The road to the capital of the nation begins from the capitals of states. Over the past week, the 63-year-old diminutive but fiery chief minister of West Bengal walked tall on the political highway from Kolkata to Delhi in search of a national prototype, which both the Gandhis and some regional rajas have filled on occasion. Didi is not talking Ma, Mati and Manush in town. Instead, she has chosen a pan-India narrative to display her political vocabulary. On a three-day visit to the capital that reeked of personal promotion, she met leaders from all political parties, including a selected few from the BJP and sections of Delhi society. Born in an impecunious Bengali family and living in a roadside semi-pukka Kolkata home, Mamata is on the prowl to grab the palatial 7, Race Course Road PM’s bungalow.
Like Narendra Modi, Mamata, too, comes from a modest background. She has struggled by herself to reach where she is. She built her party from scratch. With just two Lok Sabha members in the Lok Sabha in 2004, Trinamool Congress won 34 out of 42 seats in 2014. TMC also swept almost two-thirds of the Assembly seats. The credit for pummelling the cadre-based CPM to the dust goes to Mamata. In ruthlessness she is second to none. Like some Old Testament avenging angel, she retaliates with an eye for an eye against all threats to her cadre and herself.
Like Modi, Mamata’s personal past is her strongest asset—if he can move from a chief minister’s office directly to South Block, why can’t she; a party chief, CM and once a Union Minister? She, too, is single and has endeared herself to the lower and middle classes with her frugal habits and dominating persona. However, unlike Modi she doesn’t have a Gujarat model of development to offer the national constituency. She is neither a darling of the classes nor the markets.
Though she has been courting corporates with investment meets, all of them, including other opinion makers, haven’t expressed any confidence in her skills to manage a vast, socially, culturally and politically unwieldy giant like India. Yet a new prime ministerial prototype is taking shape, like in the initial Nehru-Gandhi years, and the initial years of Modi, which traced the personal outlines of national power. Mamata hasn’t declared herself an alternative to the charismatic Modi. Her party has. The TMC leaders and Mamata’s promoters do not see her as a damsel in distress. Instead, she is perceived as Durga’s political avatar, ever ready to vanquish evil in the system.
They believe a hung Parliament awaits in 2019, with the BJP getting fewer than 175 seats and TMC as the third largest party, like it is today, with at least 35 MPs. So far, Mamata has taken on the BJP from the blue citadel of Kolkata. Now she has taken the battle to New Delhi. She has escalated her aggression against the BJP since November 2016, when Modi announced demonetization. The next level is her railing against the exclusion of 40 lakh voters from the National Register of Citizens in Assam. Since the Congress stand on NRC has been foggy, Mamata has converted immigrant rights into a majority vs minority battle. Consistency not being a political virtue, she had quit the Lok Sabha in 2005 when her demand to deport illegal Bangladeshis in Bengal went unheard. A former NDA ally, she had rejoined the constellation after resigning from the Vajpayee Cabinet in 2001.
True to the prototype-in-progress template, Mamata’s tone and tenor is more national than regional. To acquire the umbrella space vacated by the Congress, all she rants against is “neglect of India’s marginalized.” Last week in Delhi, this newfound awareness resonated in her roar, “I am a Christian, that’s why I will be isolated. I am a Muslim. I am Tribal. I am a Dalit, that’s why I will be isolated. If this continues, don’t you think it will end in civil war?”
With a single, bold stroke, Mamata invoked the social philosophy of the Congress—the party that created her four decades ago. It is floundering: true to type, it has moved from one Gandhi to another while abandoning its inclusive economic, religious and social vision. It is limping towards soft Hindutva. Rahul is nationally known, but not nationally accepted yet. Hence, Mamata has donned the mantle of secular icon, seeking acceptability from her peers. She has learned her lesson from previous regional leaders and chief ministers whose thirst to become PM was thwarted by the unpredictable swings of the political calculus. Only Deve Gowda had the dubious fortune after VP Singh and Jyoti Basu rejected a combined United Front offer. Later, Chandrababu made some feeble bids to take Delhi unsuccessfully.
Mamata believes a non-elitist ethos is driving India—the optics to bring the Opposition leaders under the TMC umbrella, if not at least its shade. She met Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. She had a long meeting with Sharad Pawar. AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal is in her pocket. She has Akhilesh Yadav and Omar Abdullah on speed dial, though Naidu and Chandrashekar Rao are not in the bag yet. Mamata’s optimism is based purely on political arithmetic.
Her research team has concluded that Vajpayee lost in 2004 because the BJP failed to form an alliance with winning regional parties like the TRS and DMK while losing some others. In 2014, Modi won over 230 seats from the north and west. But it is unlikely to make any dent in the 130 southern constituencies after the TDP divorce next year. The AIADMK is losing glamour after Jayalalithaa ‘s passing. Mamata’s immediate agenda appears to be forcing a direct national fight with the BJP and its allies. She is promoting regional confederations instead of a national alliance; even including communists in her anti-BJP agenda. In the past few years, many unimaginable political marriages occurred all across India—BSP-SP in Uttar Pradesh, JD(U)-RJD in Bihar, and Congress-JD(S) in Karnataka.
Congress’ proximity is growing with TDP and even Shiv Sena. Mamata is reinventing herself as the anchor for all non-BJP parties to collectively face the saffron party. She has called their leaders to Kolkata for a grand rally on January 19, 2019. By then the Assembly elections in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh would be over and the direction of the wind would be sanguine.
It is evident that TMC is all set to convert next year’s poll battle into a face-off between Modi and Mamata. Maya doesn’t have the numbers. Moreover, the Bengali Durga wishes to avenge Bengal, against which the fickle fates conspired to snatch the prime minister’s chair from both Pranab Mukherjee and Jyoti Basu. It seems singles will decide the innings in 2019—Modi, Mamata, Maya and Rahul. Ideology is dead. Long live the loner.