Is West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee the BJP’s principal threat in the 2024 Lok Sabha election? Can she stitch together a fractious Opposition with conflicting agendas?
Banerjee has adopted a three-pronged approach.
One, to attract MPs and MLAs from other parties to the Trinamool Congress. Many are discards from their original parties. Pavan Varma, a former general secretary of the JD(U) who was expelled from the party, is just one example. Others like Kirti Azad, formerly of the BJP and latterly of the Congress, had long been sidelined. However, their entry is good optics. It shows that the TMC is a party in ascendance.
The second approach is more grounded: Arranging the defection of groups of MLAs from small states. Banerjee’s coup in Meghalaya to draw 12 Congress MLAs, including former chief minister Mukul Sangma, has made the TMC the BJP’s principal Opposition in the state.
Banerjee is targeting the North East to establish a foothold in a key regional catchment. In Tripura’s civic body elections, the TMC may have drawn a blank but still attracted a vote share of more than 20 percent, again making it the main Opposition party in the state ahead of the 2023 Assembly election.
The TMC’s predatory though largely unsuccessful swoop in Goa to pick up MLAs reveals her strategy: Pluck the low hanging fruits first. It poached former Goa Congress president and ex-chief minister Luizinho Faleiro but failed to make much headway otherwise despite poll strategist Prashant Kishor deploying his army of several hundred field workers.
For bigger states like Maharashtra, Banerjee has a different playbook: Building future alliances with strong regional parties like the Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to build a powerful anti-BJP core.
The third approach is to cut the Congress down to size. By targeting Congress MLAs in Meghalaya and Goa, Banerjee sent Congress’ UPA allies a message: There’s a new sheriff in town. She refused to meet Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi on her three-day whistlestop sweep through Delhi. She could still tie-up with a chastened Congress in 2024, but on her terms.
Banerjee, if anything, is realistic. She knows that the BJP will emerge as by far the largest single party in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Her objective is to reduce the BJP’s numbers and then inveigle allies. The Janata Dal’s HD Deve Gowda became prime minister in 1996 by winning just 46 seats in the Lok Sabha election. He allied with 119 Left-leaning parties while the Congress’ 140 MPs supported the United Front (UF) government from outside. Banerjee is following the same asset-light model.
Here’s how the asset-light model works: The TMC wins 30-odd seats in 2024 out of West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats compared to the 22 it won in 2019. It knows that it will pick up allies but very few seats in other states.
In contrast, the Congress, despite its leadership problems and general ennui, is likely to end up as the second-largest party after the BJP in 2024. It hopes to emulate its 2019 performance when it won 15 seats in Kerala and 8 seats in Tamil Nadu in a seat-sharing pact with the DMK. It is also likely to do relatively better in 2024 in Rajasthan (where it was wiped out in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll).
The TMC and Congress ironically face the same problem in bigger states: Strong regional parties that will not give either Banerjee or Gandhi too many seats to contest. This applies to Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and even Tamil Nadu.
The Congress is in direct fights with the BJP in several large states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and elsewhere. The TMC is not a serious contender in any of these states. That dilutes its chances of picking up enough seats to emerge as the second-largest national party after the BJP.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, TMC recorded a national vote share of 3.8 percent compared to the Congress’ 19.3 percent. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, TMC increased its national vote share only fractionally to 4.1 percent. Congress’ vote share rose to 19.5 percent.
West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu was a consensus choice as prime minister of the United Front government in 1996 before the Left’s politburo shot the proposal down. Banerjee had followed that development closely. The playbook could come in handy in 2024 during coalition negotiations.
Counter-intuitively, Banerjee’s “Jyoti Basu strategy” will gain traction if the Congress performs strongly in states where it is in direct contests with the BJP. That will cut the BJP’s tally and increase the Congress-led UPA’s seats.
Then, like Deve Gowda did, Banerjee will strike a deal with the Congress-led UPA and regional satraps to support a TMC-led alliance in a bid to win power at the Centre. What are the chances of this happening? Obviously, much depends on the Congress’ final tally and Rahul Gandhi’s troubled chemistry with Banerjee. The two have never got along. A TMC-UPA alliance could be dead before arrival.
The BJP, however, shouldn’t be complacent. It has lost political capital. The surrender on farm laws and earlier retreats on the land acquisition bill have dulled its reformist credentials. Labour reforms remain in limbo; the excellent recommendations by a high-powered committee on a direct tax code have been buried. Petrol and diesel prices remain high; inflation is a worry; job growth continues to languish.
And yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a strong hand going into the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Welfare schemes are delivering results across tap water, electricity, sanitation, housing, digitisation and health insurance. Infrastructure projects are gaining critical mass.
Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi have the same target audience: Muslims. Without minority votes, Banerjee would not be chief minister of West Bengal and Gandhi would not be an MP from Wayanad, having lost family fief Amethi to Smriti Irani.
An alliance between the TMC, a Congress-led UPA and regional parties is a theoretical possibility. In practice, it may fall apart before it even comes together.
The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.