It’s been aptly said “politics is a spectator sport”, and for Indians it comes second only to cricket, with the heightened voyeurism both spectacles afford. The recent no-confidence motion in Lok Sabha had the nation riveted with the theatrics on display inside parliament, the high point being a hug and a wink.
But don’t expect such moments of comic relief should shape 2019 into a combat of Modi versus Mamata as principal opponent, as the provincial chieftain readies to kickstart the ‘BJP Hatao’ campaign from August 15th. Because that contest could turn into one of the most fierce, no-holds-barred pu-gilistic combat between a heavyweight local satrap and the strongest national leader of 21st century India.
Post the NDA’s win by 325 of the 451 lawmakers giving it a two-third majority in excess of its original strength, the big presumptive take away from the Jan ki Baat Opinion Poll, as also from experienced political commentators, seems to be that Rahul got a thumbs-down on perceptions of performance after the trust-vote.
A Federal Front with Mamata as the leader of the Opposition alliance now seems to be gaining ground over a UPA-like formation with Rahul as it’s leader. Because outside of the CWC endorsing Rahul as the PM candidate, major regional parties like RJD, TMC, SP or BSP who expect to do well in their respective states are unlikely to settle for working under Rahul.
Now, a Modi vs Rahul presidential style election is a relative cakewalk for the BJP, because the PM in campaign mode knows too well when to precession-strike his sales pitches against the Congress, whether it is on dynastic privileges, 60 years of misgovernance, the ‘Shehz-ada’ jibes, or legacy issues inherited from the previous regime. But a Mamata vs Modi combat may be far more unpredictable and formidable for multiple reasons. Because ‘Didi’ would position herself as the ‘outsider’ to the ‘Delhi Darbaar’, a ‘crusader’ for communal equality, plus play the ‘victim’ card for states like Bengal not receiving adequate central funding. In Mamata’s ‘Dilli Chalo’ mission to capture the centre, she stands where Modi stood in 2013 in the run up to 2014’s general elections, holding the same aces he held as CM: of being the outsider, of challenger, of victim, and of hailing from humble origins. Should she succeed in winning most of the 42 LS seats in West Bengal, and in the event of a fractured verdict, it places her in pole position within the Federal Front to assert her claim for the top job.
Mamata is thus far the best placed to pivot an anti-Modi front in comparison to Rahul, or even a Mayawati, with the latter having no presence in the 16th Lok Sabha. Because she is not a dynast like Rahul, Akhilesh or Tejashwi Yadav, which are Modi’s favourite punching points. Nor did she inherit her political legacy from a godfather mentor, as did the late Jayalalitha or Mayawati. So, much of BJP’s rhetoric on dynasty-bashing will have to be tweaked. Secondly, her vitriol has the propensity to overpower Modi and Shah’s diatribe, as her street-style rebuttals are fast and furious. It, therefore, neccisitates more of the Smriti Irani or Sushma Swaraj kind of orators for a woman-to-woman face-off in campaign speeches, lest Mamata’s histrionics dominates and allows her to play the she-victim card of misogyny against Modi and Shah. Thirdly, Mamata, like Modi, is a serious grassroot leader, albeit a local one, and like him a 24x7 politician, unlike Rahul.
But that’s about it, for her being better placed as a challenger to Modi. Mamata’s lack of Hindi speaking skills will be a big deterrent in her political outreach towards the BJP’s stronghold of states in the Hindi heartland. Secondly, her Bengal model of misgovernance is rampant with instances of increasing vandalism, extortion and crime that revolve around TMC’s alleged “syndicate raj”, and the lack of ‘Paribortan’, having failed to attract any big-ticket investments, making West Bengal languish amongst the five most debt-ridden states in the country. When a CM allocates in the 2017-18 budget Rs 2,815 Crore for Madrasa education as against Rs 2,150 Crore for industry, it reflects communal prioritisation takes precedence over economic progress. India just cannot afford such a regressive economic model replicated at national level should such state satraps gain ascendence at the centre.
Besides, Mamata’s over-secular credentials in blatantly favouring Muslims who constitute 30 per cent of West Bengal’s population, cannot strike a national resonance in times of majoritarianism in a country which is 78 percent Hindu dominated. Just yesterday one heard her rabid oratory in Bengali reclaiming her Hindu identity: “Amar Hindutva ki mani Maa Durga, Maa Kali, Jai Mata Di”. Mamata would never course-correct her stance on Hindus for national electoral gains, as she risks alienating her core constituency in her home state. Nationally, the majority community will never accept a CM who displayed blatant appeasement by banning Durga Puja immersions to facilitate Muharram processions, till the Calcutta HC intervened to reverse the diktat.
For now, as Mamata is unlikely to cede political centre-space to Rahul, she has a dual fight on her hands to firstly gain supremacy within the Front, and thereafter, a bigger fight to take on Modi nationally. The next few months would unravel whether a Federal Front in the offing coalesces or self- destructs under the weight of its own contradictions. But the voter is posed with a big dilemma in the event of a hung-parliament, gauging from the motley line up of potential PM contenders: an inexperienced Rahul Gandhi? A Mayawati, better known for aggrandising personal wealth and building self-statues? Or Mamata?
The writer is an author and a columnist