“There is no UPA now”. With these words, Mamata Banerjee seems to have set an interesting cat among pigeons. She made the statement standing besides Sharad Pawar after a high profile meeting with the opposition’s most experienced stalwarts.
Pawar did not refute Mamata’s statement. He had rolled out the red carpet for her by calling all NCP ministers in Maharashtra government and senior party leaders to meet her at his residence.
Her statement that it would be “very easy to defeat BJP” if all regional parties got together has led to speculation whether Mamata—and Pawar—are about to launch a new non-BJP front minus Congress. It is hardly a secret that regional parties would like to lead a non-BJP government, were such an opportunity to arise.
But creating a new “federal front” of non-BJP outfit is going to be tough at this juncture. For example reason that while Congress-led UPA is defunct, Congress is part of ruling alliances in some states. It is in power with DMK in Tamil Nadu, with JMM in Jharkhand and with NCP (and Shiv Sena) in Maharashtra. Even though, Congress is a junior partner in government in these states, no regional party would like to rock the boat by annoying it.
Congress is also an ally of RJD in Bihar. Though they fought recent by polls separately—congress came a poor fourth—both parties know that in one of those by elections, Tarapur, it would have been a close fight with JD(U), had they stuck together.
As for “non-aligned”, non-BJP parties like Chandrashekhar Rao’s TRS or Naveen Patnaik’s BJD or Jagan Reddy’s YSR congress—all of which have rescued BJP in Parliament from time to time—they will wait till general elections are nearer before taking a decision. That way, anti-BJP fronts are more likely to take shape not immediately, but nearing Lok Sabha polls.
Mamata’s message is clear—Congress can no longer be the “big brother”, it used to be in UPA. It will have to be one amongst equals. Mamata’s strategy is to outshine congress by 2024—and then do business with the Grand Old Party from position of strength. She will reach out to state Shatraps for support at an appropriate moment.
However, every opposition party knows—and its leaders have expressed this privately—that there cannot be a united opposition to take on BJP’s might without Congress on board.
But these satraps also have a problem with Rahul Gandhi’s leadership of the Congress. For all political purposes, Rahul is in the saddle taking all decisions. They know the moment, it becomes Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi battle, it will be in advantage of Modi, even though BJP has been losing ground.
Samajwadi Party has not opted for an alliance with the Congress in UP, not only because Congress brings little to the table, but because it would become a Rahul versus Modi show once again. SP and RLD want to fight on local issues, given what they see as unhappiness with the Yogi Adityanath regime.
Against these realities is Mamata’s ambition post her Bengal victory. She is no longer shy of expressing her readiness for the top job in the country. She told a group of young CEOS in Mumbai that she had qualifications for the top job; seven times MPs, union minister and chief minister of a large state for ten years. That young CEOs turned up in large numbers in Mamata’s meeting and listened to her with attention, was indicative of her growing popularity among the business people.
Pawar had dreamt of capturing Congress from within. Mamata would like to reclaim Congress from outside. She is eying congress spaces to increase her footprint. This is evident from strategies she adopted in Goa, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya, picking up disgruntled congressmen and congresswomen. Those gravitating to her may not be vote-getters but their entry creates atmospherics in her favour, reinforcing the impression of an ascendant party.
All that said, reclaiming congress is easier said than done. Her real challenge will come in the Hindi heartland. Besides, Congress is not just Gandhi family. It is also a brand fashioned over 136 years. Many leaders have quit the Congress in the past, and tried to lay claim to it—from Ramkrishna Hedge to “young turks” Chandra Shekhar and Krishna Kant, to V P Singh, who inflicted a body blow, to Pawar, Jagan Reddy and Mamata herself. But they were not able to capture Congress nationally.
So, why all the buzz? One, because Congress is now a pale shadow of what it used to be. Two, its Mamata’s sheer grit, hard work and political will–attributes Congress sadly lacks today—that lends her appeal.
Didi’s ultimate aim is to become the main challenger to Modi at the popular level. But she has to solve many political puzzles before that. (IPA Service)