It is becoming increasingly clear that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is fast emerging as the possible challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2024 Parliamentary election, notwithstanding the outcome of the State Assembly poll.
The fact is that the BJP’s primary objective, as it appears at this stage, is not to capture power in West Bengal, but to damage and demonise Mamata as much as possible. Behind the stated objective of going East and winning the fiercely contested election, the actual target is to prevent Mamata from being victorious once again. If the charismatic leader wins the confrontation convincingly, she would without any doubt be the leader to watch nationally.
Mamata has already told her close confidants that she would be pitting herself against the Prime Minister from Varanasi in the Parliamentary showdown. This is also a signal to other opposition groups, particularly the Congress to accept her as the leader of the anti-BJP front that would be formed post the Assembly elections.
While the outcome of Bengal would be eagerly awaited, the BJP’s aggression witnessed in the campaign during the first two phases seems to have mellowed down. Party supporters deny that this was the case and claimed that because of the surge in Covid cases, the media attention has shifted from the electoral arena to the pandemic.
Modi’s personal attacks on the Chief Minister have not gone down too well, and TMC cadres have started propagating that the Prime Minister was nervous and hence was resorting to use of uncharacteristic language during his campaign. However, it has to be understood that both Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah are past masters of electoral battles, and would leave no stone unturned to accomplish their mission.
The BJP’s stakes in the ongoing elections are nothing as compared to those of the opposition parties. Even if the BJP was to lose all the five states, its paramount position nationally would hardly be affected. The same cannot be said about other parties, particularly the Congress, which is hoping to salvage some pride through the Mahajot in Assam and with the DMK in Tamil Nadu.
So far as Mamata is concerned, her problems would not end even if she were to win Bengal for the third time. In fact, they would multiply because envious leaders of other opposition parties may try and throw a spanner in her onward journey. A lot would depend on how the Congress acts in the post-poll scenario and what happens to the internal elections of the grand old party which are due in June.
The TMC’s election strategy seems to have been flawed to some degree since its core team failed to send a strong message regarding Mamata’s possible candidature for Prime Ministership in 2024. This may have been consciously done, keeping in view that the cadres may get confused as to who would be the West Bengal Chief Minister if Mamata goes for the big fight, something which should not have mattered in 2021.
The larger message of a Bengali being in a position to head the country would have had a very strong emotional appeal. Pranab Mukherjee could have been the Prime Minister, yet was overlooked due to the internal politics of the Congress. But he was never a mass leader like Mamata. However, if he were to throw his hat in the ring, every Bengali would have fully supported him.
Mamata’s greatest advantage is that she is a mass leader, a woman and a Brahmin, something that would carry a lot of appeal even in the Indo-Gangetic plain besides every other region in the country. There have been reports, though unsubstantiated, that the Brahmins are not happy at being marginalized. It is argued that the BJP has preferred Rajputs to Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and has in the process inadvertently distanced itself from this upper caste, which has produced at least four Prime Ministers in Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
On another note, the country must rise above these petty caste considerations, but the reality of realpolitik, often has its own logic and illogic. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is dominated by Brahmins at the top and even the BJP at this stage has a Brahmin as its president. Thus, this argument should not hold unless it gets supported by the ground situation.
The BJP has had many perceptive leaders earlier also, who could read the writing on the wall. In 2005, a year after the NDA lost power, the late Pramod Mahajan was quizzed by his friends whether he would be in the fray for Prime Ministership in 2009, to which he replied in the negative.
He made it clear that L.K. Advani would be the face of the BJP in 2009 but he hastened to add that he would surely be a contender in 2014. Surprising everyone present, he said that the likely opponent within the party for the projection would be the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Mahajan did not live long but his reading of the political situation proved very accurate. Modi indeed emerged as the PM face.
Parliamentary elections are mostly determined by a negative vote against the incumbent, usually when there is an alternative in sight. The BJP cruised to a historic victory in 2019 since there was no opponent to Modi. However, 2024 may boil down to a real fight. Between us.