By writing to a dozen opposition leaders, on the eve of the second phase of elections to the West Bengal Assembly, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has made it known to others that she would be willing to lead a new coalition against the BJP, if everyone else stood by her.
However, many of Mamata’s detractors questioned the timing of the letter, and said that it indicated that she was on a shaky ground and hence was looking for a post-poll role, nationally. Simultaneously, those close to her felt that she had deliberately reached out to the leaders for a collective battle against the BJP since she wanted to send the message in her own state that it was neither the Left nor the Congress but she alone who was opposing the saffron brigade.
The exercise was aimed at consolidating the anti BJP vote in West Bengal, though the flip side is that if the Left and Congress do marginally well, they too would be splitting the anti-Mamata vote thus depriving the BJP of the benefit of solely taking on the Chief Minister.
Largely, the appeal to the Opposition leaders is also meant to position Mamata as the head of the proposed alliance, the new avatar UPA. Shiv Sena spokesman Sanjay Raut, while supporting the need for such an arrangement, has stated that it would be difficult to imagine a coalition without the Congress, the largest opposition party as its spearhead. Politics has its own logic and its own illogic too as the late Devendra Dwivedi, P.V. Narasimha Rao’s close adviser used to say.
The Congress under its present leadership does not appear to be capable of providing the overall leadership to the Opposition since it has failed to do so to its own party as is evident from the outcome of the past few elections. Therefore, to rule Mamata out or to envisage an Opposition unity without Sharad Pawar at the helm may appear difficult but is not impossible.
Mamata’s clarion call appears to be inspired by Sonia Gandhi’s appeal to non-BJP parties in the aftermath of the Congress Conclave in Shimla in July 2003, where she asked all secular opposition leaders to join her to put a united front against the communally driven saffron brigade. Sonia who was advised by the likes of Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh and Makhan Lal Fotedar successfully led the UPA to a victory over the NDA in the 2004 Parliamentary elections.
Under the changed political scenario with a weakened Congress, Mamata probably sees a chance of enlarging her role from a leader of West Bengal to someone whose appeal could dislodge the BJP nationally. Many political analysts see her as an alternative to the Prime Minister because of her fighting abilities and the way she has portrayed herself on the lines of the Rani of Jhansi, who fought the British tooth and nail before being betrayed by her own supporters. In her case, she has been stabbed in the back by many of her followers, the most notable being Suvendu Adhikari, who is contesting against her from Nandigram.
The BJP recognizes her potential to bounce back and has therefore unleashed an orchestrated propaganda that she was losing in Nandigram. The move is aimed at influencing the remaining phases of the West Bengal elections and also seeks to push Mamata to take a decision to contest from another seat. The calculation is that if she does, she may be admitting her own defeat as this would be the signal that would emanate.
The truth of the matter is that unlike the previous two times, the battle in Nandigram is not one sided since Suvendhu Adhikari, the person who used to make it so, was contesting on the BJP ticket. Although heavy polling in the first few hours made many suggest that Suvendu had again done what he was best at doing, the polling was by and large fair with even CPM, Mamata’s bitter rival being happy with the way things turned out to be. Thus, the outcome alone would determine what actually transpired.
There have been many questions that are being raised on how the Opposition leaders would accept anyone else as their Boss. Political compulsions and performance often dictate the political agenda, and if Mamata was to win once again in West Bengal, she would be a very strong claimant for the position, besides Pawar, the senior most opposition leader.
A lot would also depend on what happens in the Assembly elections next year as yet another contender may crop up. Hypothetically speaking, if the Aam Aadmi Party were to perform reasonably well both in Uttarakhand and in Punjab (which seems unlikely at this point), Arvind Kejriwal could also emerge as an important player nationally. But there are too many ifs and buts at this stage.
At present, despite the adverse media coverage she is receiving, Mamata Banerjee is the best bet to head an opposition coalition. She has a string of political achievements to her credit, including the way she ousted the Left from its bastion in West Bengal after 34 long years. And in the unlikely case of her losing, she still would find wide acceptance and respect not only amongst Congress workers, past and present, but also in other parties.
The West Bengal polls are wide open and if Suvendu beats her and the BJP forms the government, then he alone would be the only claimant for Chief Ministership. Between us.