Column | Mamata treads cautiously as anti-BJP forces look for straws in the wind

Mamata Banerjee

After a massive publicity build-up over West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's week-long visit to Delhi, the first in nearly two years, some reality check is happening among anti-BJP parties.

The energetic and aggressive leader of the Trinamool Congress, fresh from a thumping victory against an over-confident BJP in the state Assembly elections, had time to meet many Opposition leaders and also assess the situation in large states.

The expectations about the launch of a formal Opposition front during Mamata's visit were too far-fetched, giving the intertwined threads of unity and enmity in different States among Opposition parties. Mamata too showed patience and tact by first meeting with the Congress leadership and spending time assessing what would be the response to a grand anti-BJP conclave and rally in Kolkata in winter, which would be one-and-a-half years before the next Lok Sabha elections.

Mamata also wisely avoided getting involved in the discussions going on about the next round of Assembly elections in 2022 as these are minefields and she would like to concentrate more on unseating Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Equations with SP, AAP
However, Mamata would definitely expand moral and material support to the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, since that party's senior leader Jaya Bachchan had extensively campaigned for Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. She has a special affinity for the leadership of Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav.

Mamata Banerjee
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee arrives to meet Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi. PTI

But Mamata was obviously more wary about another Opposition leader -- Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) who has announced his party would aggressively challenge both the BJP and the Congress in Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Gujarat Assembly elections next year. Kejriwal has already toured these states, promising the same programmes on free supply of electricity and water, which had fetched his party lot of ground support in the last three Delhi Assembly elections. Except Punjab, where there are four parties in the fray, viz., Congress, Akali Dal, AAP and BJP, in the other three states hitherto it has been a direct contest between the BJP and the Congress. Now Kejriwal is trying to encash his charm seriously.

The UPA still endures
During her interactions Mamata also realised that the core political formations within the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) remain strong due to the success of recent electoral alliances. Thus she found the DMK in Tamil Nadu, Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand remained strongly with the Congress. Even the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, whose President Sharad Pawar is trying to play a big role in national politics, has retained its 21-year-long political ties with the Congress, despite recent tensions caused by the statements of new PCC President Nana Patole that the Congress would go alone in the next elections.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal

Between them, these four states -- Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, and Jharkhand -- send 142 winners to the 543-member Lok Sabha. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP and its allies had done very well in Maharashtra, Bihar and Jharkhand, while the DMK-Congress alliance had swept Tamil Nadu. Thus Mamata and other Opposition leaders know that if UPA does well in this region, it would be a formidable force, especially as Congress is face-to-face with the BJP in medium-sized states like Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat and Rajasthan which together have 108 seats in the Lok Sabha, completely dominated by the BJP in the 2019 elections.

Congress spadework on
But Patole represents the contradictions that are seething within the Congress. While the party is still addressing the demands from the group of 23 leaders on ideological clarity and organisational revamping, the spate of changes of PCC presidents also shows the urgency towards preparing for the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Apart from Patole, who gave up the speakership of the Maharashtra Assembly to take control of the state Congress unit, the party has appointed new PCC presidents in Kerala, Punjab, Assam, Telangana, Uttarakhand and Manipur, and more changes are in the pipeline.

On alliances, the dominant view in the Congress high command is that the party should go ahead with its core alliances with DMK, RJD, NCP, JMM and IUML but proceed cautiously in other states, depending on local equations.

Priyanka Gandhi, the party's number three who is the in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, has decided that the party would go it alone in that State , even though the Samajwadi Party is the main challenger to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The party is not keen on continuing the alliances with the CPM and the Indian Secular Front in West Bengal or with the All-India Democratic United Front in Assam, as the alliances came a cropper in this year's Assembly elections.

There is still uncertainty whether the winter rally of Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, which could be the biggest gathering after the meeting of Opposition leaders for the swearing-in of Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren in Ranchi two years ago, would bring more sunshine or keep the unity scene foggy.

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