How Mamata Banerjee’s Bid To Upstage Congress And Grab Leadership Role Has Vitiated Opposition Attempt To Forge Consensus Over Presidential Candidate

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jun 13, 2022 02:27 PM +05:30 IST
How Mamata Banerjee’s Bid To Upstage Congress And Grab Leadership Role Has Vitiated Opposition Attempt To Forge Consensus Over Presidential CandidateMamata Banerjee (left) and Sonia Gandhi. (Naveen Jora/India Today Group/GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • Mamata Banerjee has everything to gain and nothing to lose.

    Even if most, or a significant number, of the eight chief ministers and 14 other Opposition leaders she has invited do not attend the meeting she has convened, she will claim that she made a serious bid to forge a consensus on a Presidential candidate.

Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee has thrown a spanner in the Congress-led effort to evolve an Opposition consensus on a Presidential candidate and has vitiated the whole exercise by launching a parallel move.

Banerjee wrote to 22 Opposition leaders, including Sonia Gandhi and chief ministers of eight non-BJP ruled states, inviting them to a meeting in New Delhi on 15 June to discuss possible names for an Opposition-sponsored candidate for the President’s post.

But Banerjee’s choice of the date — 15 June — clashes with a similar exercise launched by the Congress. The Congress, in association with the CPI(M) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had been in touch with other Opposition parties and had invited leaders of those parties for a meeting in New Delhi on 15 June to hold preliminary talks on the issue.

But Banerjee’s act of deliberately choosing the same day as the Congress for her parallel effort amounts to not only undermining the Congress, but also trying to grab the leadership role in the Opposition camp.

Top Congress leaders told Swarajya that Banerjee’s act of inviting Sonia Gandhi to a meeting of Opposition leaders that she (Banerjee) would obviously chair was a deliberate insult to the Congress. “This is unforgivable and Mamata Banerjee is guilty of trying to sabotage our attempts to forge a consensus among non-BJP parties and put up a common candidate for the President’s post,” said a Congress Working Committee (CWC) member.

CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury is more than disappointed. “Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar and I have been planning an Opposition meeting on the issue (of proposing a consensus candidate for the Presidential polls next month) and we had invited top Opposition leaders to a meeting in Delhi on June 15. Mamata Banerjee’s move (to convene a parallel meeting) has created a crisis,” he said.

The Congress ‘high command’ had deputed senior party leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Anand Sharma to speak to non-BJP parties and sound them out about a conclave in Delhi on 15 June. Kharge, it is learnt, had spoken to Banerjee early last week and had obtained her consent to Wednesday’s conclave in Delhi.

Banerjee’s parallel bid may not be a huge success, going by the fact that the Congress, Left parties, NCP and some others are likely to stay away from it. There is obviously little chance of the Congress deputing even a senior leader to attend it after Banerjee’s deliberate move to insult the party and Sonia Gandhi.

NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and the CPI(M) are upset with Banerjee for trying to upstage the Congress and, in the process, sabotaging the move to arrive at a consensus on a joint Opposition candidate for the President’s post.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray is also unlikely to attend Banerjee’s meeting. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has announced that it will not depute any front-ranking leader to attend the meeting convened by Banerjee.

Banerjee had sent her invitation on Saturday (11 June) to Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Punjab CM Bhagwant Singh Mann, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray, Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren, Tamil Nadu CM M K Stalin, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik and Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao.

Other Opposition leaders she invited are RJD chief Lalu Prasad, CPI’s D Raja, Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) chief Jayant Chaudhury, Janata Dal (Secular)’s H D Kumaraswamy, Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, Shiromani Akali Dal’s Sukhbir Singh Badal, Pawan Chamling (Sikkim Democratic Front) and K M Kader Mohideen (Indian Union Muslim League).

The CMs who are highly unlikely to attend her meeting are Kejriwal, Mann, Vijayan, Thackeray, Stalin and Patnaik. In fact, Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is most likely to side with the BJP in the presidential polls.

Similarly, a number of other Opposition leaders who received Banerjee’s invitation last weekend are likely to give her meeting the slip and, at best, may depute junior colleagues.

“The meeting that she has convened is unlikely to be a success with many senior Opposition leaders skipping it. But she has achieved her objective of scuttling the bid by the Congress (and involving the CPI-M and the NCP) to forge a consensus among Opposition parties. She has muddied the waters,” a senior CPI(M) leader who is a member of the party’s central committee told Swarajya.

“It is her ego, and her overwhelming desire to grab the leadership role in the Opposition space, that has prompted her move. She realised that if the meeting convened by the Congress makes progress and the move to arrive at a consensus (on a common candidate) succeeds, she will then have to play along and concede the Opposition leadership’s space to the Congress. Hence her move to convene a parallel meet,” said the CPI(M) leader.

“Banerjee is desperate to prove that she is the primary opposition leader in the country just because she won the Assembly polls in the state for the third consecutive term and resisted the BJP’s determined bid to unseat her in Bengal. But that does not make her a pan-Indian leader. She forgets that the Congress has a pan-India presence while the Trinamool is merely a provincial party limited within the boundaries of Bengal. No bid to forge Opposition unity and put up a joint Opposition candidate for the President’s post can succeed without the Congress playing a central role in it,” said the Congress CWC leader.

The Congress has launched a damage-control bid with Kharge speaking to Banerjee and others in the Trinamool in an effort to persuade her to call off Wednesday’s meeting. But, say top Trinamool leaders, Banerjee is unlikely to relent.

The only way out now is for the Congress to defer its plans. The Congress can cite Sonia Gandhi’s ill health as a face saver to announce the postponement of the meeting it has convened.

But in that case, it will concede the Opposition leadership’s role to Banerjee and that is something the Congress leadership is uncomfortable with.

As for Banerjee, she has everything to gain and nothing to lose. Even if most, or a significant number, of the eight chief ministers and 14 other Opposition leaders she has invited do not attend the meeting she has convened, she will claim that she made a serious bid to forge a consensus on a Presidential candidate.

And in the unlikely event of a significant number of the invitees turning up, she can walk away with the Opposition leadership’s crown and lay stake to a leading role in the Opposition space at the national level.

But the fact remains that Banerjee has played spoilsport and many in the Opposition camp are angry with her. Some are even accusing her of acting at the behest of the BJP by scuttling Opposition unity.

That’s an accusation that has been levelled against the Trinamool chief in the past. And it will seriously undermine her attempts to make a mark at the national level if this accusation gains resonance.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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