Fired-up Mamata singes Congress with national moves

Fired-up Mamata didi singes Congress with national moves

TMC may not head into states where either the Congress or the opposition to the BJP is strong

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

The difference between Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi was evident from last week’s events, Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders point out. When Banerjee met Vijai Sardesai in Goa in October, she insisted his Goa Forward Party (GFP) merge with the TMC. Sardesai, TMC insiders claim, reneged at the last minute. But Rahul Gandhi rushed in where Banerjee had feared to tread. Rahul Gandhi sealed a seat alliance between the Congress and GFP for the forthcoming Goa Assembly polls. The two parties tweeted pictures of Sardesai and Gandhi with their hands clasped and held aloft in the foyer of the latter’s Lutyen’s bungalow.

In 2017, the GFP had ditched the Congress after the elections and joined the BJP-led government.

"The GFP has a record of being an unreliable ally. That's why a merger was the only option on the table, 100 per cent never an alliance, or they could again do what they did after the polls in 2017," a Trinamool MP said.

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Over the past couple of months, Banerjee has done what the Congress’s group of 23 leaders, or G23, could not. She has jolted its top leadership out of their complacency, even if it has meant them accusing the TMC of being the “Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s ‘B’ team”.

Notably, not senior Congress leaders, except her baiter Adhir Chowdhury, but spokespersons and social media influencers who take their cues from Gandhi’s core team members have attacked Banerjee and her party. On the record, they argue that the Congress is indispensable to defeating the BJP, given that the two have direct face-offs in nearly 200-Lok Sabha seats. The TMC has weakened that fight by poaching Congress leaders and legislators, they surmise. Off the record, they attribute Banerjee’s proactivity to do with her nephew’s problems with central probe agencies.

Political observers, like Jayanta Ghosal, term the attack laughable, pointing out how it had helped the TMC politically when the CBI team visited her nephew’s house. “Banerjee has never said Narendra Modi and the BJP can be defeated without the Congress. But opposition unity is a two-way street. Rahul Gandhi should accord Banerjee the respect a senior more accomplished leader deserves," Ghoshal says.

It galls TMC insiders that Gandhi finds it difficult to reach out to Banerjee, his senior in age, political experience and accomplishments. She is into her third term as Bengal's chief minister and a multiple-term MP.

TMC may not head into states where either the Congress or the opposition to the BJP is strong

On the other hand, Gandhi couldn’t save his family pocket borough. “What stops Rahul Gandhi from picking up the phone and talking to her? Why did it take him two days to tweet a congratulatory message after TMC’s Bengal win? Banerjee would have liked to meet him during her recent Delhi visit, but neither he nor his office contacted her,” a TMC insider said.

Several leaders within the Congress and its current and former allies among regional parties also believe the Opposition needs a more dynamic leader as its face in the several battles between now and 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Banerjee put that sentiment into words when she said in Mumbai on Wednesday, “If one does nothing and is abroad half the time, then how will one do politics?”

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In September, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar likened the Congress to the zamindars in Uttar Pradesh, who lost their land parcels after the Land Ceiling Act came into force and struggled to maintain their havelis (mansions). “Every morning, they get up looking at the land and boast that the land parcels used to be theirs. The Congress has a similar mindset. They should accept the reality,” he said.

The prescription to end the seeming friction between the Congress and TMC is simple, say political observers. It needs restructuring the nearly dormant United Progressive Alliance (UPA). With Sonia Gandhi inactive as its chairperson, Pawar and Banerjee, as seniormost leaders of the Congress family, should be accommodated.

“Why can’t Rahul Gandhi propose that Banerjee should become the convener of the restructured UPA,” asks a leader.

Meanwhile, Banerjee has taken a leaf out of Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s playbook when he was thrown out of the Congress and formed the Jan Morcha in 1987. Without any organisational strength of the putative front, Singh travelled the country to rally support among the middle classes. Similarly, Banerjee has reached out to public intellectuals, litterateurs and film personalities, including Javed Akhtar and others, to bolster her brand equity as the challenger to Modi. As Ghosal puts it, she is also demolishing the myth of his invincibility.

Expansion mode

The TMC is also busy rewriting its constitution, which would involve restructuring and expanding its national working committee to include members beyond Bengal, including senior leaders like Yashwant Sinha. Party sources, however, termed it mere speculation that the TMC and Pawar-led NCP might merge or that the party is mulling a new name for itself. But who knows, even that might be possible in the months to come.

What, however, is certain, says its Rajya Sabha leader, and national working committee member, Derek O’Brien, that the party will not head into states where the opposition to the BJP is strong. The TMC will not field any candidates in UP, where it will support the Samajwadi Party as the challenger to the BJP, or in Uttarakhand and Manipur, where it believes the Congress could defeat the BJP.

But it wants the Congress to introspect why DMK’s M K Stalin or Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav still rue sharing more seats than necessary in their respective states with the Congress. In Tripura, the recent local body polls have shown that the TMC has emerged as the principal opposition to the BJP. In Meghalaya, Mukul Sangma called TMC the “real Congress” when he joined it with 12 legislators.

Recently, former Haryana Congress leader Ashok Tanwar, Janata Dal (United)’s Pawan Verma and Congress leader Kirti Azad joined the TMC. It isn’t that the TMC’s doors are open to all and sundry or that newcomers will get rewarded with Rajya Sabha seats, as former Congress leader Sushmita Dev and Luizinho Faleiro did. For example, it has reservations about disgruntled BJP leader Varun Gandhi joining the party.

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For Banerjee, however, life has come full circle. Banerjee was called “Maa Durga” at a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) event in New Delhi in 2003. In turn, she described RSS leaders as “true patriots” and sought their help in ending “red terror” in Bengal. Nearly two decades later, Sangh Parivar cadres took to calling her “jihadi didi” as she fought them as few have since 2014.

But this isn’t all. Banerjee was once the brightest young Congress leader when she worsted CPI (M) heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee in the 1984 Lok Sabha polls. In December 1997, she quit the Congress, calling its Bengal leadership tormuj, or watermelon in Bengali, green from outside but red inside – the “B” team of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Those close to Banerjee say all their leader is trying is to challenge the Congress’s inertia, not displace or weaken it.