New Delhi: Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal has chosen a “wait-and-watch” strategy for his old ally, All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee, who is currently on an aggressive induction spree to expand her footmarks beyond West Bengal and visibly emerge as a national leader.
Senior party functionaries said Kejriwal has sent a clear message to leaders asking them not to get into any confrontations with Banerjee or the TMC at this point at any event or forum that is likely to grab attention, even though he is “upset” over TMC stepping into Goa, which is going to assembly polls in a few months.
Senior AAP functionaries further said that the party leadership is still trying to assess Banerjee’s larger gameplan, in terms of trying to emerge as the face of the Opposition set to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2024 general elections.
But as of now, they said, they see no direct conflict other than in Goa — where both the TMC and AAP will be contesting assembly elections in a few months and, so far, there is no word on a possible alliance.
“She (Banerjee) is directly in conflict with the Congress in terms of changing the face of the Opposition. That is visible. That does not make us much anxious though… Things have not come to such a conflicting point with the AAP yet,” said a senior AAP functionary who did not wish to be identified.
Commenting on the issue, senior AAP leader and Kejriwal’s close aide Durgesh Pathak said, “In a democracy, every party has the right to contest elections and expand its footprint. At the end of the day, it is the people who will take call on who they want to see as a leader. People across the country are facing stress in multiple ways under the BJP rule. A lot of ground work is needed to tap those resentments.”
“As a party, we can confidently say that the AAP has sufficient presence and groundwork in each and every state in which we are contesting polls,” he added. “We have our vision; we have our strategies to accomplish that.”
Speaking on the issue, the AAP’s Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh said, “Every political party has the right to expand in a democracy. We will not comment on her (Banerjee’s) expansion plans and strategies.”
Leaders with old ties
Kejriwal and Banerjee share a long camaraderie. In June 2018, when Kejriwal was leading a dharna (sit-in protest) with his ministers outside the Raj Niwas, accusing lieutenant governor (L-G) Anil Baijal of interfering in Delhi’s governance – one of the many episodes in a long-standing power tussle, Banerjee was among the CMs to meet his family to express solidarity in his fight against the BJP-led Union government, which appoints the L-G.
The two have also participated in election rallies of one another and publicly expressed support on numerous occasions, even as they nurtured political ambitions to expand beyond their home grounds.
They have also stood remarkably victorious against the BJP in assembly polls in their respective states: While the TMC won 213 out of 292 seats that went to the West Bengal polls in 2021, the AAP won 62 out of 70 seats in 2020.
“They both nurture plans to expand and become prominent faces in the national political canvas. The possibility of their paths colliding cannot be ruled out,” another senior AAP leader said.
“But she (Banerjee) had no business in Goa. The AAP has been working at grassroots level in Goa for nearly seven years now. We have a base there,” the leader added. “Also, she never discussed any plans to contest the Goa polls with Arvind Kejriwal, over which he is definitely upset. The TMC contesting the Goa polls is not going to help anyone. But yes, they have forced us to chalk out new campaign strategies at a local level.”
The two leaders last met on 28 July, during one of Banerjee’s visits to Delhi. While Kejriwal announced in January that the AAP will be contesting polls in Goa, Banerjee made her plans public in September.
“As far as Mamata Banerjee’s larger ambitions and 2024 elections are concerned, there is time. We are on a wait-and-watch mode because a lot of political calculations are likely to change after the upcoming set of assembly polls,” said the second AAP functionary.
AAP’s political strategy
The strategy makes sense if one observes the patterns in which both parties are trying to expand. While the AAP is primarily focusing on Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, Banerjee has stepped into Tripura, Meghalaya, Bihar and Haryana among other states. Goa, so far, remains the only ground for a potential collision between the two.
The first senior AAP functionary said, “The chief (Kejriwal), however, has a clear message for the party. Leaders have to be diplomatic while talking about Mamata Banerjee and the TMC on any public forum. Criticisms and confrontations are a no-go zone at this point.”
Kejriwal himself set the tone in a recent interview with News18 in which he said: “She (Banerjee) is like my elder sister. I will always respect her even if she contests polls against my party.”
When asked about Banerjee potentially becoming the face of the Opposition that will take on Modi in 2024, the AAP chief said, “Let it be. I am in support of anything that benefits the nation. The names – Modi ji, Mamata ji, Rahul ji and Kejriwal – do not matter. The country comes first.”
This came a few hours after Banerjee’s meeting with Sharad Pawar in Mumbai Wednesday.
Political experts said that both Kejriwal and Banerjee have long-term goals as leaders but any conflict between them seems unlikely at this point.
“Any collision between the two is unlikely at this stage. The next one year is very crucial. One has to watch out for how much of a significant footmark they leave behind in the assembly polls outside their home grounds. While the AAP is capable of performing well in Punjab, Trinamool has decent chances in places with significant presence of Bengali-speakers,” said Rahul Verma, fellow at Centre for Policy Research (CPR).
Praveen Rai, political analyst at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, said: “After such a big win against the BJP, both of them (Kejriwal and Banerjee) were definitely going to expand. Both Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal are leaders with long-term game plans and they are unlikely to get into confrontations at this stage. Even the Goa contest does not seem like a reason big enough to rule out possible alliances in future, especially ahead of 2024.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)