NEEDED, A NEW BOSS
WITH NITISH KUMAR RE-ALIGNING WITH THE BJP, OPPOSITION PARTIES ARE SCRAMBLING TO FIND A NEW ALLIANCE LEADER. COULD IT BE MAMATA BANERJEE?
With Nitish Kumar going over to the NDA, the Opposition is scrambling for a new leader. Could it be Mamata Banerjee?
On July 31, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted: “Congratulations to the five @AITCofficial candidates elected today to [the] Rajya Sabha and [also to] the sixth supported by us.” It read like an innocuous selfcongratulation, but party insiders say it was also a communique to anti-BJP parties—especially the Congress. Following Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s re-alignment with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders believe that Banerjee remains the only opposition leader with pan-India appeal. They say that she alone can bring together opposition parties for a united fight against the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “We have the numbers in Parliament and our chief minister has mass appeal beyond West Bengal,” says a TMC Rajya Sabha member. “Of course, the Congress and the [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] (AIADMK) have more numbers than us, but the Congress is yet to find a leader and the AIADMK is split.”
There is some merit in his statement. Leaving aside the two national parties, the TMC has the second highest number of seats in Parliament, with 34 in the Lok Sabha and 12 in the Rajya Sabha. The AIADMK is marginally ahead (37 and 13 seats respectively), but is currently factionalised. That aside,
by voting in favour of Ram Nath Kovind for President, the AIADMK factions have already declared an informal alliance with the government at the Centre. That leaves the TMC as the strongest anti-BJP party among non-Congress opposition parties. With 20 Lok Sabha and eight Rajya Sabha MPs, the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) comes in after the TMC, but the Odisha chief minister, facing a tough challenge from the BJP in his home state, is unlikely to be interested in a national role.
Banerjee’s significance is underlined by what a Congress Rajya Sabha member told his TMC colleague just days after Nitish Kumar deserted the opposition: “In 2019, even if the Congress, [the Samajwadi Party] (SP) and [the Bahujan Samaj Party] (BSP) fight together in Uttar Pradesh, we will still need Mamata Banerjee as the star campaigner.”
With Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s repeated failure to keep his own house in order—nearly a dozen influential Congressmen have left the party since the 2014 Lok Sabha election debacle—his position as opposition leader has increasingly come under question. The party may face another embarrassment if it fails in its campaign to have Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel, elected to the Rajya Sabha from his home state Gujarat. On this count, it appears that Banerjee had sensed trouble for the Congress well in advance, even offering the party a safe seat from West Bengal for Patel. Rahul reportedly declined the offer. On July 31, the day of Banerjee’s tweet, Congress candidate Pradip Bhattacharya, along with five TMC members, was elected unopposed to the Rajya Sabha. “[Banerjee’s] tweet was a reminder of the fact that Patel could have been in Bhattacharya’s place.”
Banerjee’s generous offer could also have been a result of political math. The BJP is likely to pose a much stiffer challenge to the TMC in West Bengal than it did in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2016 assembly elections. Banerjee has reason to worry—it might not be possible for her to repeat her party’s superlative performance in 2014, when it won 34 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. She must consolidate her vote base, and if possible, pull more non-BJP votes to the TMC’s camp. With no possibility of joining with the Left, the TMC’s bitter rival, the Congress emerges as the best bet for an ally. “The Congress won four out of 42 Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal. They performed better here than in
“In 2019, even if the Congress, the SP and the BSP fight together in Uttar Pradesh, we will still need Mamata Banerjee”
Uttar Pradesh, where they won two out of 80. So it’s a better force to ally with,” says a TMC parliamentarian.
However, the possibility of Banerjee becoming leader of the opposition is still entirely theoretical. Though political calculations may win her temporary friends in Lalu Prasad Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Arvind Kejriwal, aside from the support she enjoys from Patnaik, it is uncertain if Congress veterans will accept Banerjee as captain of this imaginary ship. Worse, all the leaders named above, besides Lalu, have faced electoral debacles and are in the process of rebuilding their voter bases. An even bigger obstacle for the TMC chief could be the allegations of corruption levelled against several TMC members, including her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee. The CBI probe into the Saradha and Rose Valley scams and the arrest of some of its senior leaders has already put the TMC on the back foot. “The BJP may use the CBI against her, forcing her to abandon any national ambitions. We will carefully observe the political developments,” says a Congress general secretary.
Though the opposition lacks both unity and coherence, there is still strength in its camps. The BJP could face serious challenges in 11 states—by the National Conference in J&K, the Left in Kerala, the SP and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, the BJD in Odisha, the TMC in West Bengal, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab and Delhi, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana and the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh. These states account for 285 Lok Sabha seats, three more than what the BJP won in 2014. Of these seats, non-BJP and nonCongress parties have only 98 in the current Lok Sabha. Together, these parties had 26 per cent of the votes in 2014—five points less than the BJP. If they put up a united fight with support from the Congress, they may be able to increase both vote shares and seats won. That said, there is still a big gap between the theory and its implementation.
Then and now At a meeting of leaders of Opposition parties in New Delhi in May