It is not entirely incidental that she has taken possession of the empty slot of Opposition leader
Power, even in a tangibly wilting democracy, or any other system of governance for that matter, cannot be permanently monopolised by any political party. In India, with its multitude of parties, the Opposition looked more and more puny and dispensable compared with the ruling BJP’s massive organisation and machinery that inspired awe to the point of stupefication. And then there was the West Bengal Assembly elections and Mamata Banerjee.
The BJP’s campaign pitch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi versus Didi, a faceoff between Mr Modi’s charismatic appeal and Mamata Banerjee’s mystique, has served as a springboard for the re-entry of the firebrand “agnikanya” into the national political arena. It is not entirely incidental that she has taken possession of the empty slot of Opposition leader; greatness, of a kind, has not been thrust on her. Ms Banerjee’s declared mission in 2021 was to use the West Bengal election to launch “Mission 2024” to defeat the BJP nationwide by forging a coalition and sanitise democracy in India of the dangerously divisive Hindutva stream of politics.
In the new reality, the BJP and the Prime Minister are finding out that national attention can be distracted away from Mr Modi and that Ms Banerjee is the other leader, an antidote. Hailed as “Mamata Amma” in Tamil Nadu, which is significant, with crowds listening to her July 21 speech on Martyrs Day in Uttar Pradesh, a person to counter Mr Modi is a huge change in India’s current politics.
“Khela Hobe”, or the game is on, is an idea that has found traction. In West Bengal, it worked. While the game to overthrow the BJP and eject Prime Minister Modi from office is deadly serious, the underlying cheekiness of the slogan makes the formidable challenge of fighting the BJP into a doable venture. That the slogan has captured the Indian imagination is true. It has been repeated in the unlikeliest of places. Its association with Mamata Banerjee puts her in the spotlight.
Even though she herself has made it clear that her role is to “facilitate” the Opposition to unify and work together, Mamata Banerjee is equally emphatic that there are many other leaders available, and she is not pitching for the job of leading the Opposition, just yet. Wisely, she has limited her role to building the Opposition.
Conscious that the effort required will be huge, Mamata Banerjee is insistent that time is running out to start this endeavour: “To defeat the BJP, it is important for all of us (Opposition parties) to join hands. We will have to come together.” An older and more mature Mamata Banerjee has prioritised the building of a popular, multi-party resistance to the BJP on the one hand, and against Mr Modi, on the other.
By separating the BJP from Mr Modi and setting a target of eroding the BJP’s strength state by state, Ms Banerjee and the Opposition seems to have worked out a strategy that could be effective, if not successful.
A series of actions by the BJP and the Modi government indicates that the strategy may be working. The BJP has realised that it would be held to account by voters for its acts of omission and commission in governance. After West Bengal, simmering discontent within the BJP, especially in Uttar Pradesh that goes to the polls in early 2022, became public. By the end of May, open rebellion broke out in Uttar Pradesh with legislators openly accusing the Yogi Adityanath government of mismanaging the Covid-19 surge and governance in general. The CM, however, successfully resisted efforts to foist a Narendra Modi loyalist, A.K. Sharma, on him. Uttarakhand acquired its third chief minister this year, after Tirath Singh Rawat was jettisoned and Prakash Singh Dhami was sworn in. Karnataka acquired a new chief minister, Basavaraj Bommai, as the state is the BJP’s southern outpost and is crucial for its plans to return to power in New Delhi in 2024.
The TMC has riled Mr Modi to the point where it dominated his speech at last week’s BJP parliamentary party meeting. He specifically referred to Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien’s description of the rushed voting on over a dozen bills to making papri chaat. There have been other changes too, such as the decision to extend the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Rozgar Yojana and a new interest in employment data to fine-tune the Narendra Modi government’s response to the trend.
The antidote effect is visible in the offensive of the Opposition parties in the Lok Sabha, albeit spearheaded by the TMC, against the mighty BJP. The spectacle of the ruling party, defensive and shorn of its capacity to overwhelm the weaker Opposition, including Mr Modi’s miserable counter that the disruption of proceedings in Parliament was an insult to democracy, is undoubtedly the new energy that has been infused into a shaky and easily distracted Opposition.
The difference between past coalition start-ups, including the Federal Front sponsored by Mamata Banerjee in 2019 that fizzled out as soon as it was launched, and now are the many ways in which anti-incumbency plays out in electoral politics. The process of the anti-BJP parties coming together has begun in 2021, with a sponsor, who is no longer just another regional leader.
Two meetings in New Delhi of the Opposition leaders initiated by the Trinamul Congress and a third round of meetings, many of them one-on-one between Mamata Banerjee and Sonia Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Akhilesh Yadav, Anand Sharma and Kamal Nath, were designed to make a splash and turn the initiatives into difficult to dismiss events.
Would Mamata Banerjee’s plan to take on the BJP in Tripura jeopardise her credibility as the unified Opposition’s mainstay? Not really. The election in tiny Tripura, with its complex political dynamics, is not due till 2023. The big elections, the elimination rounds as it were, are due in 2022: Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Punjab, Manipur, Goa, Himachal Pradesh and the new Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. In many ways it will be a test of the idea of a unified Opposition that can challenge the BJP in “Khela Hobe” mode, by knocking out the reigning champion by making it more vulnerable by 2024.
No matter how much Ms Banerjee’s stature and popularity have changed after May this year, her party is not a contender in the 2022 elimination rounds. The Modi versus Didi game has resonated with people across India. She and the rest of the Opposition need to check if it can work on a larger scale.