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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.