As Parliament’s Winter session commenced on November 29, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress made it clear that its efforts to undercut the BJP’s principal national opposition – the Congress – will no longer be limited to electoral politics but extend to parliamentary functioning too.
Banerjee’s ad nauseam insistence for Opposition unity to take on the BJP notwithstanding, the Trinamool rebuffed repeated invites from the Congress to launch a joint offensive against the Centre in both Houses of Parliament.
Signs of Trinamool’s Ekla Chalo policy on the question of a united Opposition had come on the eve of the commencement of the Winter session when, on November 28, it chose to skip a meeting convened by Congress veteran Mallikarjun Kharge, the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, to discuss a joint floor strategy of opposition parties in Parliament.
However, the Congress was still hopeful that Trinamool leaders would shed their reticence over being clubbed with a Congress-led Opposition once the session commences on November 29. This did not happen.
Trinamool leaders once again skipped a meeting of opposition party floor leaders convened by Kharge before the Winter session was to start on Monday (November 29) morning even though the agenda was to discuss the Centre’s Bill for repealing the three contentious farm laws.
Since the Trinamool had also been stridently demanding repeal of the farm laws, the Congress believed it would associate itself with the party’s initiative of a joint onslaught against the Centre. Kharge had already received affirmation of support from 13 other opposition parties, including the DMK, SP, NCP, Shiv Sena, RJD, Left parties, and others.
However, the Congress was jolted by the Trinamool’s clear refusal to be part of any joint Opposition effort led by the Grand Old Party.
“Why should the Trinamool Congress follow the Congress on anything? Be it elections, Parliament or on the streets, it is clear that Mamata Banerjee is the only opposition leader who has stood firm against the BJP’s politics. The Congress gave up its claim as the BJP’s main alternative long ago; it is more occupied with settling its internal issues and has no appetite to fight the BJP electorally or otherwise,” a senior Trinamool MP told The Federal.
As proceedings of the Winter session began, it became evident that though the Congress and the Trinamool were essentially demanding the same thing – thorough debate on repercussions of the government’s year-long refusal to repeal the farm laws and on the Bill being moved now to repeal the three laws – Banerjee’s party wanted its protest to stand out from the other opposition outfits who had rallied behind the Congress.
In between adjournments of both Houses of Parliament, Trinamool MPs stood separately from those of the Congress and other opposition parties raising slogans and waving posters and banners highlighting their demands.
Later, when the Centre’s motion to suspend 12 Opposition MPs – including the Trinamool’s Shanta Chhetri and Dola Sen – from the Rajya Sabha for the remainder of the session was passed in the Upper House, the Trinamool, once again, refused to associate with a statement issued by Kharge and signed by 14 opposition parties condemning the suspension.
Congress insiders told The Federal that the party had decided to reach out to the Trinamool, and “will still make more such efforts”, despite reservations by several of its leaders, because its president “Sonia Gandhi doesn’t want the BJP to benefit from any cracks in the Opposition”.
However, the Trinamool’s growing antagonism towards the Congress, said a senior Congress leader, will “make it very difficult for us to work together and the Trinamool’s disproportionate ambitions of political supremacy within the Opposition bloc will eventually only help the BJP.”
The Trinamool’s effort to distinguish itself from any Congress-led Opposition unity bid comes at a time when the Bengal party is on an aggressive expansionist drive. Over the past six months, with the help of her poll strategist Prashant Kishor, Banerjee has succeeded in breaking away several Congress leaders across various states.
These include former MPs Sushmita Dev (from Assam) and Abhijit Mukherjee (in Bengal), former Goa CM Luizinho Faleiro, Lalitesh Pati Tripathi, a former MLA and Priyanka Gandhi aide in UP, Ashok Tanwar, a former Rahul Gandhi aide and ex-MP from Haryana, as well as cricketer-turned-politician Kirti Azad, a former three-term MP who had previously hopped from the BJP to the Congress.
The Trinamool had also staged a coup against the Congress in Meghalaya earlier this month when former state chief minister Mukul Sangma, along with 11 other Congress MLAs, switched to the Trinamool. Banerjee and Kishor are also reportedly on a mission to break away several more Congress leaders in Karnataka, Bihar, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Assam and other states.
Banerjee’s expansionist agenda may – or may not – help her party’s electoral footprint expand substantially across the country in time for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls to help her emerge as a swivel for a possible anti-BJP, non-Congress federal front. However, at the moment, her party’s decision to undermine the Congress’s Opposition unity effort in Parliament seems to only strengthen the notion that the BJP’s political rivals can’t come together to stop the saffron high tide.