There was an interesting aside to the show of opposition unity when Congress president Sonia Gandhi held a virtual meeting with leaders of 19 opposition parties on 20 August. She had entrusted the task of coordination with opposition leaders to Rahul Gandhi’s confidante and party general secretary K.C. Venugopal. The Kerala leader delegated the task to a social media handler.
Many opposition leaders weren’t amused; they used to get calls for such meetings from Ahmed Patel, the Congress president’s former political secretary, who passed away last November.
Anyway, when they got the agenda of the meeting from the Congress president’s office, the order of speakers on the list read — Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Mallikarjun Kharge, Sitaram Yechury…. wait, what! Many leaders had strong objections. Why are the chief ministers down the order? How could Mamata Banerjee speak after the CPI(M) leader? Yechury is considered Rahul Gandhi’s friend, philosopher and guide, but other opposition leaders wouldn’t see it that way, obviously. Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray was also upset about the way the meeting was being coordinated.
As the Trinamool Congress raised an alarm, Sonia Gandhi herself intervened. The order of speakers was changed to Sonia Gandhi, Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, MK Stalin, Uddhav Thackeray and others. The West Bengal CM, however, didn’t mince words when she spoke in the meeting. She questioned why a draft statement had to be prepared even before the meeting (many opposition leaders were under the impression that Yechury had a role in it). She also questioned why Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal wasn’t invited. (This account is based on inputs from multiple sources although a senior Trinamool Congress leader maintained to this author Sunday evening that there was no problem whatsoever. He, nevertheless, confirmed that no draft statement would be prepared ahead of the meeting in future and a core group was to be formed for coordination among opposition parties.)
Eight days after Sonia Gandhi’s virtual meeting, on Saturday, Mamata Banerjee mooted the idea of a meeting of non-BJP CMs, accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre of harassing them. She mentioned the names of her Delhi and Maharashtra counterparts in this context. It will be interesting to see who all attend this meeting whenever it takes place. Will Congress CMs attend a meeting presided over by Banerjee? Well, if Sonia Gandhi can hold a meeting of opposition leaders, so can Mamata Banerjee, albeit in a slightly modified format. Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leader Om Prakash Chautala is already working on forming a non-BJP, non-Congress front.
This isn’t about highlighting divisions in the opposition camp. Competing and conflicting interests of the advocates of such fronts are too familiar to require elaboration.
Mamata and Sonia, friends with conflicting interests
What is interesting in this political soap opera is the battle of wits between Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee – one trying to retain leadership of the incipient opposition front to secure her son’s future and the other attempting to form and lead a big pressure group in that front to keep all possibilities open for 2024.
The two powerful women of Indian politics are known to enjoy a great rapport, thanks to Banerjee’s abiding respect for late Rajiv Gandhi.
But that hasn’t prevented the two from pursuing their individual interests, which aren’t exactly mutual. Sonia Gandhi must be a very magnanimous politician if she willingly lets Mamata Banerjee finish the Congress in the northeast, a project vigorously pursued by the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Think of Banerjee attending Gandhi’s virtual meeting, four days after giving a jolt to the Congress in Assam by inducting Mahila Congress chief and former parliamentarian Sushmita Deb in the TMC.
The Congress’ interim president must be gifted with saint-like equanimity to welcome Banerjee to the virtual meeting to discuss their joint fight against the BJP. More so because Banerjee is also negotiating with former Tripura Congress chief, Pradyot Debbarma, to merge his party, TIPRA, with the TMC or form an alliance, leaving the Congress out in the cold. In both Assam and Tripura, the TMC is looking to gain at the cost of the Congress. It’s only a matter of time when Mamata Banerjee makes forays into other north-eastern states to first dislodge the Congress from the principal opposition party’s space before challenging the ruling parties.
Kishor manages conflicting interests of Mamata and the Gandhis
The irony is that the person helping Banerjee in her ‘Congress-mukt’ northeast project is poll strategist Prashant Kishor, a friend of Rahul Gandhi who is reportedly negotiating his entry into the Congress.
Kishor met the Gandhis recently and reportedly handed over a blueprint to strengthen the Congress organisation. The poll strategist, who declared his retirement from poll management last May, has been keeping busy – ensuring Sushmita Deb’s defection from the Congress to the Trinamool Congress; negotiating with Mamata Banerjee’s potential allies such as Akhil Gogoi in Assam and Pradyot in Tripura; deploying an I-PAC team to Tripura to help the TMC replace the Congress and the Left Front as the BJP’s principal challenger; and meeting the Gandhis in Delhi to advise them on the Congress’ revival. It goes to the poll strategist’s credit to manage mutually conflicting interests of the Gandhis and Mamata Banerjee.
By 2024, if Banerjee’s expansion plan in the northeast succeeds and the Congress doesn’t improve significantly in other states, she may hope to emerge as a counterweight of the Gandhis in the event of any opposition coalition coming to power at the Centre. The Congress may still be numerically superior, presumably, but there will be a host of anti-Congress regional players who would provide Banerjee the required heft to outdo the Gandhis.
And don’t forget the fact that many of these players have IOUs with Kishor who assisted them in their poll campaigns — from Nitish Kumar in Bihar to Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi. As it is, the poll strategist is decidedly with the West Bengal CM.
Having presided over the Congress’ defeat in Kerala, Rahul Gandhi has gone about his friendship with Sitaram Yechury. Will Sonia Gandhi similarly nurture her friendship with Mamata Banerjee even as the latter goes on demolishing the Congress in the northeast? The answer may be affirmative, going by how the Gandhis are still looking up to Prashant Kishor to help both the Trinamool Congress and the Congress. But Banerjee’s aggressive posturing to project herself- and not Rahul Gandhi, obviously– as the bulwark against the BJP in 2024, is sure to test her friendship with Sonia Gandhi.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)