Talk of anti-BJP ‘Federal Front had emanated at her swearing-in 2016 as well… The very fact that Mamata took oath on 5 May alone shows that she perhaps does not trust anyone more than her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee. Mamata was accompanied by Abhishek’s kid daughter, asserting the importance of her family in the Trinamool scheme of things.
A buzz is being built around Mamata Banerjee as the possible face of non-BJP parties nationally to take on the persona of Narendra Modi. For the first time since he emerged as the charismatic leader in 2013, when he was named the BJP face for Prime Ministership, is an alternate name being propped up as a possible challenge to Modi. As Trinamool Congress consolidated its position in West Bengal after the bitterest political contest in history of India on 2 May, Sharad Pawar (NCP), Uddhav Thackeray (Shiv Sena), Lalu Prasad Yadav (RJD), Mayawati (BSP), Omar Abdullah (J&K NC), Mehbooba Mufti (J&K PDP), Badals of Shiromani Akali Dal, Chandrashekhar Rao of TRS, Jagan Mohan Reddy of YSRCP and leaders of Janata Dal(S) hailed Mamata Banerjee and the talk of an anti-BJP federal front buzzed in the grapevine. This, notwithstanding the fact that while her party returned to power with a “hat-trick”, Mamata failed to get elected herself. While post-poll violence shook West Bengal, an acerbic comment by Suvendu Adhikari, the man who defeated Mamata by 1,956 votes in Nandigram, summed up the irony: “Here is a party that has won the polls while the CM has lost the poll”.
Talk of a federal front had emerged five years back as well. Mamata took oath alone on 5 May 2021 in a Covid-protocol ceremony in the confines of the Raj Bhavan. In 2016, on 27 May, she had entered office for a second term by holding the oath ceremony on the historic Red Road, which is a landmark in central Kolkata. Nitish Kumar (JDU), Arvind Kejriwal (AAP), Lalu Yadav(RJD), Farooq Abdllah(J&K NC), Akhilesh Yadav(SP) and Kanhimozhi of DMK were present. Lalu Prasad raised the issue of a federal front, which Farooq Abdullah endorsed. Nitish Kumar, Kejriwal, Kanimozhi and Akhilesh Yadav clapped, but did not commit themselves to the concept of a federal front. Mamata made a guarded response: “I am a commoner, a less important person. But I will help all of them, no problem, if anybody wants my help. Let me work for the people.” In 2021, after her party staved off BJP’s “Second Plassey offensive”, Mamata described herself as a “street fighter”. Will she now take her “street fighting” to the lush green colonial avenues of Lutyens’ Delhi? It remains to be seen if the buzz on an anti-BJP federal front in May 2021 fructifies into a challenge for Modi in 2024 or remains stillborn, as was apparently the case in 2016.
The fulcrum of the anti-BJP arrangement, which is being put on anvil is octogenarian Sharad Pawar—a Congressman who split away from the parent party in 1978 to form “Samanantar Congress” and became CM of Maharashtra. Pawar returned to Congress after a decade, but again split away. Pranab Mukherjee had once described Janata Party as an “amoeba”, which splits and then comes together, to split again. History of Sharad Pawar is somewhat similar. While back in Congress he propped up Sonia Gandhi initially and then formed NCP to oppose her “origin of birth” and thereafter became a Union Minister during the Congress regime of Manmohan Singh. Now he is the patriarch of the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress regime in Maharashtra; an anti-BJP front of connivance.
Trinamool’s electoral triumph has been hailed by a cross-section of Congress leaders—the pivot of the 23 letter writers, Ghulam Nabi Azad, has called Mamata the “Lioness of the East”. Kapil Sibal and Manish Tewari, also part of G23, called her “Jhansi ki Rani”. Anand Sharma saw in her hope for an “inclusive India”. However, two Congress leaders who fought in the trenches of the 2021 West Bengal political warfare, PCC chief (and Leader of Congress in Lok Sabha), Adhir Chowdhury and the AICC in-charge for the state, Jitin Prasada, had a different narrative. They both condemned the violence against Congress workers by TMC cadre. (Even on 1 May, while results were awaited, Congress-TMC clashes were reported from the bylanes of Park Street in central Kolkata and from the narrow gullies of industrial Garden Reach region.) These Congress leaders were joined by CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yachury and Left leaders, Suhasini Ali and JNU president Aishi Ghosh in putting strobe lights on the post poll violence by TMC. (This apart from the BJP’s charges against TMC, which included violence inter alia.) Adhir Chowdhury stated the Hobson’s choice before his party: Congress had been decimated by TMC regionally and by BJP nationally.
