Mamata Banerjee and Tejashwi Yadav Show Congress How to Fight Elections

These two opposition leaders' success in the recent bypolls is a reminder of what Congress lacks at the moment – decisive leadership. This is something Congress has to fix, with or without Prashant Kishor.

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New Delhi: The Congress’s top leadership appears to be finally roping in star election strategist Prashant Kishor to chalk out for the grand old party its 2024 parliamentary elections campaign – a move that may as well bring the beleaguered party out of its long-drawn political slumber and better its electoral prospects.

Various reports indicate that Kishor has proposed “sweeping and structural” changes in the party, and that he presented a strategy to rejuvenate the party from below, right from forming WhatsApp groups at the booth level to devising ways to shift the political narrative from communal polarisation to livelihood issues.

Leadership issues currently plaguing the party – one which has functioned more like a ‘system’ historically than merely an electoral force – is a problem that is not easy to solve. To describe the problem as something that could well be outside the realm of electoral management may not be misplaced. 

Political promptness shown by at least two opposition leaders in the recent bypolls, however, is a telling reminder of what the Congress lacks at the moment – decisive leadership.

Tejashwi Yadav

Take the instance of how the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav responded to the unfolding political situation in the run-up to the Bochahan assembly bypoll. The seat became vacant after its Vikashsheel Insaan Party (VIP) MLA Musafir Paswan died.

Musafir Paswan.

Paswan, a Mallah leader from a socialist background, had been in different parties and had won the 2020 polls from VIP, then a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

After his death, however, BJP set its eyes on the seat, even as it persuaded the remaining three VIP legislators of the state to join its ranks.  

The saffron party’s swift move was a frontal attack on VIP founder Mukesh Sahani, who had fielded around 50 candidates against BJP in Uttar Pradesh assembly polls and lashed out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah multiple times in his various speeches. 

With no option, VIP decided to contest independently in Bochahan, expecting to field Musafir Paswan’s son Amar Paswan. However, what went mostly unappreciated by political observers was Tejashwi Yadav’s quick manoeuvre to get Amar within his party’s fold and announce his candidature from Bochahan. 

Even the BJP wanted Amar to follow his father and represent the Bochahan seat but Amar’s possible fear of the Mallah backlash against him at a time when the community leader Mukesh Sahani was shown the stick by the saffron party drove him to the RJD. 

Tejashwi’s maturity in handling the election was reflected not only when he brought Amar Paswan on board but also when he singlehandedly ensured the support of dominant caste group Bhumihars for the RJD. The RJD picked up early that even the “upper” caste Bhumihars, who are in sizeable numbers in Bochahan constituency and have their local interests aligned to Musafir Paswan’s family, may support Amar’s candidature. 

The result is for everyone to see.

By polling over 80,000 votes, Amar Paswan won with a much bigger margin than his father. BJP’s Baby Kumari finished a distant second with a little over 45,000 votes – a drastic fall in NDA’s vote share. VIP, which was contesting alone, got a significant share of Mallah votes. Its candidate Geeta Devi, who is the daughter of veteran leader Ramai Ram, polled nearly 30,000 votes. 

By actively intervening to expand its core support base beyond the confines of Yadavs and Muslims, Tejashwi practically engineered his party’s victory in Bochahan – a weak seat for RJD.  

Tejashwi (centre) with VIP chief Mukesh Sahani (in the green scarf). Photo: Facebook/Mukesh Sahni

At the same time, he sent across a strong political message that Mandal parties still hold power in Bihar’s polity. The result in Bochahan indicated quite clearly that BJP will largely come a cropper without the support of a Nitish Kumar or a Mukesh Sahani, and that its position of the single-largest party in the state assembly would not have been possible without its allies. Given the way the saffron party has trampled upon its smaller allies in recent times, the defeat in Bochahan will come as a reality check for the BJP. 

Also read: Bihar: Decoding the RJD’s Win in Bochahan By-Poll

Nitish Kumar’s recent tiff with the speaker of the assembly, also a BJP leader, was suggestive of an antagonistic relationship between the allies Janata Dal (United) and BJP. Some Patna-based observers believe that the chief minister has had the last laugh with the BJP losing Bochahan. But that may not have been possible without Tejashwi Yadav’s timely intervention. 

Mamata Banerjee

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s ambitions to expand her party nationally may not have kicked off as per her expectations. However, her decisions to field Babul Supriyo in Ballygunge assembly seat and replacing the popular playback singer with another star-turned-politician Shatrughan Sinha in Asansol Lok Sabha constituency exhibit her ability to have her finger on the political pulse.

Ever since she handed a crushing defeat to the BJP in assembly polls, Banerjee has launched a drive to contain the fledgling saffron party in the state. She has engineered defections, got important leaders and legislators to join Trinamool Congress (TMC), as much as she has intensified her ideological attacks on the BJP. 

TMC’s victory in the bypolls was considered a foregone conclusion, given how Banerjee has established herself over her rivals in the 2021 assembly polls. However, Banerjee’s decision to field Supriyo from one of the poshest Kolkata seats, Ballygunge, was a move that killed two birds with one stone. 

TMC candidate Babul Supriyo at the counting centre during Ballygunge Assembly by-polls result day in Kolkata, Saturday, April 16, 2022. Photo: PTI

Immediately after the 2021 assembly polls, Banerjee broke BJP’s back by getting her one time right-hand man, BJP’s Mukul Roy, to rejoin the TMC. Roy is considered to be the brain behind BJP’s astounding expansion in the state in fewer than three years. Roy’s deep knowledge of Bengal politics and familiarity with social networks of the state had come in handy for the saffron party. With Roy rejoining the TMC, the BJP is left with the likes of Dilip Ghosh and Tathagata Roy to steer the saffron boat. 

At the same time, BJP had banked on getting influential persons from various fields on board. It represented film actors, youth leaders, and charismatic personalities to give an attractive shape to the party. Supriyo was one of them, and his popularity had won him Asansol Lok Sabha seat twice. With him showing signs of dissension, Banerjee was quick to rope him in. 

Also read: A First in Asansol and Something to Think About: What’s Behind TMC’s Win in the WB Bypolls

Although many civil society activists were against his candidature from Ballygunge for his alleged role in Asansol riots and frequent zealotry, Banerjee’s decision to field the unpredictable politician in Ballygunge assembly constituency – what many will see as a demotion for the singer – effectively neutralised him politically. 

At the same time, TMC replaced him with a bigger star, Shatrughan Sinha, in Asansol, in what can be seen as a thumping victory signal against BJP’s muscle. Sinha won by a margin of more than 300,000 votes against fashion-designer-turned-politician and a sitting BJP MLA Agnimitra Paul. Sinha polled nearly 57% votes, a 21 percentage point jump in TMC’s vote share compared to 2019 Lok Sabha elections when Supriyo had secured the seat by a margin of a little around 1.97 lakh votes. 

The bypoll wins for TMC are symbolic of its political supremacy in Bengal, much of which can be credited to Banerjee’s investment in out-manoeuvring her rivals. 

A surging BJP has mastered the art of outclassing its rivals nationally. Prashant Kishor’s plan to revamp the Congress rests on scoring better on all the ‘4Ms’ – an abbreviation the election strategist uses for “message, messenger, machinery and mechanics.” Irrespective of whether he eventually joins the Congress or not, his most crucial test will be to build, empower, and hype the messenger. 

Can the new, or even old, leadership in the Congress take up the challenge to upend the working ways of the grand-old party? Can the new president respond with promptness to turn an unfolding political situation in its favour? It’s anybody’s guess for now.