Modi Versus Mamata In 2024? Banerjee Couldn’t Win Nandigram; Will Lose Deposit In Varanasi

by Minhaz Merchant - May 6, 2021 03:00 PM +05:30 IST
Modi Versus Mamata In 2024? Banerjee Couldn’t Win Nandigram; Will Lose Deposit In VaranasiNarendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee.
  • One hurdle for Banerjee is Rahul Gandhi. Though the Congress was decimated in West Bengal and handily defeated in Kerala, it will not agree being part of an Opposition coalition where Gandhi isn’t the putative prime ministerial candidate.

Will the Opposition coalesce around West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee after the Trinamool Congress’ landslide victory in the state assembly poll? Can she lead a united front against the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election?

The answer to the first question: yes. The answer to the second question: no.

Banerjee is aware of her pan-India limitations. She has little foreign policy experience. Her economic record in West Bengal is mixed. According to Shibashis Chatterjee and Sumit Ganguly, both respected academics, Bengal’s GDP grew by 5.5 per cent in 2016-21 against national GDP average growth of 7.1 per cent.

Banerjee does even worse on social policy. She has presided over what amounts to state-sponsored violence led by workers of the TMC. Islamist groups have formed a nexus with the TMC to intimidate rival politicians and create a climate of fear.

Even the Left, progenitor of large-scale political violence during its 34-year misgovernance of West Bengal, was moved enough to call out the TMC’s murderous post-poll violence.

The CPI(M)’s veteran leader Sitaram Yechury tweeted: “Are these reports of gruesome violence in Bengal TMC’s ‘victory celebrations?’ Condemnable. Will be resisted & rebuffed. Instead of focusing on combating the pandemic TMC unleashes such mayhem. CPI(M), as always, will be with the people to protect, assist, providing relief.”

A granular analysis of the 2021 West Bengal election reveals that the state’s nearly 30 per cent Muslim electorate voted, as expected, en masse for the TMC while only a little over half of the state’s 70 per cent Hindu majority voted for the BJP. More than a quarter of this Hindu demographic voted for the TMC and the rest for the Left-Congress-ISF alliance.

As one observer said, “Muslims know how to vote. They are united. Hindus are divided by caste, region and class.” The larger question remains: what stops Mamata Banerjee from projecting her electoral appeal across India? She faces two principal hurdles.

First, Banerjee at 66 remains a regional leader. She served as a Union minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government nearly 20 years ago but her appeal is parochial not national.

The second hurdle is Rahul Gandhi. Though the Congress was decimated in West Bengal and handily defeated in Kerala, it will not countenance, whatever the G23 dissenters may say, being part of an Opposition coalition where Gandhi isn’t the coalition’s putative prime ministerial candidate.

An anti-BJP pan-national coalition has little hope of surviving these contradictions.

Banerjee took on Suvendu Adhikari in Nandigram to prove that she can beard a lion in his own den. She failed but showed that she is ready to fight against the odds. In a Lok Sabha campaign, this would mean her accepting Modi’s taunting invitation to contest the 2024 general election from Varanasi.

Banerjee would not be able to resist the challenge despite knowing that she could lose her deposit. What works in Bengal does not work in Uttar Pradesh or the larger Hindi heartland.

All of this doesn’t mean 2024 will be a cakewalk for Modi. Far from it. Cracks have appeared in his leadership. The failure to wrest Bengal from the TMC may not be a major concern. The management of the Covid pandemic, however, is.

It could impact the seven assembly elections scheduled in 2022: Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Goa, Uttarakhand and Gujarat.

Till recently Uttar Pradesh seemed secure under Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. But increasing cases of lawlessness and a Covid surge have given the Opposition a sliver of hope for 2022.

The BSP will ensure that that the UP assembly contest is tripolar even if the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, spearheaded by Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, fight together. Asauddin Owaisi’s AIMIM and other regional parties could make the contest multipolar.

That obviously will suit Adityanath who has long-term national ambitions.

Modi has long lived off his larger than life persona. That could fade if he doesn’t get the Covid pandemic under control over the next two months. The sheen of electoral invincibility, already wearing thin, could dim further.

Modi needs to do three things to turn the tide:

One, give talented ministers in his cabinet a larger voice. The government can no longer be run by a Modi-Shah duopoly.

Two, decentralise. Modi tends to keep his own counsel. He takes advice from multiple sources but the final decision is his – and often kept under wraps till it is announced. A more consensual approach will serve him well ahead of 2024.

Three, take communications seriously. Every major Indian political party – Congress, TMC, AAP, Shiv Sena, NCP, CPI(M) – has better communications than the BJP. I’ve advocated daily media briefings since 2014. Syed Akbaruddin’s daily 4.30pm briefing, when he was MEA spokesman, put many campaigns of disinformation to rest.

Today, when large sections of the print, online and electronic media keep up a constant barrage of criticism against the Modi government – which in a democracy is healthy, even if some of the criticism is based on personal animus – the battle of perception could play a decisive role in determining the outcome of the 2024 general election.

Minhaz Merchant is an author and publisher. 

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