The weakest link in a proposed anti-BJP front is Congress. Congress is the largest party in Parliament after BJP and it has pan-India presence, most of it wilting, though. It has turf differences with regional parties, many of whom are renegades of Congress: TMC, NCP, TRS, YSRCP, NRS-Congress of Puducherry, to name a few. Anti-Congressism of the 1960s, 1970s and the penultimate decades of the last century has now clearly been replaced by anti-BJPism. Dr Ram Manohar Lohia of erstwhile Socialist Party was the patriarch of anti-Congressism, which resulted in SVD governments in 1967 and the Janata experiment of 1977. Will Sharad Pawar in tandem with Mamata be able to replicate what Lohia achieved 50 years back ?Anti-Congressism did not endure. Will anti-BJPism be able to achieve a pan-India alternative to the present dispensation at the Centre?
In the run-up to 2024 Lok Sabha polls, there will be Vidhan Sabha polls in Uttarakhand, Goa, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Congress today is a side-player in UP, while BJP is yet to find its feet in Punjab. (The farmers’ agitation has impaired its weak base in the state further.) The contest in Goa and Uttarakhand, where BJP reigns at present and Congress is the challenger, will be interesting to watch. In 2021, Congress failed to throw up a challenge to BJP in Assam and in spite of Rahul Gandhi being an MP from Kerala, failed to stop CPI(M)-led LDF from returning to power in the southern state where the party has perhaps the best state organisation anywhere in the country. While Congress has provided six Prime Ministers since 1947: Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, and equal number of former Congressmen have been PM: Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, Chandrashekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. All these gentlemen broke away from Congress for gaining power. Will Sharad Pawar be able to prop up Mamata to be the seventh such non-Congress, non-BJP PM?
BJP has provided two PMs—Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi. Since the party’s formation in 1980 and even in its earlier incarnation as Bharatiya Jan Sangh the party has not seen splits for the sake of power (B.S. Yediyurappa of Karnataka, who formed his regional party now heads a BJP regime). BJP was founded on 6 April 1980. Twenty days later its national executive had a six-hour discussion running into two working days to discuss an offer made by West Bengal CM, Jyoti Basu and CPI(M) general secretary E.M.S. Namboodiripad for cooperation with the nascent BJP in confronting the Congress juggernaut led by formidable Indira Gandhi. BJP rejected the CPI(M) overtures and decided to chart its own course. The Vajpayee regimes of 1998, 1999 and the Modi triumph of 2014 followed.
Will the victory of Trinamool in 2021 be the fulcrum of change nationally? The very fact that Mamata took oath on 5 May alone shows that she perhaps does not trust anyone more than her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, the MP from Diamond Harbour, who, along with strategist Prashant Kishor of I-Pac are credited with masterminding the strategy to stop BJP from winning “Plassey 2”. (In 1757, the British began their conquest of India from Plassey; in 2021 after having dominated nationally, BJP seemed to give priority to winning West Bengal in “Plassey2”. BJP has emerged as sole opposition, with 77 seats, decimating Left (which ruled the state 1977-2011), which has nil (even in 1947 Left had two MLAs in West Bengal: Jyoti Basu and Ratanlal Brahmin). Mamata was accompanied by Abhishek’s kid daughter when she raised a “V” sign on 2 May, asserting the importance of her family in the Trinamool scheme of things. In sharp contrast, when DMK’s Stalin took oath on 7 May after his party returned to power in Tamil Nadu after a decade, he was accompanied by 34 ministers (unlike Mamata being sworn in alone; Cabinet formation is slated for 9 May). And the list of 34 excluded Stalin’s son and Karunanidhi’s grandson, Udhayanidhi, who is likely to be inducted at a future date.
Will an asymmetric coalition (or federal front) of former Congress satraps be able to replace the organisation-based BJP in 2024? BJP needs to look into the chinks in its armour and get used to the paradigm of India that is Bharat, while anti-BJPism takes roots after TMC’s win in West Bengal.