File photo of West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee during TMC mega rally in Kolkata | PTI
File photo of West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee | PTI
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A seven-time MP, Mamata Banerjee has been a three-time Union cabinet minister and is in her second term as CM.

The successful conclusion of the mega unity rally at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground, where most major and minor opposition party leaders were present, left one crucial question unanswered: Who will be their prime ministerial candidate in the forthcoming election against the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?

Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee who organised the rally, said that the leaders would collectively choose the PM candidate following the results.

By taking this stance in front of Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, who attended the rally as a special emissary of his party leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Mamata and other opposition party leaders made it clear that any claim to the Prime Minister’s chair would not go uncontested, especially in case of a hung Parliament.

What is more, Mamata—the force behind the rally—may have succeeded in positioning herself as a strong contender who can unite leaders of diverse ideologies.

National aspirations

For the last few years, Mamata has strived hard to form a united ‘federal’ front but could not succeed as her acceptability among other regional party leaders was suspect. With the success of Brigade rally, she seems to have overcome that hurdle, with almost all leaders unanimously giving credit to Mamata for taking the initiative to bring opposition parties together.

In the coming days, Andhra Pradesh CM and Telugu Desam Party chief Chandrababu Naidu is set to organise a similar rally in Amaravati, which would be followed by another helmed by Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi.

Her ambition to play a definitive role in national politics has grown steadily over the years since she did not face any serious political challenge in her home state post-2011, when she successfully ended the Left’s 34-year run in West Bengal.

The CPM-led Left, once a mighty force in the state, has been losing mass support. It is in a state of disarray, which reflects the party’s inability to man polling booths during election time.

CM Mamata Banerjee serves food to opposition party leaders after Trinamool Congress mega rally in Kolkata | PTI

Also read: 3 things BJP must do to wrest power from Mamata Banerjee in Bengal


The TMC wave

Both the Congress and the CPM have been losing influence over their traditional vote base in rural Bengal. The BJP, which was once a marginal player in the state, has gathered considerable strength and is trying to emerge as the main opposition party.

Yet, its electoral performance in the last few years has not been impressive. In the 2018 Panchayat elections, all the opposition parties were further marginalised as the ruling TMC recorded a huge victory.

In the three-tier Panchayat, the TMC won 95 per cent Zilla Parishad, 90 per cent Panchayat Samiti and 70 per cent Gram Panchayat seats. The BJP emerged a poor second in the region.

In the assembly, the TMC has absolute majority and faces no threat from any of the opposition parties.

After her party’s resounding victory in 2016 assembly election, Mamata had said that she would now focus more on national politics.


Also read: As investment vanishes in West Bengal, political workers resort to violence for spoils


Didi’s bid for PM

Her ambition was fuelled by the fact that with the ruling BJP pursuing an aggressive policy to encourage intolerance and bulldoze regional aspirations, most parties felt the need to come together to resist the Modi juggernaut.

She began advocating a ‘Federal Front’ of regional parties to put pressure on the Centre, especially on fiscal and political issues.

Meanwhile, another development was witnessed close to home in Bengal. She started grooming Abhishek Banerjee, her nephew, to become the second-in-command of TMC. Abhishek, MP from Diamond Harbour, and head of TMC’s youth brigade, is growing in stature within the party.

This became evident Saturday, as major roads leading to the Brigade Rally from the Kolkata Airport were adorned with massive cut-outs of only two TMC leaders: Mamata and Abhishek, leaving no one doubt as to who would be her political heir.

However, Mamata’s ambitions have been met with mixed reactions at home.

Some believe that just as Pranab Mukherjee became the President, it would be good if Mamata becomes the Prime Minister. In 1996, West Bengal lost that chance when Jyoti Basu was denied that opportunity by his own party. Both the CPM and the West Bengal Congress leaders have remained sceptical about Mamata.

In fact, the Left often compares Mamata’s rule with Modi’s, citing intolerance.

Mamata Banerjee’s mega rally in Kolkata | Praveen Jain/ThePrint

Also read: In photos: Opposition leaders at Brigade rally in Mamata Banerjee’s Kolkata


Is Mamata intolerant?

While she has continued to attack PM Modi over his government and party’s intolerance, her government and party face similar allegations.

The arrest of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra over a cartoon critical of Mamata is but one such instance.

The West Bengal CM famously ordered the arrest of a small farmer who had the cheek to question her about the spiralling price of fertilisers.

There are innumerable reports of citizens being attacked for their allegiance to opposition parties in Mamata’s state.

