The TMC-Congress Squabble, Now Out in the Open, Is Likely to Harm Opposition Unity

When Mamata Banerjee had visited the national capital after the TMC's victory in the West Bengal assembly elections, she had categorically denied any prime ministerial ambitions. Three months later, what has changed?

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Kolkata: West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday, October 6, wrote a piece for the Durga Puja edition of Jago Bangla, the Trinamool Congress’s (TMC’s) mouthpiece. In the piece, she listed out her achievements as a railway minister and came down heavily against the Congress party. 

Interestingly, the piece was titled ‘Delhi r Daak’ (Delhi Calling). Targeting the “grand old party”, Banerjee said, “[The] Congress failed in taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the national stage and that’s the reality.” 

Banerjee went on to write, “There is a scary vacuum in Delhi’s political space, when the Union government is implementing anti-people policies and destroying democratic structures of the country. At this juncture, the country wants respite from these impediments. Various states are sending messages. Whole country has witnessed how Trinamool defeated an aggressive BJP. Beyond the boundaries of Bengal, people are calling us. They want Bengal to oust BJP from the Centre and build a new India. That’s why we are saying, we need to respond to people’s call, we will have to fulfil the wishes. We have to take the responsibility of nation building.” 

While addressing a press conference in connection to the Lakhimpur Kheri incident in Delhi, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday said, “All parties were not stopped from visiting Lakhimpur Kheri. Two parties, TMC and Bhim Army, reached there on Tuesday.” 

The TMC retaliated, calling Gandhi a “part-time politician”.

Kunal Ghosh, TMC state general secretary and spokesperson, responded to Gandhi’s statement through two tweets, in which he detailed the TMC’s struggles in getting to Lakhimpur Kheri as well as taking shots at the Congress’s recent political failures, both in UP in the Lok Sabha elections and more recently in Punjab.

Three months ago, TMC supremo Banerjee visited the national capital for the first time since her landslide victory in the West Bengal assembly elections. During the five-day visit, she met top leaders from the opposition parties including interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi and senior leader Rahul Gandhi. 

Mamata Banerjee met senior Congress leaders Rahul and Sonia Gandhi at their residence in Delhi in July. Photo: PTI.

Many political analysts thought she was pitching herself as the prime ministerial candidate for the 2024 parliamentary elections. However, she categorically ruled out any such ambitions.

“I have a sweet home in Kolkata and want to stay there. I do not want to be a leader but a cadre. I am not a VIP but a LIP (Less Important Person). There must be a platform from which we can work together. After the Parliament session, we should sit together and decide the Opposition’s strategy. In politics, there are times when all have to bury their differences and come together for the sake of the country. This is that time,” Banerjee said while interacting with journalists in Delhi. 

So what changed in three months?

Also read: After TMC Sweeps Bhabanipur, Tough Test Awaits Junior Home Minister Nisith Pramanik

On September 6, the TMC’s newly appointed national general secretary and MP, Abhishek Banerjee, was summoned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to Delhi in connection to a money laundering case linked to an alleged coal smuggling scam in Bengal. 

After eight hours of consecutive questioning, Abhishek Banerjee came down heavily against BJP while speaking to the media. The most significant byte which came from this was: “If they [the BJP] think TMC will accept defeat like Congress and other parties, they are wrong. We will fight more vigorously. We’ll go to every state where they’ve murdered democracy.”

Since then, the TMC has constantly upped their attack against the Congress. The latest development came in the form of Mamata’s “scary vacuum” remark made in her Jago Bangla article, quoted above. 

Most recently, Mamata wrote, “In the recent past, Congress failed in dealing with Delhi at the national stage. Two Lok Sabha results are proof. I am not worried about the leadership of the alternative force. But Congress should realise the ground reality. Country witnessed how TMC defeated BJP in West Bengal. This has created history. This is a model. People bestowed their faith on this model. The people of the country are now dreaming of a new India around TMC.”

If according to her, Lok Sabha and assembly election results are the yardsticks of political success, then in 2019, the TMC had also lost a substantial amount of seats to the BJP, bringing their tally down to 22 from 34. 

If assembly elections are taken into account, the Congress defeated the BJP in Punjab, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh; there is no need to clarify what transpired post-election in the last two states. Moreover, the “grand old party” is a part of the ruling coalition in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand. 

Speaking to The Wire, Maidul Islam, professor of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata said, “Mamata writing and speaking publicly against the Congress needs to be understood in a political context. When Mamata went to Delhi to meet political leaders, she was gauging the political mood. Now her party has rolled out a strategy to effectively project her as the face of the opposition. Even in 2019, we have seen a conflict of interest within the regional parties. Mamata, Pawar and other regional parties are trying to drive the opposition front rather than the Congress. Most likely, these leaders are looking for a 1996-like situation where Congress supported the government from outside.” 

“The present Congress is even weaker than the Congress in 1989, 1996 and 2004. So, the regional parties are trying their best to call shots rather than Congress. It is unfortunate to see the opposition this broken just before the crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly election, when farmers are protesting, when anti-incumbency is running high,” Islam continued. 

Also read: With ‘ModiShahSurmardini,’ Mamata Banerjee’s TMC Shows It’s Loathe to Let Go of ‘Didi as Devi’ Trope

A senior leader in Congress said that political strategist Prashant Kishor, when he met the Gandhis in July, discussed strategies to create a unified national alliance against the BJP for the next Lok Sabha elections. The source confirmed that Kishor suggested that the central leadership of Congress party contest elections only on seats where there is a “direct flight between the Congress and the BJP” while leaving the rest to various regional parties in their respective states. 

Kishor earlier clarified to different media outlets that he doesn’t believe in a “third or fourth front” as it won’t work in the current political landscape and will fail in challenging the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

When asked for responses to certain queries, Kishore remarked, “I have no comment to make on speculations and source based stories.” However, in tweet on Friday he said, “People looking for a quick, spontaneous revival of GOP led opposition based on Lakhimpur Kheri incident are setting themselves up for a big disappointment. Unfortunately there are no quick fix solutions to the deep-rooted problems and structural weakness of GOP.” The statement, in a way, suggests that he has probably moved on from the Congress’ scheme of things.

Another political analyst from Bengal, Biswanath Chakraborty said, “Perhaps TMC is trying to take over the Congress. In the near future, important national-level Congress leaders are likely to join the TMC. Prashant Kishor is steering the TMC’s strategy. This type of takeover can go both ways; either it will propel the TMC as a principal challenger of Modi in the 2024 Lok Sabha election or split the Opposition votes and ensure Modi’s third victory.” His statement hinted that Congress will be crucial for any anti-BJP coalition at the national stage.

The TMC has already lured several top Congress leaders. Rahul Gandhi’s close aide, Sushmita Dev, president of the All India Mahila Congress and a former MP from Assam’s Silchar joined the TMC and became a Rajya Sabha member; veteran Congress leader and former chief minister of Goa, Luizinho Faleiro joined the TMC on September 29; Seven Congress leaders from Tripura, including former minister Prakash Chandra Das and former Congress MLA Subal Bhowmik joined the TMC a month ago. 

Also read: ‘In Talks With TMC’, Is Mukul Sangma Next on the List of High-Profile Exits From Congress?

The Wire has learnt that in the coming days, more Congress leaders from other states and some senior but disgruntled party leaders now known as “G-23”, may also join hands with Banerjee.