Winners are predators. From Congress to BJP, national parties draw disgruntled leaders and minnows with big dreams into their net after every election. The search for an individual or a coalition to pick up the saffron gauntlet is on after Mamata Banerjee’s high-stakes Bengal win and the Congress’ sterling performance in the recent by-elections.
Akhilesh Yadav is increasing the footprint of his Samajwadi Party by taking over smaller caste- and community-based parties. Didi leads the predatory pack, unleashing a high voltage campaign to snaffle local leaders, academics, entertainers to widen her geographical and cultural dominion of acceptability. TMC is on the prowl from Meghalaya to Maharashtra looking for easy prey. Her objective: convert herself from a regional leader to a pan-Indian political personality. For the second time, a regional outfit is making a serious bid to become a third national party after the BJP and the Congress. A decade ago, another female chief minister Mayawati made a futile attempt by getting BSP to contest elections in numerous states, including in the South. It was a super flop.
To pun on a trademark Bengali obsession, Mamata is a different kettle of fish. Her promoters feel that she is no self-caged Mayawati who rarely steps out of her palatial residences in Delhi or Lucknow. Didi has all the requisite qualities of a national leader. With over two decades of administrative experience and a three-time public mandate, she feels the time has come to spread wings beyond Bengal’s skies. Mamata is a street fighter and has established herself as the only real warrior taking on the BJP and its super-powerful, popular leader Narendra Modi. She has borrowed from her own playbook by corralling celebrities or personalities with national recall. And, she is wooing lost causes in the Congress, which she had herself chucked to form TMC in 1998.
She began her national recruitment drive just before the last Assembly elections by inducting former Union Minister and articulate leader Yashwant Sinha as the party vice-president. A persistent Modi-baiter, Sinha praised Mamata for her lone wolf courage. “Mamata has always been a fighter and she is still a fighter. When the Indian Airlines flight was hijacked and terrorists took it to Kandahar, she offered to become a hostage. She was ready to sacrifice her life in return for the lives of the hostages in the plane,” he said. Later, many BJP middle- and lower-level leaders including newly elected MLAs returned to TMC. But Mamata’s primary target appears to be the Congress.
Last week, former Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma along with 11 of 17 Congress MLAs formally merged with the TMC, saying that the party is the most viable pan-India option to look after Meghalaya, the Northeast, and the rest of India. This sassy switcheroo was the second big operation after Sushmita Dev, a powerful young Congress leader from Assam, joined TMC. Then former Goa chief minister and veteran Congress leader Luizinho Faleiro left Congress for the TMC and was rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat. Faleiro’s statement reflected the real designs behind Didi’s expansionist strategy — “I worked to safeguard the ideology and principles of Congress for 40 years. Congress is now fragmented between Sharad Pawar’s Congress, Trinamool Congress and YSR Congress. We have to once again consolidate the Congress family so that together we can defeat the BJP. . My dream is to bring the Congress family together because wherever there is unity, there is strength and strength will bring victory.”
Nafisa Ali, a has-been actress who had contested unsuccessfully on Congress tickets, also jumped on the Bengal bandwagon, saying, “The Congress has let its voters down and Mamata Banerjee is the new Congress of India. The TMC can fight against a hate-filled agenda that divides secular India.” There were more fortune seekers like ex-diplomat Pavan Varma, Indian tennis icon Leader Paes and a couple of former civil servants who expressed their allegiance to the emerging alternative to the Congress. Some of them were rewarded with plum assignments.
The tea leaves do not say whether Mamata’s attempt to establish pan-India credibility would fructify. With national politics becoming mainly personally driven, India is looking for an alternative leader who can provide a better model of politics and governance than Modified BJP, whose ‘One Leader, One Slogan, One Agenda’ aims to make India ‘Congress Mukt Bharat.’ Modi has broken all community and caste affiliations in large parts of India and has established himself a messiah of all castes, communities and a man for all causes. No leader other than Indira Gandhi has acquired such a national stature. She was defeated just once, only because of her arrogance, corruption and the Emergency. This was possible because the Opposition had ace anchor Jayprakash Narayan who brought all anti-Congress formations from the extreme Right to the extreme Left and RSS together. He was able to nudge top Congressmen like Jagjivan Ram and HN Bahuguna to leave.
The JP movement didn’t offer an alternative leader to Indira but a better and inclusive political formation in the form of consensus. It didn’t last long due to internal contradictions, eccentricities and ambitions. Rajiv Gandhi, who became Prime Minister after Indira’s assassination in October 1984, became the nation’s darling who won a record 400-plus Lok Sabha seats. But he failed to keep his party together and was tainted by massive corruption charges. In 1989, he became the first Nehru-Gandhi family member who failed to get a second term. Again, this was possible because of yet another key anchor VP Singh who was acceptable to all parties from North to South. A massive rally at Chennai’s Marina beach before the elections was attended or supported by over a dozen Opposition bigwigs like K Karunanidhi, Deve Gowda, HS Surjeet, NT Rama Rao, Jyoti Basu, LK Advani. Singh was even backed by ideological combatants CPM and BJP. The real coalition era had begun.
PV Narasimha Rao’s minority government could complete its term through defections and merger of small parties. The BJP replaced the Congress because of the charisma and credibility of Atal Behari Vajpayee who could keep around 20 smaller parties together and complete his term. Yet, his party was defeated because of the desertion of regional parties coupled with arrogance of some saffron leaders.
Mamata is not JP or VP, or Atal or even Sonia Gandhi who emerged as a political fulcrum around whom a national alternative narrative was formed in 2004. Her marketing team is still hawking her as a leader who is looking for followers and not co-travellers to unseat Modi.
She hasn’t met all the relevant Opposition leaders to discuss the roadmap ahead. Mamata is a regional supremo who is yet to evolve into a national mandate magnet. Even Sharad Pawar, one of the tallest national leaders, couldn’t shed his regional label. Didi’s publicists are ignoring the fact that even now, it is the Congress which can give the BJP a fight in over 200 Lok Sabha seats. Even if the Bengal tigress lures away a few Congress leaders, she can only divide anti-BJP votes and thereby shoot herself in the foot. Mamata sans Bengal is at the most another version of Deve Gowda or IK Gujral.
Unless, she brings the Congress on board, her grand adventure to nationalise her regional party will fizzle out. At the moment, Didi is neither an individual nor an ideological alternative to Modi. To become a topper in the all- India political exam, MBA (Mamata Banerjee Alternative) has to do her homework better. With just 22 Lok Sabha seats, the TMC is the fourth largest party. But difference between the largest and TMC is over 270-plus seats. Mamata has many miles to go before she even makes it to the borders of Lutyen’s New Delhi.