West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s visit to the national capital came at a time when the Modi 2.0 regime faces its most vulnerable moment since re-election in May 2019. This phase, in the course of which the government has been defenceless and hopelessly out of strategies, barring hiding behind the smokescreen of ‘conspiracies’ by ‘disruptors’, was hastened by the astonishing victory of the Trinamool Congress in Bengal. As a result, even Banerjee’s decision to meet the prime minister, described by her as a ‘courtesy call’ normally made after ‘winning’ an election, could not but have stung Modi.
The question is if, with this visit and her meeting with several opposition leaders, Mamata Banerjee has formally thrown her hat in the ring for the leadership position in an opposition conglomerate for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Paradoxical as it may sound, this question is premature but had to be eventually raised. It is too early to begin discussing if she is eyeing the role of a national opposition pivot because we are a long way away from formation of an anti-BJP platform and assess if she is cut out for this role. Yet, posing the question is on expected lines because only the rare regional leader does not nurture ambitions of a national role. After Banerjee’s emphatic triumph in May, a bigger role is but natural — after all she has been a chief minister for a decade! Modi too, after completing a decade in Gandhinagar, began eyeing the position he currently holds. It took him three years to reach where he is today and this is the same time frame before parliamentary polls are due to be held next.
First, let’s look at the criticality of the moment that Banerjee has made her foray to Delhi after a gap of two years. The results of the West Bengal elections were declared amid gross erosion in people’s trust and belief in Modi’s administrative abilities. It further worsened as pictures surfaced of corpses floating in the Ganga river, bodies lying queued up in over flowing cremation grounds and people gasping from breath because no oxygen was available. For some time now reports have started pouring in of Modi’s ratings dipping to an all-time low. Despite the government’s best efforts at mounting a publicity drive backed by disinformation, there is no knowing if his ratings have improved and whether people have forgotten the catastrophic second wave of the COVID pandemic.
The economy, personal as well as national, has not taken a turn for the better. Additionally, the Pegasus spyware issue may not be completely comprehensible for the common man. However, if people look at it in conjunction with government’s denial of their miseries experienced in April-May, amid skyrocketing fuel prices, they are certain to conclude that the government’s tactics in Parliament and outside are an attempt at concealing something. In the course of seven years, there have been several occasions when lives of people were acutely disrupted. It will just take a flash for the sentiment to gain currency that repeated attempts of the government to term critics as ‘disruptors’ were nothing but a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
The astuteness of Banerjee’s move was evident in her following a largely non-exclusionary approach when it came to choosing the people she met and her especially lingering moments with the Congress president. Despite meeting leaders of several parties with whom Trinamool Congress bitterly locks horns, Banerjee’s much-publicised meetings with Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi signals recognition of the fact that the party has a significant presence in several states. Banerjee cannot be unaware of the fact that Congress and the BJP remain the numerically two most dominant parties. There are, in fact, well above 150 seats where the BJP and the Congress are in an almost bipolar contest. Since this number of seats is more than any opposition party could even win on its own, the presence of the Grand Old Party (i.e. the Congress) in an anti-BJP formation can be wished away only in a self-destructive manner. Banerjee’s challenge is to ensure that Congress does not cut into anti-BJP votes in states where the Sonia Gandhi-led party is neither a significant force on its own nor in alliance with the dominant anti-BJP platform (especially in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Delhi). But for this to happen, Banerjee will have to convince non-Congress opposition parties to not harm Congress’ prospects in bipolar states (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and others).
This is where Banerjee’s call for ‘No Vote To BJP’ comes into play. This has to be backed by a campaign among non-BJP parties to move towards fielding only one candidate against BJP nominees. It would call for all parties to leave competition among themselves to a later day. But the problem with this effort is two-fold. Firstly, it provides Modi-led BJP with the handle to dub the opposition effort at this stage as ‘negative’, raked up with the sole intention of ‘defeating Modi’, thereby personalising the contest once again. The second possible weak spot of this campaign will be the BJP’s eternal question: If not Modi, then who? After all, a platform where various members share space nationally, but lock horns in states will be handy for the prime minister and his publicity machinery to tear it down.
But Banerjee has given indications of circumventing the second question, by saying the issue of leadership is a later matter. While Modi-BJP will keep resurrecting Rajiv Gandhi’s TINA (There Is No Alternative)-Factor argument, the first question requires to be deflected on a priority basis. All opposition leaders require to present to the people an alternate vision and development plan to convince them that they have a charter drawn up. A mandate for this conglomerate has to be sought not for a leader, but for the agenda of the government they will pursue if opportunity beckons.
The BJP is aware of the benefits of personalising the campaign and will likely push for presidentialisation of the 2024 polls. This can be circumvented only by Banerjee and other leaders agreeing to start the process of formulating an alternate programme. It would be best for the opposition parties to agree to separate politics from governance and hand over the task of preparing an alternate vision to leading members of the civil society. It will not suffice for Banerjee to request the likes of Javed Akhtar to write a song on the ‘Khela Hobe’ theme. Rather, experts drawn from various fields, who have variously critiqued the Modi regime over the past seven years, could be considered to be drawn into the process of evolving a blueprint that a non-BJP government would work on.
A beginning has been made with Banerjee’s Delhi visit, but the real hard work begins now. Headline-grabbing acts and meetings have to be replaced with democratic discussions and eventual agreements and subsequent endorsement of parties that are part of this proposed formation or alliance. There must be an agreement on every issue, ranging from the laws and decisions of the Modi regime that are intended to be rolled back and a new charter that will be followed if voted to power. Political leaders have increasingly sought assistance of campaign managers. It is time for India’s opposition to rope in professional experts who can act as a think-tank for them to give shape to an alternative viewpoint that can herald a humane, development-oriented and democratic ‘new’ India.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)