Rajat Sharma

Can Mamata Banerjee unite the opposition?

akb fullTrinamool Congress supremo and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced in Mumbai on Wednesday that she has initiated efforts to provide a new and strong alternative to the nation. She made it clear that the Congress is unable to counter the BJP on the national level, and regional parties will have to provide a strong national alternative. ‘Only regional parties can defeat the BJP’, she said.

Mamata Banerjee also took a swipe at Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, without naming him, by saying “you can’t be abroad most of the time and challenge” Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After meeting Shiv Sena leaders and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar in Mumbai, Mamata Banerjee gave some indications about the nation’s political future. The most important was her direct attack on Rahul Gandhi.

When a reporter asked whether Sharad Pawar would lead the UPA, Mamata Banerjee, with Pawar standing nearby, replied: “What UPA? There’s no UPA now. We’ll decide on it together. We have to draft a comprehensive strategy to take on BJP. We need united opposition. My meeting with Sharadji was to work out an action plan to defeat BJP. ..I know him. I have worked with him.”

The second important indicator was that Sharad Pawar extended support to Mamata Banerjee’s views. Pawar agreed that a national alternative is needed. After going through Mamata’s and Pawar’s remarks, several political questions arise.

The biggest question is whether Mamata Banerjee will lead the anti-Modi front? Will she seize the stake for the PM’s chair from Rahul Gandhi?

The fact that Mamata met Shiv Sena and NCP leaders in Mumbai, but avoided meeting Congress leaders of the ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’ alliance that is ruling Maharashtra, speaks volumes about the direction she is taking. At the national level too, Trinamool Congress is keeping itself away from the Congress. To cite one example, while opposition parties joined Congress in protesting suspension of 12 Rajya Sabha MPs, Trinamool members staged their protest separately.

It raises the question about whether Mamata Banerjee is going to project TMC as the national alternative? Is she trying to project herself as an alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi? One should carefully go through the remarks made both by Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar after their one-to-one meeting in Mumbai, and read between the lines.

Mamata’s strategy is clear: While the Congress is speaking of an alliance of non-BJP parties against Modi, Mamata is speaking of an alliance of non-Congress parties against the BJP. The question would then arise about who will lead the non-Congress alliance, that is, the Third Front? And when Mamata speaks against the Congress with Pawar standing with her, questions will also arise about the alliance in Maharashtra, where Congress is a partner.

To a pointed question on whether he alternative would exclude the Congress, Mamata Banerjee said: “What Sharadji said is that there should be a strong alternative of those who fight. What do we do if one is not fighting? We feel that everyone should fight on the field.”

Pawar, whose party is an alliance partner of Shiv Sena and Congress in Maharashtra government, realized the importance of this remark. Even before Mamata could finish her sentence, Pawar said: “Our thinking is not for today, but for the 2024 elections and this platform has to be established for it. With that intention, she visited, and we had a very positive discussion….There’s no question of excluding anyone. All those who are against the BJP are welcome to join us. ..The point is to take everyone together. ..The leadership is not an important issue for us. Providing a strong and credible platform to the people is important for us. The question of who will lead it is a secondary matter”.

Pawar may have avoided naming the Congress, but Mamata has already named Congress at her interaction with “civil society” members at a gathering at Yahswantrao Chavan Centre. Taking a dig at Rahul Gandhi, Mamta Banerjee said, “You can’t be abroad most of the time. Continuous endeavour is necessary in politics. If you are going abroad to enjoy, how will people trust you. You can’t fight battles sitting abroad. You have to come out on the streets and fight. Those who spend half of their time abroad cannot fight Modi or defeat Modi…. Only those politicians can take on the BJP who know ground realities..We have done it in West Bengal.….I had suggested to the Congress that there should be an advisory council comprising prominent personalities from civil society to give a direction to the Opposition, but in vain.”

Mamata Banerjee also said, her party will not fight elections in states where the regional parties are strong. “If all the regional parties are together, then it is very easy to defeat the BJP. Regional parties will build up national parties. They alone can defeat the BJP..I don’t want division of votes, but no party is bigger than the nation”, she said.

