The Trinamool’s National Ambitions: Optics, Intent And Feasibility
Here is a close look at how the optics of this move, its intent, and feasibility will play out.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), formally presented her party as a pan-Indian option at a function in Mumbai on 1 December. Since India’s electoral sphere is a finite quantum, this space intrusion meant that another political identity would have to make way for the TMC’s aspirations.
She defined that target quadrant later in the day, after another set of meetings, by declaring that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was over. And standing by her side, for effect, was UPA ally Sharad Pawar. So, on the face of it, the TMC seeks to replace the Congress as the head of a new opposition grouping, which would take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This new development comes after Banerjee had violently wrested a renewed mandate in the 2021 May West Bengal Assembly elections, in the face of a tremendous surge by the BJP there, and after the TMC replaced the communists in Tripura as the principal opposition party in last week’s urban body polls.
It appeared as if Prashant Kishor, Banerjee’s principal political strategist, was engineering a natural progression for the Trinamool beyond the borders of Bengal, spanning all three tiers — local, state, and now the Centre.
How do the optics of this move, its intent, and feasibility, play out?
The function was held in a small banquet room, with a hundred-odd well-known faces of nil electoral worth in attendance. They included dialogue-ideologues and activist-actresses from Bollywood, crusty Luddites, budding contrarians, discards from the BJP, despondent diplomats with nowhere to go, effusive divas, footloose flaneurs, and a pack of professional victims who’d made their name through Hindumisia.
The irony, and patent incongruity, of a politician who rose to power by destroying the communist party in her province, being felicitated by grandees mostly of an avowedly-Marxist persuasion, was lost only on those in the banquet room. Or, perhaps, there’s a chapter on dialectics justifying such anachronisms, which the rest of us haven’t read.
So, the narrow bridge between this motley crowd, and the lady from West Bengal they feted, was little more than a severely-reductionist composite construct, of using caste-class struggles and welfarism to counter evil Hindutva, and an overweening desperation to somehow get rid of that man Narendra Modi.
This was a second incongruity, because those very concepts had been the standard Congress line for ages. Or, was that the other objective for such a high-profile felicitation: a formal shift of endorsement by celebrities, from the Congress and the communists to the TMC? If yes, then this sort of ideological infidelity is a guaranteed recipe for bad blood in the liberals’ shrinking rock-paper-scissors world, because, no one celebrity may expect simultaneous patronage from the TMC, the Congress and the Marxists.
Unfortunately for the TMC, their Derek O’Brien gave away the issue of intent later the same night, when he said that his party’s expansion plans were less directed upon the main, and more limited to the fringe. Hence, their focus was on small states like Goa and Meghalaya for now.
Why, he asked rhetorically, would the TMC wish to dislodge the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu or the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, for example, when they were running these states so well? The fact that both the parties O’Brien named are presently running governments in alliance with the Congress seemed to hold no relevance to him.
Yet, if this is indeed the TMC’s strategy, then what electoral worth might one ascribe to Banerjee’s plonking declaration that the UPA is over? How exactly do they intend to overthrow Modi and the BJP, to save Hinduism from Hindutva?
The fact of the matter is that while the Congress is indeed crumbling, it is not doing so in a manner which the TMC may currently capitalise upon in any material way. Getting a dozen MLAs in Meghalaya to defect, or making an entry in Goa, will not change the national picture one bit.
In addition, the TMC ought to realise that trying to force an entry, into even a small state like Goa, puts it into direct confrontation with other ambitious parties like Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, who too, want to tread on the Congress’s shrinking footprint. If it did, the index of opposition unity — an elusive formulation in the best of times — would only grow weaker, with the benefits of a more fractured electorate accruing directly to the BJP.
Besides, not one of the non-Congress, non-TMC, non-BJP forces in the country, like in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Bihar, Delhi, or Uttar Pradesh, for example, is ever going to concede an inch of space to anyone else — especially when they have been able to stave off oblivion, in the face of a still growing BJP, only by the skin of their teeth (and vote banking).
And finally, even if the UPA has ceased to exist in Banerjee’s electoral outlook, there is, at present, no other viable pan-Indian opposition either, sans the Congress’s vote base.
The inference, then, is that this gala Mumbai event, attended so enthusiastically by those who had enjoyed the patronage of others for so long, is just a PR-blitz, scripted to position the TMC as the optional new head of a nationwide anti-BJP alliance in place of the Congress.
But the feasibility of even that modest intent is now fraught with contradictions, after Sharad Pawar chose to encourage Banerjee. Has India’s canniest politician suddenly become so naïve that he believes Banerjee, rather than the BJP, would successfully assist him in handling the heat if he broke with the Congress and the Shiv Sena? Or was he just being chivalrous?
The answers don’t actually matter, because whether the TMC manages to cobble together a new all-India opposition alliance under its leadership, or not, the Congress has no more material space left to cede to the TMC; that opportunity, and it is a sizeable one, rests with the BJP alone.
No wonder, then, those openly-politicised elements of mainstream media stayed notably away from the TMC’s Mumbai function. Who’d want to risk being associated with a shot in the dark, only to end up having their rice bowls broken?
Therefore, in the absence of any firm intent or demonstrable feasibility, if such optics is the best that Prashant Kishor can come up with for Banerjee, then his grand design for the TMC will also be his grand finale.
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