Making sense of Mamata Banerjee-Sharad Pawar game plan

Making sense of Mamata Banerjee-Sharad Pawar game plan

The fight against BJP is in the states, with Congress leaders failing to step up, Banerjee is piggybacking on the resolve of regional parties to take on BJP

Facts are incontrovertible. And politics is the art of the possible. The clichés are convenient to summarise the current state of play in the ongoing warm-up exercises by the non-Congress, anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) political actors for the 2024 Lok Sabha battle.

The question, "Where is the United Progressive Alliance?" raised by Trinamool Congress founder Mamata Banerjee during her visit to Mumbai, is appropriate. Banerjee is stating a fact, in her characteristically feisty style, that is directed at the Congress and her critics, including the BJP, who have banded together to question her intentions. 

The Congress and its apologists claim that the grand old party is the pivot around which the regional, smaller non-national parties must revolve to forge an opposition strong enough to challenge the BJP. It is not how Banerjee or the redoubtable Sharad Pawar, founder and leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, see it.

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There is no UPA as a formal alliance with all the trappings that such a configuration requires. That Pawar, Banerjee, the Shiv Sena and the Congress think there should be a partnership of parties opposed to the BJP is not the issue.

The regional parties - from the big and robust with a lineage that underscores the durability and ideological foundations of these organisations, like the DMK, to the small, newer and effective players, like the Aam Admi Party - are at a point where for reasons both ideological and practical, they are in a situation where the compulsion is for "like-minded forces [have] to come together at the national level and set up collective leadership," as Pawar put it. And, as he explained, "We have to provide a strong alternative to leadership. Our thinking is not for today, but for the election."

The compulsion to provide strong alternative leadership in the run-up to 2024 is not contingent on Congress joining or leading this emerging league of anti-BJP parties. Not Banerjee, and certainly not Pawar, have excluded the Congress from the exercises in coming together. Both did effectively convey the message that Congress was not as yet a full-time member of the league and not its natural leader. This was implicit but obvious in Pawar's comment that "All those opposed to the BJP are welcome to join us. There is no question of excluding anyone. We need to work unitedly against the BJP."

At the centre of the exercises in coming together is the controversy about Banerjee's role in leading the league to defeat the BJP and make India, as she put it, "Modi mukt Bharat". As much as her personal role is being questioned, so too is the size, strength and presence of the Trinamool Congress, which till its foray into Goa, Tripura and Meghalaya, was a one-state regional party and its capacity as well as capability in leading the fight for a "Modi mukt Bharat".

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There is a set of political critics who believe Banerjee cannot be the "face" of the collective fight against the undisputedly popular Narendra Modi-led BJP. They also say that the Trinamool Congress is overambitious. It is a small party that is growing through acquisitions, mainly from the Congress, to bypass the grind of setting up shop in target states and slowly building bases that give its announced agenda of ousting the BJP from power in 2024 greater credibility.

It is not in dispute that Congress has leadership and management problems. Congress leaders, specifically the 23 who wrote to Sonia Gandhi expressing their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs in the party, have confirmed that such a problem exists. There is a vacuum in the opposition space because Congress has failed to give leadership to its party and the opposition's efforts to fight the BJP at the grassroots, which is evident in its performance in state elections and state politics. Both Pawar and Banerjee are making the simple point that the time to start the collective fight to oust the BJP is now.

The meeting with Pawar in Mumbai and Banerjee's meeting with opposition party leaders in New Delhi shortly before that point to a calibrated exercise in keeping public attention thanks to the media and social media frenzy focused on the doings of the opposition parties and, of course, Banerjee. These exercises position her as the face and the leader taking the fight to the BJP. However, the real battle is in the states scheduled to go to the polls in two tranches in 2022.

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Pawar and Banerjee have emphasised that the league against the BJP is being forged in the states, where regional parties or even the Congress are taking on the Sangh Parivar. The strategy is evidently to loosen the ground that till now appeared to be baked hard in support of the BJP in states like Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and where the BJP had acquired the status of the alternative like Manipur and Goa. The inch-by-inch fight against the BJP is where the role of the regional parties is critical to the larger fight against the Sangh Parivar in 2024.

Like the face that has become familiar and synonymous with leading a successful battle to prevent the BJP from acquiring new territory, Banerjee's current efforts are a way of keeping the focus on the role of the regional parties and how the BJP is increasingly open to challenge and defeat. The backing down, the apology by Modi and the farm laws repeal, however graceless the method of disregarding parliamentary due process of debate, are therefore part of the new narrative constructed by the opposition to tell and retell voters that the BJP is not the only alternative.

In every state, voters are being made to face the possibility that there is an alternative to the BJP, which may be a regional party or the Congress. The catchline seems to be "no vote to BJP", and the subtext is the specific appeal of regional anti-BJP parties for voter mandate.

The work that the anti-BJP opposition parties are expected to do in the run-up to 2024 is to keep the BJP fighting. It does not seem that the principle of working unitedly will end the competition between regional parties and the Congress in the states going to the polls between 2022 and 2024.

Having delivered a homily on fighting unitedly, Pawar, however, shied away from spelling out how this would be done. It indicates that the opposition is unwilling to, as of now, invest time in formalising a unity with all its complexities when the object of the exercise is already a common and shared goal – fight the BJP and oust it from power, in the states and at the Centre. It is a formula that Banerjee has reiterated since May 2021, that anti-BJP parties in the states should fight to defeat the BJP, preferably by entering into seat adjustment exercises that convert each fight in each constituency into a direct face-off. Intriguingly, neither Pawar nor Banerjee has indicated that they are willing to mediate between competitors in the states on reaching a seat-by-seat agreement on winning candidates.

By keeping things flexible rather than initiating an exercise for opposition unity that would only intensify the competitiveness between them, the anti-BJP opposition seems to have learnt from experience that a formal alliance structure is not a viable proposition now. There has been no hostile reaction to Banerjee's exercises to keep the anti-BJP opposition efforts the focus of public attention and do it successfully. Regional leaders have said that the Congress, as the biggest party, should lead, but no one has said that Banerjee should not lead the fight now.

There seems to be a convergence between Banerjee's vision of transforming her party into a national party and the opportunity that is presented by the anti-BJP opposition's push to work together. She is effectively piggybacking on the growing resolve of regional parties to challenge the BJP and its icon, Narendra Modi.

(Shikha Mukerjee 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.

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