In September, I wrote a piece asking if Mamata Banerjee was slowly replacing Sonia Gandhi as the central figure leading the opposition against the BJP. In December, it is apparent that Mamata is not only trying to recruit an army to fight the BJP, but is also poaching soldiers from the Congress to do so. She is cleverly creating a spectacle and a narrative with her actions and words. The message now being crafted is that it is self-defeating for two generals to lead the opposition charge against the BJP, and there can only be one.
Therefore, before the war is waged against the ‘enemy’, battles of succession, legitimacy and chain of command are being settled within the opposition camp. The Congress propaganda is now spreading the word that she is ‘helping Modi’ and ‘aiding the BJP’. The Congress’ amnesia about the West Bengal Assembly results in May, where it scored a monumental duck, is evident. Instead of reflecting on its serial defeats and continuous drop of national vote share since 1989, the Congress is now creating a shallow Bushian binary: ‘With us or against secularism.’ Or, ‘with us or against opposition unity’.
When Mamata was in Delhi on the eve of the ongoing Parliament’s Winter Session, she said that it was not “constitutionally mandated” to meet Sonia each time she was in Delhi. This was a departure from what we had seen during the Monsoon Session where there was some bonhomie and exchange between the two top women leaders. This time there was a coat of irksomeness to her response. Some initially cautioned not to read much into that statement, but the political context that was getting created left one with little option but to read deeply, and deliberately, into this and other statements Mamata was making. Even if one dismissed this statement as an answer provoked by the media’s relentless pursuit for an anti-Congress narrative, then what should one make of what Mamata said in Mumbai, on Wednesday, after meeting Sharad Pawar?
Mamata in Mumbai buried the idea of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that Sonia Gandhi still continues to lead. She simply asked: “Where is the UPA?” She also took a dig at Rahul Gandhi: “You can’t be abroad all the time. Continuous endeavour is necessary in politics.” For the first time, the Trinamool Congress chief had borrowed the phraseology and logic of the BJP to attack a Congress leader. She was also constructing credibility for a federal alternative to the BJP, instead of accepting the lead of another national party like the Congress. Both sentiment and arithmetic do not support a maladaptive Congress’ claims as an alternative to the BJP. In the 2019 parliamentary polls, the Congress’ national vote share went under 20%, and there is nothing in the horizon that suggests that they will not sink further in 2024.
Sonia Gandhi had done her part since 1998, and her displacing Vajpayee in 2004 was not a small achievement. But her biggest mistake it now appears, in retrospect of course, was not to create sufficient political engagement in a vibrant and diverse democracy like India. For whatever reason, appointing Manmohan Singh, a technocratic prime minister, for a decade, who did not venture out of his corporate headquarters in the South Block, made the Congress somewhat disengage with the masses. It was after all a chair occupied by Nehru and Indira Gandhi, who had the finest instinct and instruments to read and interpret the pulse of the people. When mass leaders make mistakes, get caught in scams and go to jail, people criticise them, mock them, punish them, but at every bend they transact through emotion and not reason. Therefore, as quickly as they discard them, they embrace, celebrate and put them back in the chair. Sonia should have used the decade to create mass engagement and a reservoir of emotion for the Congress. She herself was not a natural in this process and Singh was too much reason.
The Congress party and its leadership became complacent with the approvals of a fickle middle class and the anglophone establishment. It flaunted foreign degrees, GDP figures and economic indicators, which anyway did not arrest or capture the growing divide between the rich and the poor. The party did not read the ferment on the ground nor did it follow the directions of the wind. The Congress created Modi, and the first thing he did when he assumed power was to delegitimise the party. He and the BJP had to attack only the family and that would hurt the party because for long they had become interchangeable. The sycophantic impulse of a Dev Kant Barooah in the 1970s created a perennial trap for the family in the statement: “India is Indira and Indira is India.” In the last 45 years or so the statement has had many mutations, and Modi inverted it to make it a taunt—“family is the party and the party is the family.” Modi’s currency among the masses took it to the narrowest crevices of public consciousness. A new aspirational generation that had moved from rural hinterlands to expand urban fringes saw the sham and the rigging of our democracy through Modi. The family was denominated as the, and the only, elite and the masses bought the argument.
Mamata, being the shrewd leader she is, perceives this conundrum about the family, and has therefore begun to wage a battle to become the true alternative to Modi and the BJP. As an opponent, Mamata will be more acceptable to the BJP and the Sangh Parivar than Sonia Gandhi, who they have always dubbed as ‘foreign’. Their nationalist rhetoric will restrain them or constrain them from using the same language they used against Sonia. The fact that Mamata is an upper caste person may actually push a section of the Sangh Parivar to build a buzz around her to checkmate Modi, and that is precisely what Subramanian Swamy has done. It may be rebound love, but still.
However, there is one thing that Mamata may have to do to take over the opposition space. She should make opposition and alternative politics a genuine mission rather than a cheap poaching game, led by the likes of Prashant Kishor. Kishor is creating a perception, just like he did when serving Modi, that he is the ‘kingmaker’. This undermines Mamata’s own abilities and splendid electoral record.
Senior journalist and author