Yet, her austere ways and her ostensibly simple attire evoke a wave of sympathy in ordinary citizens. Her pro-poor image of the resilient fighter has meant she has a growing vote bank.


Also read: Why Mamata Banerjee’s rally in Kolkata is set to be a show of opposition disunity


Political liaison for leadership

Born into a poor family, Mamata has surpassed the elite-led Bengal politicians to rise to the top. Her aspirations grew after she successfully ended the 34-year rule of the Left Front in the state. Mamata, like her trusted lieutenants in the TMC—including Cabinet ministers Firhad (Bobby) Hakim and Jyotipriyo Mullick, and Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien—has pointed out that her eligibility is unquestionable.

A seven-time MP, Mamata has been a three-time union cabinet minister – holding a key portfolio like Railways – and is in her second term as CM. NCP leader Sharad Pawar is the only other leader to boast of such an impressive CV.


Also read: Mamata Banerjee has best chance to become first bengali PM, says BJP’s Dilip Ghosh


What comes in her way

If Mamata must realise her aspirations, 2019 polls should result in a hung Parliament. This would be tailored to suit a regional player like her but would be made possible only if the Congress does not get more than 120-125 seats.

Incidentally, with Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav sealing a seat-sharing pact and contesting 38 seats each, Mamata’s TMC may become the third-largest parliamentary party after the BJP and the Congress. That is, if the TMC wins 40 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, a distant but not an unrealistic scenario.

If she accomplishes this task, Mamata will need opposition leaders to support her. Given the remarks of a few leaders at the unity rally, the West Bengal CM has begun gathering support.

Yet, Mamata could face serious resistance from other aspirants and she knows it. She has been cultivating a political camaraderie with leaders like Chandrababu Naidu, Arvind Kejriwal, Farooq and Omar Abdullah, and Badruddin Ajmal of Assam’s UDF.

Knowing that a nod from Pawar will be crucial for strengthening her position in the future, she has briefed veteran parliamentarian Saugata Roy to maintain ties with the NCP chief; both the leaders have been close since their Congress (U) days.

In keeping with Mamata’s plans to liaise and preserve successful ties, top leaders Saturday were received at the Kolkata airport by TMC members they could closely associate with. While Pawar was received by Saugata Roy and escorted by him to the rally, Shatrughan Sinha was received by MP Satabdi Roy (both are actors) and Akhilesh and Tejashwi Yadav were received by Arjun Singh – who is the TMC MLA from the Barrackpore industrial belt and has ancestral roots in Bihar.

Mamata’s astute political manoeuvring and her credentials as a seasoned administrator make her a serious challenger for the top job.

It is too early to decide if Mamata can convince the opposition for a decisive, united fight against the BJP. Till then, Mamata can pursue her dream with gusto.

The author is a journalist and political analyst.

Check out My543, our comprehensive report card of all Lok Sabha MPs.


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3 COMMENTS

  1. 1. It is understandable that Mamata Bannerjee wishes to be Prime Minister of India. However, there are many claimants like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Pawar, N Chandra Babu Naidu, H D Deve Gouda, K C Rao, and of course Rahul Gandhi. Let us see how many Lok Sabha seats the regional parties win. 2. My query on subject of regional parties’ participation in formation of government in the Centre is this: What should be role of regional parties in such formation? Are these parties’ leaders capable and fit to govern a vast country like ours? How many of them have they got a national vision, a pan India image and a broad outlook to deal with all national issues? We must debate these issues seriously. 3. Since we have adopted First Past the Post (FPTP) system, a candidate securing as low as 30-35 % of total votes can be declared a winner. This has happened in Lok Sabha election in 2014 and in every earlier election. But because of FPTP many distortions are being noticed and it is time we deal with them in a professional manner. 4. There is massive use of unaccounted money in elections, but political parties, particularly regional parties, are unwilling to curb use of black money. I think the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of India should be empowered to conduct audit of accounts of political parties.

  2. Ok let her become PM. When the only hope for free market, Modi, has failed miserably, let the ultra communist mamata become PM. Left right or centre, Socialism is all that they do.

  3. If it is a dream, it is a legitimate one. If Shri Sharad Pawar with four MPs, not in power in his own state, can nurse such an ambition, no reason why Ms Mamata Banerjee should not. It will depend on the numbers, Congress above 120, ideally 140, would not concede the top job and that appears to be a likely outcome. A better, cleaner image in public life than Ms Mayawati. In office, not the over the top populist some believe her to be. She has managed Bengal’s finances prudently. In a democracy of our size, there should be at least a dozen credible candidates for the PM’s post. The job should not be reserved for one or two individuals.

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