The decorum of orchestrated negotiations and appearances, signalling the process of cooperation, coordination, compromise and finally coalition-alliance-partnership-understanding-support-adjustment, is not Banerjee’s style. That is not to say that Banerjee does not continuously talk to her counterparts in other parties; she does.
She is, however, an unconventional politician. Her image as a fierce and indomitable street fighter was crafted in the 1980s when she began her long and difficult fight against the Communist Party of India Marxist-led Left Front government under the formidable leadership of Jyoti Basu. As a politician who has been through a lot, she is “different”, as former president of India and veteran Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee wrote in his memoirs.
Banerjee can appear to be whimsical, on occasion backing out of what appeared to be a negotiated and settled decision, as she did by refusing to visit Bangladesh along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to sign the Teesta water sharing deal in 2011 or when she refused to accept the Congress high command’s decision on the West Bengal Pradesh Congress chief in the 1990s. By 1998, Mamata Banerjee had grown so distant from the Congress that she broke away and formed the TMC.
As a leader who has lost and recovered over and over again, Banerjee seems unfazed by the probability that the TMC will not become an overnight success in the forthcoming elections in Goa or in Uttar Pradesh. She seems to be set on a course that keeps her leadership and her party the focus of national political and media attention. By leveraging the attention, Banerjee probably expects to surge ahead of other regional leaders as the face that challenges Narendra Modi in 2024.
The question is, can Banerjee grow into the inevitable choice as principal challenger in the time available till 2024? It seems to be the naïve ambitions of a successful regional leader, who defeated the combined forces of Modi and Amit Shah in a prestige battle in West Bengal.
The strategy of spreading out to states where the Congress is decimated beyond recovery, as in Goa, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh, is risky but bold, because it puts the TrMC where it can make a bid to fill the political vacuum. But it is not flawless.
The biggest problem with this design is the TMC is not rooted in the states where it has acquired political assets and is gearing up to fight the polls. Being rooted is different from acquiring defectors, regardless of how deeply invested they may be in the politics of the state. It takes time to build relationships with voters and buying assets does not create the organic links essential to win against heavy odds.
There is nothing instant about establishing the chemistry between the voter and the party or leader. Banerjee ought to know this. It took her 13 years of determined effort to overcome voter resistance and then the reward was a magnificent mandate in 2011 that ousted the 34-year-old CPI(M)-led Left Front government from power and decimated its support base. The BJP began looking at West Bengal as a territory it thought it could acquire only after 2014. It over interpreted its 18 seat win out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats from the state. It did not have the kind of rooted organisation and networks that are essential to establish credibility as a political alternative in West Bengal.
Regardless of how formidable the challenge Banerjee faced in 2021, the fact is that West Bengal is her home turf and she is the Didi, the girl next door to voters faced with making a choice between Modi and her. Reaching out to the distraught families of the farmers killed by the rogue car convoy in which Union minister of state for home Ajay Mishra Teni’s son Ashish Mishra and others were travelling in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh sends a political message; but it is not the same as when a young Banerjee would speed across West Bengal in the 1990s or 2000s to stand with families victimised by CPI(M) violence. The difference is being on home ground and being an outsider on a mission to expose the local government and score points against the BJP.
Banerjee’s strategy appears to be to avoid getting entangled in the endless and often fruitless parleys with other regional parties. Her target is to be the challenger and through a series of acquisitions of political assets, she is ensuring that her party moves fast to spread itself as a contender between now and 2024.
Every time the TMC succeeds in any state other than West Bengal in winning a seat in the series of state assembly elections between now and 2024, Banerjee will grow in stature as an opposition leader capable of taking on Modi in the general elections. And that will make her the natural choice as leader of an anti-BJP coalition.
Shikha Mukerjee is a Kolkata-based commentator.