The era of coalitions in national politics was seen to have staged a revival on July 21, as influential and powerful regional parties and leaders trickled into New Delhi’s Constitution Club to join the Sahid Divas meeting virtually addressed by Mamata Banerjee from Kolkata. At multiple locations across the country, including Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, Didi’s address in Bengali for her home audience, Hindi for the heartland and English for everyone was a move to introduce and call attention to an exercise that is fraught with pitfalls.
The rally was all optics. The line up of Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party and India’s seniormost non-Congress, non-BJP leader, P Chidambaram, shrewd and influential, Ram Gopal Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, Tiruchi Shiva of the DMK, Manoj Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Balwinder Singh Bhunder of the Shiromani Akali Dal, K Keshav Rao of the Telengana Rashtra Samithi, Priyanka Chaturvedi of the Shiv Sena and Digvijay Singh, Supriya Sule and Jaya Bachchan delivered an unequivocal message.
The non-BJP parties separately control a significant proportion of votes across all regions of India; collectively they pack a punch.
The chances of a new coalition succeeding in its objective of taking on the cult of Modi and the vast resources, organisation and machinery of the BJP are not entirely hopeless, as of now. In the fight for 2024, there are two entities that have to be defeated – the BJP and Modi.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders who hosted the meeting in New Delhi were very circumspect in what they said after it was over. Veteran Saugata Roy was clear as was Sukhendu Shekhar Roy; Mamata Banerjee and the TMC were willing to take on the role of incubating an alternative. A possible unspoken subtext is that Mamata Banerjee is the only leader as of now with the charisma and the record to take on the charisma of Modi, which remains oddly undiminished in terms of his popularity in voter perception, even though the BJP has lost its shine.
As a veteran in politics, who has faced failure in bringing together the non-Congress anti-BJP parties in the past, Mamata Banerjee is either fully aware of how difficult it will be to put together a coalition without a single party brave enough to risk anchoring the exercise or she is playing on her instincts that the time is right to start.
And, the timing of the virtual rally was propitious. The BJP is on the defensive as it has never been before; with the Pegasus Project exposes that bolster Mamata Banerjee and the Opposition’s charge that under Modi and Shah, the Centre has established a “surveillance state;” the mendacious claim that there were no deaths in India for lack of oxygen, not even when the Supreme Court delivered a stinging stricture; a farmers agitation that has a world record for its protest; an economy that has tanked; prices that are zooming as the cost of fuel is raised, often more than once in one week; and there is a report that is difficult to dismiss of a serious undercounting of deaths during the pandemic.
Against the BJP and its hegemonic ambitions that are underwritten by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) the size and strength of the regional parties are puny. It does not axiomatically imply that a new venture to fight the BJP in 2024 will also fail. Regional parties on their own turfs can and have chipped away at the BJP’s strength and this is exactly what the July 21 virtual rally signalled to sceptics and the difficult-to-convince voters across India.
In national politics, the TMC’s success in West Bengal is important, but it is not a gamechanger. It is a party in West Bengal. As Sukhendu Roy underlined, it takes decades to build a party and convert its strength into victory. There is no way in which the TMC can establish bases in other states fast enough to have footprints outside West Bengal in time for 2024.
The July 21 rally emphasised that the TMC had no such immediate ambition and that it understood that any attempt to do so would antagonise the other regional parties because Mamata Banerjee would be perceived as poaching on their turf. It would also effectively destroy her chances of emerging as a national leader in 2024.
It is obvious that Mamata Banerjee is conscious of this gap between her wish and the inadequacy of means. At this moment, every regional party is fully aware that even in its own bastion, be it Maharashtra or West Bengal, though Kerala and Tamil Nadu are exceptions, there is uncertainty of winning more Lok Sabha seats against the BJP in 2024.
Even Mamata Banerjee cannot be sure that she can seriously reduce the BJP’s current Lok Sabha tally of 18 seats out of 42 from West Bengal. And she is conscious that the BJP’s strategy of relentless attack is aimed at eroding her appeal and credibility as a potential national leader.
To anchor a coalition, the minimum that is required is a guarantee that the party can bring to the partnership a substantial number of MPs. As of now, the maximum number that the TMC can capture, if it can decimate the BJP in West Bengal, is only 42 seats out of 543 elected seats in the Lok Sabha. It is this limitation of regional parties that makes the Congress an essential in coalition formation.
And Mamata Banerjee is fully conscious of it. She did not for a moment even hint that she would like to lead the Opposition in its rally against the BJP. The process of putting together a fight, however, must start immediately, was her message. She implied that she would incubate it.
The cautiousness is as clever as it is appropriate. The TMC has been busy emphasising that between July 2021, recall the meeting that was held at Sharad Pawar’s residence called by Yashwant Sinha, and 2024 the dynamics will undergo a change. Having seen the collapse of the Federal Front in 2019 almost as soon as it was announced, Mamata Banerjee has reasons to be wary of the skittishness of regional parties and their leaders.
It does however appear that in Mamata Banerjee’s reckoning, the BJP as a winning machine is a battered version of itself. Outflanking the BJP by defeating or seriously injuring its position would leave Modi vulnerable.
The saffronisation of regional politics has taken a beating and the idea of one nation-one party, double engine Sarkar touted by Modi has been humbled in 2021. The West Bengal result, the DMK win and the Communist Party of India Marxist led Left Democratic Front’s second term in Kerala further expanded the Opposition’s occupied space simultaneously contracting BJP’s territory.
On her announced visit to the capital, Mamata Banerjee said she would meet Sonia Gandhi. By naming her target, Mamata Banerjee is doing exactly what other regional parties have done; underscoring the essentiality of the Congress, given its size, its stature and the charisma of its name, even though the current leadership, individually, has woefully little. Getting the Congress to formally bless the Opposition enterprise would mean a ready-to-use wall, however ruined, behind which the smaller parties can operate.
West Bengal certainly dented the BJP’s monumental confidence. The complacency of being the biggest, wealthiest, best was shaken because not only did the BJP as an organisation fail in West Bengal and that too against a ramshackle TMC but its biggest attraction, Modi and his charisma were defeated by Mamata Banerjee. The combination of a Mamata Banerjee, as the charismatic challenger to Modi, backed by the Congress is a starting point for an alternative to begin coming together.
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