Backed by the Trinamool Congress’ resounding victory in the West Bengal assembly election, chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s first post-poll visit to national capital Delhi this week was not merely a courtesy meet-and-greet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of opposition parties.
The symbolism of her visit amid the buzz of Banerjee looking to play a bigger national role is not lost on anybody.
While Banerjee remained non-committal about her national role, her comments during her visit did give an inkling of her ambitions. In her inimitable style, Banerjee announced taking the battle to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when, in a freewheeling interaction with journalists Wednesday, she said that it will be “Modi versus the rest of India” in 2024 and “if Bengal could do it, so can the rest of India.”
During her four-day visit, the TMC chief met Congress president Sonia Gandhi and other senior Congress leaders, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, and spoke on the phone with Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad Yadav and Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav among others in an outreach to unite opposition parties and bring them on a common platform.
It’s not only her indomitable fighting spirit – as evidenced during the West Bengal assembly election when the TMC took the BJP head-on and managed to reign in the latter’s ambitions in the state – but also her ability to look ahead even when faced with adversity is what makes Mamata Banerjee ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Mamata Banerjee – toughened, wiser
Defeating the BJP in the assembly election was not easy, especially after the latter made massive inroads in West Bengal since the 2019 Lok Sabha election when it won 18 of the 42 parliamentary seats. Not losing her nerve, Banerjee picked up the thread, roped in election strategist Prashant Kishor, learned from her party’s past mistakes and marched forward.
Now, she is again looking ahead – at 2024. And Banerjee will need all ‘like-minded parties’ on this mission to pose any formidable challenge to the BJP.
Banerjee realises that it’s not an easy task to keep individual ambitions in check while trying to forge opposition unity. A similar experiment in the run-up to the 2019 parliamentary election boomeranged because of competing ambitions of opposition leaders belonging to different parties.
Banerjee played it down when reporters asked Wednesday who will be the leader of the opposition alliance. “It depends on the situation. All of us can work together. Anybody can become a leader,” she said, reiterating that the opposition parties should meet and talk after the monsoon session of Parliament.
Wisened by the failed 2019 experience to stitch a coalition because of leadership issues, Banerjee is treading cautiously this time. Asked about her role at the national level, she said she has a “sweet home” in Kolkata and wants to stay there. “I do not want to be a leader but a cadre. I am not a VIP but an LIP (Less Important Person),” Banerjee said.
But she was quick to add that she wants to “bell the cat” and “help all.”
Opposition alliance needs a face
The leadership issue will continue to vex the opposition and can end up making or breaking the opposition unity.
Though officially denied, there were rumours about the need to restructure the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and make a non-Congress leader its chairperson. Currently, Sonia Gandhi holds the position.
Late last year, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar’s name was being floated for the post of UPA chairman, only to be denied. The other name that comes up now and then is that of Banerjee.
The West Bengal CM is also aware that being the single-largest opposition party, the Congress will have to willy-nilly be part of any opposition coalition formulation. But her relationship with the Congress, especially in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, has been anything but smooth.
Showing political maturity, Banerjee, on her visit to Delhi, reached out to Sonia Gandhi and said that the latter also champions opposition unity. Asked about Congress’ role in the opposition coalition, Banerjee told reporters that “Congress trusts the regional parties and regional parties trust Congress.”
While Banerjee maintained that her visit to Delhi was just to meet her ‘friends’ in opposition, besides the PM, as she could not come after winning the Bengal election, Trinamool leaders say, off-the-record, that one of the intended reasons was opposition outreach.
Banerjee herself said she is hopeful that a positive result will come out in the future from all these discussions.
A ‘national role’ is evident
That Banerjee is looking at a larger national role and is on a strong footing is evident from her confident body language and the way she continues to take on the Modi government over different issues.
Soon after meeting the PM Tuesday, Banerjee said that Modi should call an all-party meeting to discuss the Pegasus snooping scandal and also called for a Supreme Court-monitored inquiry.
West Bengal is also the first state to set up an inquiry commission headed by retired SC judge Madan B. Lokur to look into the allegations of phone tapping of politicians, journalists and public figures.
Her party, the TMC, has taken a lead in Parliament, where the monsoon session is on, to protest along with other opposition parties on a host of issues including the Pegasus surveillance.
During the Bengal election, TMC’s campaign line was ‘khela hobe (game is on)’. On Wednesday, Banerjee took it beyond when she asked Modi and the BJP to get ready for 2024. “Khela hobe… poore desh mein khela hobe (the game will be national).”
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)