India Today - - INSIDE - By Kaushik Deka

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.

Cover by NILANJAN DAS Dig­i­tal imag­ing by AMAR­JEET SINGH NAGI

Then and now At a meet­ing of lead­ers of Op­po­si­tion par­ties in New Delhi in May

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