Most of the civil society members who attended the gathering included those who had been prominently carrying out campaign on TV and social media against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party. These include Javed Akhtar, Medha Patkar, Swara Bhaskar, Shobhaa De, Mahesh Bhatt, Munawar Farooqui and others. Most of them implored Mamata Banerjee to take the reins of leadership of opposition in her hands.

In response, the West Bengal CM said, she was a “small worker” and would like to continue as one. “The choice of PM will be decided by the evolving situation and states… The important issue now is to wipe BJP out of the country politically and save democracy.” Lashing out at the Centre, she alleged that laws like UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) are being misused in the country. “The UAPA is for internal security and protection from external forces. It is being misused like anything. The Income Tax department, CBI, ED are also being misused”, she alleged.

Mamata Banerjee understands that a large number of opposition supporters are waiting for a leader who can give a direct challenge to Modi. These supporters had rested their hopes on Rahul Gandhi in 2014 and 2019 elections, but Rahul-led Congress had to face consecutive electoral defeats. Soon after that, a search for a strong leader in the opposition space began, and Mamata Banerjee is trying her best to fill up that space. This is the reason why she is making direct attacks on Modi nowadays. She told the gathering of “civil society” members that “Modi is not invincible. Modi is also afraid.”

Congress leaders like Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and K. C. Venugopal, considered to be part of the core group of Rahul Gandhi’s advisers, reacted strongly to Mamata Banerjee’s remark about “there’s no UPA”. Venugopal said, “ Everybody knows the reality of Indian politics. Thinking that without the Congress anybody can defeat the BJP is merely a dream”.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said, “Does Mamata Banerjee not know what UPA is? I think she has started madness. She thinks entire India has started chanting ‘Mamata, Mamata’. But India doesn’t mean Bengal and Bengal alone doesn’t mean India. He tactics in the last polls (in Bengal) are slowly getting exposed. The communal game that she played with BJP in Bengal is now clear. “

In conclusion, I feel, whether it is Mamata or Sharad Pawar, both of them know this very well that they cannot defeat Modi at this juncture alone. All the opposition parties will have to come together.

Secondly, both of them know that Rahul Gandhi cannot give a strong fight to Modi, nor can Congress become the sole alternative to BJP. But Congress is convinced that there cannot be a strong alternative without it. The opposition cannot be strong by excluding the Congress. Rahul Gandhi believes that he is the only leader who can forcefully challenge the BJP. He is on record of having said that other leaders fear Narendra Modi. But Mamata Banerjee is a politician who understands ground realities better. She decimated the BJP in the last assembly elections. She also has a long record of carrying out political struggle during the Left rule in Bengal.

Mamata now feels that a strong alternative cannot be forged by taking the Congress along. That is why she has decided to lead the alternative herself. Mamata’s view is that if regional parties combine, like TMC in Bengal, RJD in Bihar, Samajwadi Party in UP, NCP-Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, DMK in Tamil Nadu and other strong regional parties in their respective states, then a powerful national alternative can emerge and can challenge the BJP. That is why Mamata Banerjee said, “There is no UPA now” and that Rahul is not serious about politics.

Well, it was Sharad Pawar who made the same remark about Rahul Gandhi years ago, when his party was not in alliance with Congress in Maharashtra. Now that the SS-NCP-Congress alliance government is in place, Pawar remained silent, when Mamata made her remark. He only supported Mamata, but did not take swipe at the Congress. Mamata’s viewpoint may be right, but to bring all regional opposition parties on a single platform is a Herculean task.

All regional leaders have their own aspirations and needs. To bring them into a single alliance is a difficult task. But, looking at the prevailing political situation, it is none other than Mamata who can do this job. Till now, it was BJP which was saying ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, but Mamata has now said ‘Congress-mukt Vipakash (opposition)”. Whatever she did in Mumbai can be taken as a beginning.

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