A rival rises: Mamata on global list of influentials

A rival rises: Mamata on global list of influentials

Banerjee is now seen as an antidote to Modi and BJP, and that internationally, there is a growing recognition of her leadership must make them uncomfortable

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Credit: PTI File Photo

Featured in the list of the 100 most influential leaders in the world, Mamata Banerjee is evidently perceived by Time magazine as a new political force and an emerging rival in the complicated mosaic of India’s multiparty system to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi and his ambitions to establish a one-party hegemony. 

In 2012, when she was featured on the same list, Banerjee was the one woman army whose 'poriborton' storm had blown away the 34-year-old coalition led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal.

In 2021, Banerjee has emerged as the leader to watch on the Indian political scene after she inflicted a humiliating defeat on the BJP and its reputation of invincibility. In the ten years since she became chief minister of West Bengal, Banerjee has grown and gained stature, which is unusual, given the natural accumulation of grievances of sections of voters and their individual experiences of life in Trinamool Congress times.

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In 2012, she was a regional leader of a rag-tag party who had inflicted a stunning defeat on an entrenched party with a reputation for running a formidable organisation. The difference within a decade is her rise and positioning as the new leader in India. She seems to have acquired an aura that transforms her into a challenger to Modi, despite his 71 per cent popularity rating and the enormous resources of his party, managed mainly by mastermind Amit Shah.

Forced to contest a by-poll because she lost by a narrow and contested margin in Nandigram in Midnapore in May, Banerjee’s campaign for the Bhabanipur seat in Kolkata is a clever, low cost attack on Modi and the communally divisive politics of the BJP. 

She is fully aware her every word and move is being tracked by the national media and by friends, foes, and fence-sitters of the confusingly diverse political parties, who are all calculating her chances as a potential face and therefore challenger to Modi in 2024.

Flaunting her secular credentials and campaigning to defeat the “Talibani mindset” and establish an “even better Hindustan,” Banerjee’s aggressive style is at work. By slamming, without naming the BJP, she is doing what she does best – weaponise language to reach the masses and communicate the difference between the Trinamool Congress and its friends comprising other anti-BJP political parties and the extreme right-wing politics of the BJP.

Also read: PM Modi, Mamata, Adar Poonawalla among Time Magazine’s 100 'most influential people of 2021'

Hammering home the point that the BJP’s agenda is to sow fear, foment division by instigating majoritarian anxieties by using Pakistan as a bogey, Banerjee has been explicit in her attack. She has, in this campaign, drawing attention to the BJP campaign in Nandigram that repeatedly invoked fear among Hindu voters that if the Trinamool Congress won, the constituency, which has a 40 per cent Muslim population, would be transformed into a mini Pakistan. 

The BJP has made it easy for her by suggesting that if she wins in Bhabanipur, there would be an influx of Muslims, and the constituency would become like Kidderpore, an area with a sizeable Muslim population. 

If the BJP has hopes of poking Banerjee into reacting by attacking Hindutva politics, it has possibly got more than it bargained for. Her deliberately provocative campaign against the BJP, as the party in power, is an exercise in baiting the top leadership to react. Till now, even second-rung leaders of the BJP have not parachuted into Bhabanipur to counter Banerjee, leaving it to the divided and demoralised state BJP to fight the election as best as it can.

The BJP’s dilemma is apparent. Not to take the risk of taking on the very energetic and now fully recovered Banerjee at her aggressive best is a sign that the BJP is not willing to be seen at a disadvantage. On the other hand, letting her walk all over the campaign without putting up a fight is equally embarrassing.

That Banerjee has been able to brush aside as inconsequential the BJP attack on her for the poll and post-poll violence, currently being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation on instruction from the Calcutta High Court in the Bhabanipur campaign is an outcome of two things. 

First, the slew of schemes announced by her in the manifesto now converted into schemes being rolled out for women and students; and second, the accumulation of negative capital by the BJP because it has mishandled the Covid-19 second wave that witnessed horrifying experiences of oxygen and ICU bed shortages, bodies floating down the Ganges and cremations in car parks, zooming prices of petrol, diesel and gas cylinders, farmers protest that has gone on for nine months, an economy that has failed to recover affecting employment and disposable income.

The BJP’s problems after seven years in power may not have seriously undermined Modi’s popularity which remains over 70 per cent. Still, voter dissatisfaction with how the government has functioned has been steadily rising. The change of chief ministers in key states – Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Gujarat and the failed attempt by Modi and Shah to undermine Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh – indicate a BJP that is anxious about how voters rate the performance of its leaders across the country.

Also read: With Rahul Gandhi’s failure, Mamata Banerjee is the only alternative to Modi: TMC mouthpiece

That Modi is no longer enough of a draw to ensure victories in crucial states is implicit in the changes made after the Bengal elections. Bengal’s rejection of the idea of a “double engine sarkar,” a proxy leader in the state with control in Modi’s hands, was a lesson that the BJP has converted into an action plan. It now needs to figure out a strategy and a narrative on how to tackle its incomprehension of the uniquely quirky political-cultural-social differences that separate each state from the others and reconstruct its marketing of Modi as the one leader for all of India.

The emphatic rejection in Bengal poses a challenge to Modi and Shah because Banerjee is like an antidote, regardless of how and when the opposition gets its act together to create the umbrella alliance that can formally challenge the BJP in 2024. 

That internationally, there is a growing recognition of her leadership must make Modi and the BJP uncomfortable. As a leader helming India, Modi is a known quantity; Banerjee is the unknown and potential leader, a rival, sharing the centre stage in Indian politics because the BJP, Modi-Shah, JP Nadda and dozens of party heavyweights pitted themselves against her in Bengal and lost humiliatingly.

(The writer is a journalist based in Kolkata)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.