It is becoming increasingly evident that it would not be the Congress but a coalition of parties headed by a regional player that would challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies in the 2019 Parliamentary polls. The eagerness shown by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to be at the forefront of the demonetisation battle in the capital has given sufficient and significant indications of what could possibly be playing on her mind. Mamata, who did her political apprenticeship in the Congress, has emerged on the political centre stage as a very tall leader and has wide acceptability, particularly amongst Congress activists, past and present. 

Earlier, Nitish Kumar, who against all odds, led his alliance partners to a spectacular victory in the Bihar Assembly elections was seen as the primary challenger to Narendra Modi. Erstwhile socialists were willing to rally around him to project him as a credible face on the national scene. However, his decision to back the demonetisation proposal of the Central government is being viewed as an attempt by him to cosy up to the BJP, perhaps with the intention of curbing the growing influence of his ally, the RJD headed by Lalu Prasad Yadav. 

Nitish is a pragmatic politician who realises that instead of succumbing to unreasonable pressure and demands from the RJD, it would be prudent to keep his persona intact even if it means seeking his former partner BJP’s help. If that were to happen, Nitish would go the Biju Janata Dal way as the Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has demonstrated on more than one occasion that he was more comfortable in his state than he could ever be in New Delhi. Nitish, too may adopt the Naveen Patnaik model if the RJD does not buckle down and fall in line with the overall agenda of the Bihar government. As a consequence, this would effectively put him out of the PM race.

The Bihar Chief Minister is being advised as well by strategist Prashant Kishor, whose services were requisitioned by Rahul Gandhi to improve the prospects of his party in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Prashant Kishor was perceived by many in the Congress as Nitish’s agent since he was operating to project him as the Prime Minister at the cost of Rahul Gandhi, who is spearheading a feeble Congress attack on the present government. It is true that Prashant’s stock has considerably gone down amongst the top leaders of the grand old party, who are not taken in by his media hyped reputation. In any case, it is considered that the scale of his loyalty is tilted more towards Nitish as opposed to Rahul and efforts by him to forge an alliance in UP would ultimately benefit the Bihar Chief Minister in case he emerges as the Prime Ministerial face of the combined Opposition.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is also believed to be a man with enough potential to make his mark on the national political scenario that is if he manages to win Punjab for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and tops this achievement with victories or impressive performances in Goa and Gujarat. Kejriwal’s popularity amongst the middle classes may have diminished somewhat in Delhi but he still is regarded as a messiah of the poor and downtrodden by a large section of the population. His national political ambitions are directly linked to his party’s performance in Punjab, where, in an unprecedented development, a third party is threatening to take over the reins of power. In the political context, several pundits view AAP as a part of the overall strategy to extricate India and its states from the clutches of the Congress that has governed the country over the major part of the last 70 years. 

Kejriwal has taken great pains in meticulously building up his image and offers a model that is different from any other existing political party. Therefore, he was initially reluctant to share the stage with Mamata Banerjee during the anti demonetisation protests, but decided to join her after many other political leaders started expressing their opposition to the latest decision of the Narendra Modi government. 

The Opposition is broadly working on a strategy, which to put in Mao Zedong’s words, is, “marching separately to achieve the same objective”. Many of Kejriwal’s supporters seemingly agree to what Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader who passed away on Saturday had stated in 1959. Castro had remarked at the time, “Men do not shape destiny. Destiny produces the man for the moment.” Thus, like it happened in Delhi where the AAP wrested power with an unheard of victory, Kejriwal’s supporters regard him as the man for the moment. 

Mamata’s intentions of coming permanently to New Delhi at a later stage had become obvious soon after her grand victory in the Assembly elections earlier this year when her confidant and adviser Derek O’Brien declared on a TV channel, “it takes only one and half hours to get by air from Kolkata to New Delhi”. It was a giveaway of the West Bengal CM’s political ambition and she has been diligently working towards it to play a larger role on the country’s biggest stage. 

Mamata is by no means a leader by fluke and has come up the hard way to become the greatest mass leader from the Congress stable outside the family, which is fast losing its foothold and influence. Her crowning glory was when she ended 34 years of Left rule in her state in 2011 and was therefore internationally acclaimed for her monumental feat. Recently, Jagmeet Singh Brar, former MP and a former member of the Congress Working Committee, hailed Mamata as the most adequately well-equipped leader to head the Congress. Brar had been expelled from the Congress in April, but the maverick Sikh leader has been making vocal pronouncements about the way his old party was being run. Earlier in the week, he was appointed the president of the Punjab unit of the Trinamool Congress. 

Brar is one of the many who recognise Mamata’s capacity to deliver. Maharashtra strongman and NCP chief Sharad Pawar has publicly acknowledged the West Bengal Chief Minister’s political tenacity and considerable ability to lead from the front. Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajsekhar Reddy, who heads the YSR Congress, holds Mamata Banerjee in very high esteem. G.K. Vasan and Jayanti Natrajan of the Tamil Manila Congress too have generous words of praise for her. Within the Congress, numerous leaders are her admirers and see in her the potential of being the country’s Prime Minister one day.

What is very significant is that the Congress continues to be out of reckoning for leading a front against the NDA. Unlike in July 2003, when at the Shimla conclave of the party, Sonia Gandhi gave a call to all secular parties to join hands with her to wrest power from the BJP, there is no serious effort being made on behalf of the Congress. Sonia Gandhi’s coterie continues to undercut Rahul Gandhi, who is yet to acquit himself as a mass leader in any election. In the process, the Congress claim of being an alternative to the BJP is by the day being diluted. Its last ray of hope is if Captain Amarinder Singh leads the party to victory in next year’s Assembly elections. However, by delaying the announcement of his being the CM face of the Congress, the high command is making his task even more difficult.

In the uncertain world of politics, the race for spearheading a coalition of parties to provide an alternate government at the Centre is being closely fought between Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal, with the Congress at present completely out of the picture.

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