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In the run-up to the next round of assembly elections, West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee had, on October 30, accused the Congress of being indecisive and said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make gains as a result.
This was not a one-off attack; the party and its hired hand, Prashant Kishor, have been attacking the Congress consistently. When the TMC was questioned about its history of allying with the BJP for power under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s leadership, the party yet again resorted to attacking the Congress.
.@INCIndia‘s present leadership is BJP’s BIGGEST insurance!
In WB, we’ve been fighting & successfully defeating BJP since 2001. Instead of accusing others INC should put its house in order to effectively fight BJP or let others who’ve the will & ability to fight them nationally. https://t.co/z4Hn0Hzv2r
— All India Trinamool Congress (@AITCofficial) November 1, 2021
The ‘decisiveness’ with which the TMC is attacking the principal opposition party rather than the BJP seems to show that it shares the prime minister’s agenda at the national level.
Under normal circumstances, such attacks could have been considered routine posturing before elections and thus ignored; however, given that this is a period of great churning in our nation’s politics, a sober assessment of their claims are in order.
These claims are flawed at both the ideological and electoral levels, and are based on a bloated image, manufactured more via proximity to the Delhi media and its anglophone Twitterati than by political support on the ground.
The Bengal verdict: electoral victory, political defeat
It is true that the BJP failed to secure an electoral victory in Bengal; however, it succeeded politically by establishing itself as the principal opposition force. The party’s vote share has skyrocketed from 4.1% to 38.13% within a decade – during a period of absolute domination of the TMC – putting a question mark over Banerjee’s claims of being a credible deterrent to the saffron juggernaut and waging an uncompromising struggle. The truth of the matter is that she did not triumph; she merely survived in Bengal.
A huge factor in ensuring her survival was the TMC’s entrenched local network and Banerjee’s grip over the imagination of the Bengali masses, along with the BJP’s lack of organisational strength and credible faces in the state. However, during the Lok Sabha elections, when the TMC was forced into an electoral contest with Modi, the BJP won 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats and the TMC trailed on 121 assembly segments. Forty percent of Bengalis endorsed Modi for the Prime Minister’s post. This is a clear indication that even Bengal does not unanimously endorse Banerjee for a role in national politics, let alone the non-Bengali public.
‘No Hindi, no prime ministership…’
While she remains the undisputed leader of Bengal, she does not enjoy the same popularity outside the state; especially in the Hindi-speaking parts of the country. This is a very important factor in providing a national alternative. Former President Pranab Mukherjee, when asked about his disappointment at not being appointed prime minister under the UPA-I, explained, “No Hindi, no prime ministership…”.
This must not be read as a statement of linguistic chauvinism; it carries a truth which we must deliberate upon: that the BJP’s stronghold is the Hindi heartland. The only opposition that it faces in this decisive region is from the Congress. There is a huge chunk of seats across the country in which the BJP’s sole opposition is the Congress; the TMC is a non-starter here. To claim that one is posing a serious political challenge to the BJP through the induction of a motley group of disgruntled Congressmen, former Modi-enablers deprived of their share of spoils, political lightweights and well-meaning civil society elites, is a pipe-dream. It will, at best, achieve the goal of fragmenting the opposition and aiding the BJP.
Interests, ideology and the Modi regime
Democratic politics is animated by the twin factors of shared interests and ideology. For instance, the period of Congress hegemony saw a constellation of the unlikeliest of forces in order to achieve the shared interest of unseating Indira Gandhi. However, the interest was secured at a great ideological cost; as it bestowed the Saffron Brigade with the political respectability that they craved for. The rest, as they say, is history.
It is true that the entire opposition shares a common interest in defeating the Modi regime; however, there must be a shared understanding of what this regime stands for. This regime has enabled the hollowing out of democracy and entrenched authoritarian idioms on the back of corporate funding. It would not be an overstatement to say that the Modi Regime is the principal vehicle of the corporate takeover of the Indian economy.
However, the TMC, itself the biggest beneficiary of corporate donations within the opposition, has decided to remain silent on the crony-capitalist racket wrecking our economy currently. On the contrary, the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress has steadfastly opposed this crony-capitalist onslaught, whether it was opposing the Land Acquisition Bill or lending support to the ongoing farmers’ agitation; a fact acknowledged even by the leader of the agitation Rakesh Tikait. Does opposition amount to a mere change of face or a change of the policy paradigm as well?
Banerjee is a master of oppositional interest-based politics who thrives in the role of the ‘street fighter’; however, she has no ideological compass. Moreover, she has only ever encountered a feeble and non-hegemonic BJP in Bengal. Whereas the Congress is waging a battle in the Saffron heartland. Apart from leading governments in multiple states, the Congress is out on the streets, whether in Hathras or Lakhimpur Kheri or even the lesser-televised Padyatras being undertaken in the rural hinterlands of Madhya Pradesh and other states.
Ideological rhetoric has multiple purposes; it can be used to critique the existing power structure but it can also be used to conceal the true motives and interests of the political actors. The current posturing of the former BJP ally turned anti-Modi crusader fall in the latter bracket. After all, she was more than happy to be a minister without a Portfolio in the NDA even after the Gujarat violence in 2002. Given this history, the claims of occupying the Congress’s space against the saffron onslaught are a bit rich.