No other leader, including the corruption-convict, Lalu Yadav, or, his newly-minted soul-mate Sharad Yadav, fits the bill. Naveen Patnaik is happy not stirring out of his small little pocket-borough, engaged in safeguarding himself against the rising ambitions of the BJP. The southern leaders have little inclination and drive for a pan-India role, happy to be an appendage of one or the other national party. So, even by the simple process of elimination, it has to be the mercurial Mamata, and nobody else. Of course, with the usual caveat about unforeseen events nixing the current calculations.
Without doubt, Nitish Kumar was probably the only credible leader who was well-equipped to lead the Opposition against the Modi-Shah-led BJP. But Lalu’s inherent perfidy and his ambition for son, Tejashwi, the Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar, to replace Nitish, made him return to the relatively wholesome Bihar BJP, which, at least, does not have its eye on his chief ministerial chair. Besides, Nitish would have ended up being a figurehead of Mahagathbandhan, led by the nose by Lalu and the Congress leaders, since he hardly has a constituency of his own.
Mamata, on the other hand, is not only a leader in her own right, but, what is more, she continues to maintain a firm grip on the popular mood in her state. The recent civic elections have further fortified her position as the unchallenged leader of West Bengal, something the Marxist Jyoti Basu was for nearly three decades. Now the Marxists cannot even win a solitary seat anywhere in the seven municipalities, which witnessed polls mid-August, while the ruling Trinamool Congress completed the Opposition washout, helped no doubt by the old Marxist tactics of booth-capturing and voter-intimidation. The Congress too drew a blank. Remarkably, the BJP supplanted the Marxists as the main Opposition, though it is still far away from posing a credible threat to Mamata’s sway over the electorate.
Admittedly, the ascendancy of Mamata as the leader of the combined all-India Opposition to Modi can turn out to be a double-edged sword. For, her carefully crafted pro-Muslim politics, which consolidates behind her the support of nearly one-third of the voters, acts as a perfect foil to the BJP’s self-avowedly pro-Hindu politics. Her blatantly communal approach to woo the main minority clearly feeds the BJP’s majoritarian stance. The myopic politics might help Mamata maintain her sway in West Bengal, but at the national level it can only redound to the credit of the BJP-led NDA. For instance, she plays straight into the hands of the RSS-BJP when she bans Durga Puja immersions to facilitate Muharram processions. The order has been seized upon by the majority community to whip up passions that she is pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu. Earlier, she had banned Ram Navami processions until the courts intervened on a petition by Hindu groups. Whether the decision to ban immersions on the day of Muhharram was dictated solely by law and order concerns, or there was appeasement policy at work, is hard to say, but there is no denying that such acts of the mercurial Mamata fuel the growing narrative that she seeks to cultivate the Muslim vote-bank by knowingly ignoring the concerns of the majority community. In the long run, this approach is bound to help the BJP grow into a credible force even in the border state, which has a history of bitter communal strife before and after the Partition. Before we return to the Mahagathbandhan leadership, a larger point must be made. And that is the flawed strategy of the so-called secular forces, overtly pandering to the minorities, while berating the BJP for being communal. The resulting backlash from the secularist appeasement of the Muslim voters adds grist to the BJP’s electoral mill, giving credence to its campaign that its rivals are anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. A secularism which sees people chiefly in religious categories is the bane of the Opposition. But it seems that our secular parties know no other variety of secularism. No, certainly not the ideal one which scrupulously keeps all religious considerations out of the business of governance.
As for the Mahagathbanhan, it is not only because of the non-starter Rahul Gandhi at the head of the Congress, which despite its thinning presence on the ground must still constitute the core of any all-India grouping, but the fact that Mamata leads a state which returns 42 Lok Sabha MPs that lends heft to her claim to be its spearhead. For her, anti-BJPism is a necessity, without which she cannot be assured of a majority in the Assembly. So, even if she wanted to tone down her opposition to the saffron party, the electoral compulsion of keeping the 30-plus percentage Muslim vote obliges her to maintain a stridently anti-BJP stance. This, in turn, suits the BJP, helping it expand its presence in the state, but with a major state under her belt it simultaneously burnishes her claim to lead the all-India anti-Modi grouping.
BJP SPURNS SASIKALA, DINAKARAN
The ongoing power struggle in the post-Jayalalithaa AIADMK ought to be put in perspective. Both Sasikala, now cooling her heels in a Bengaluru jail, and her tainted nephew, Dinakaran, have no reservations about doing business with the BJP regardless of the latter’s supposed communal image. It is the top BJP leadership which has spurned the overtures from them, mindful that any truck with the duo would dent its image. In fact, a couple of emissaries of Dinakaran and Sasikala, both are acting in concert, have met mid-level BJP functionaries at the state and Central levels, only to be told that they were not welcome.
CRACKS IN TMC
The NDA polled more votes in both the presidential and vice-presidential elections than its actual strength, but there was hardly any attempt to figure out the source of these extra votes. Since only members of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha elect the Vice-President, Venkaiah Naidu getting more than a dozen additional votes was intriguing. Speculation in political circles is that more than half a dozen members of the Trinamool Congress voted for Naidu. In fact, the number could be higher.
Why did they defy the party whip? It is argued that those facing investigations into the Sarada and Rose Valley chit fund scams and facing the heat from a sting operation, were hardly in a position to say no to the ruling party. Also, it could well be that some TMCs MPs are keen to switch sides to the BJP, which is making a concerted bid to strike deep roots in Bengal. Incidentally, the story is that during the UPA years, a DIG in CBI was designated to ensure that on vital matters both Mulayam Singh’s and Mamata Banerjee’s parties voted with the government. Whether someone in the CBI has been assigned this task now—informally, of course, as was the case in the UPA decade—is not known.