In November 2015, after the results of the Bihar assembly elections, Nitish Kumar was arguably the most likely prime ministerial candidate to oppose Narendra Modi. The chimaera of “opposition unity” too seemed to be a concrete proposition. Nitish, despite being the junior partner in the Mahagathbandhan (the RJD had 80 seats in the assembly, JDU, 21 and Congress, 27), was chief minister once more. His gamble – of abandoning long-time ally BJP, and resigning as CM after an abysmal performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections – paid off. Most importantly, he seemed willing to work with old foes; to sacrifice his ego and compromise on his style of politics and governance for a larger political goal.
Less than two years later, the Bihar CM quit the Mahagathbandhan and joined hands with the BJP overnight, once again. Today, his stature as a national leader — someone to head a coalition to oppose the formidable political dominance of the BJP-RSS — is greatly diminished.
In Nitish’s decisions – and the story of her own rise to power — lies a political parable that Mamata Banerjee would do well to heed.
Just two days before the Enforcement Directorate arrested West Bengal minister Partha Chatterjee, Mamata Banerjee took the surprising decision to instruct the Trinamool Congress’s 221 MLAs, 23 Lok Sabha MPs and 13 Rajya Sabha MPs to abstain from choosing between Jagdeep Dhankhar and Margaret Alva for the post of Vice-President of India. The TMC’s stated reason for not backing the Opposition candidate appears to stem from a petulance about propriety: “You can’t spring a name upon us at 10 minutes’ notice… We are the second largest opposition party in Parliament, and I’m sure we will grow bigger after the 2024 elections,” Derek O’Brien told this newspaper.
Perhaps O’Brien has a point. The 2021 Bengal election – pitched almost as a head-to-head battle between the PM and Banerjee – has been perhaps the only major political setback for the BJP since 2019. The TMC, given its position in an electorally significant state – Bengal has the most number of Lok Sabha seats after UP and Maharashtra – must be a pillar of any national opposition formation. Yet, if the party wants to fulfil its national ambitions, it must do more than field candidates in Goa.
The scandal around Chatterjee’s arrest by the ED, the unseemly statements by his aide Arpita Mukherjee are unlikely to endear the TMC to the people of Bengal, let alone the rest of India. Unfortunately, this latest episode is not a one-off. The Sharada and Narada scams, and the overwhelming presence of the TMC-backed “syndicate” (the CPM leadership did not have a reputation for indulging in financial corruption) in the state’s economic and political life are not features that inspire confidence. Unlike Nitish Kumar, or even Arvind Kejriwal’s “Delhi model”, Mamata Banerjee does not have a governance story to sell to the rest of the country. That is not to say that Banerjee and the TMC cannot overcome their shortcomings. To do so would require, first and foremost, cleaning house internally (Banerjee has the political mandate and power within her party to do so) and living up to the moral high ground it takes vis a vis the Centre. On the national stage, the TMC needs to display that it has the political maturity and ideological vision to hold together disparate forces. Banerjee, for her part, needs to show the same single-mindedness she did before she became CM to be more than just a regional satrap.
The TMC has the potential to be more than just a regional party. It is, after all, an off-shoot of the Congress and not, in its essence, a party based on linguistic identity (the most hopeful Congress sympathisers dream of a reunion between the TMC, INC and NCP – with Sharad Pawar as party president and Banerjee as the PM candidate). The growing presence of Bengali workers across India can provide a foothold for the party beyond the state. Equally significant is the fact that with some exceptions, the TMC’s secular credentials are bona fide. Unlike, say, the Aam Aadmi Party, it has not celebrated the Ram Temple at Ayodhya or set up schemes to send “pilgrims” to the site where the Babri Masjid was destroyed. But what is most significant for the Opposition’s prospects is Banerjee’s political history and ability.
It is easy to forget now that the CPM-led left in Bengal was once the most dominant electoral, ideological and organisational political force in any state in India. Its 37 years in power made it the longest-serving democratically-elected communist government in history.
Banerjee – first as a young Congress leader and then with the founding of the TMC – fought this force and its vast cadre on the street. She was there at every protest, bore the brunt of severe violence and even when there was little prospect of unseating the CPM, she and her party ensured that when they were present, as the eventual alternative when the bastion falls. Even now, the TMC’s most significant political rally takes place on July 21 – “Martyrs’ Day” – to commemorate the killing of 13 Congress workers who were protesting the CPM’s electoral practices in 1993. Banerjee herself was injured. But her political credentials and modus operandi were set that day. They were visible in the Singur and Nandigram agitations, and eventually led her to the CM’s chair.
The Left, for better or worse, stands diminished. But the BJP and RSS are a far greater force – in terms of ideological zeal, cadre, organisation, resources and the perceived use of state agencies to target political opponents. On paper, Banerjee’s record makes her the perfect candidate to lead the charge against this dominant force. But to do so, she must build bridges. The TMC alone is in no position to challenge the BJP beyond Bengal. In the state, too, a divided Opposition could mean the party’s days in office are numbered (the BJP, despite its loss in 2021, has seen a phenomenal rise in both vote- and seat-share in West Bengal since 2014).
The state’s economic stagnation and the lack of industrialisation continue to be a problem. The political violence that has marred Bengal’s politics, according to many, has continued and even grown under TMC rule. And the fact remains that Nitish Kumar’s hailing from a Hindi-speaking state was an asset. Banerjee may have more seats and votes in Bengal, but she needs friends across parties to help her broaden the TMC’s appeal.
The TMC may believe that its electoral victories are immune to corruption charges. Or, perhaps, that it is best to “abstain” from opposing the BJP to stay in power in Bengal until the saffron tide ebbs from much of the rest of the country. Or that its political future is so secure that it can break ranks over the VP candidate even as the Opposition tried to rally around the party’s erstwhile vice-president for the post of President of India. But Mamata Banerjee ought to know – better than almost any other leader in Indian politics today – that combating the hegemony of an ideological party requires constant work. With another corruption allegation – this time against one of the most senior TMC ministers – the CM needs to recognise that she does not hold all the cards. She must negotiate and build bridges with the rest of the Opposition in good faith.
She can certainly go the Nitish Kumar way – and let ego and the crises and contradictions of coalition politics distract her from the larger national political picture. And given the fact that power has not made the Sangh complacent – every election is fought as though it is a make-or-break one – the only sustainable accommodation she will get from the BJP is likely to be similar to Nitish Kumar’s stature in Bihar: A diminished leader, ruling under the suzerainty of Delhi. The firebrand of Bengal is unlikely to be happy with that position.