Mamata Banerjee’s two days in Mumbai this week are her form of Revenge Tourism.
The Chief Minister of West Bengal held two important conferrals – with Sharad Pawar and Aaditya Thackeray. Both are leaders of parties who run the government in Maharashtra with a third ally – the Congress – who needs to be called out as the weakest link in the anti-BJP Opposition league, according to Mamata Banerjee.
On this, she was brutal about both the party and its top leader, stating “You can’t be abroad all the time”, a blunt appraisal of Rahul Gandhi whose scanty presence on the ground is repeatedly marked by opponents. Of his outfit, she was equally dismissive, commenting, “What is UPA? There is no UPA”, a pithy and unsentimental obit for the national alliance led by the Congress.
If her opinion on the Congress, led by the Gandhis, is explicit, her own plan is implicit: PM Banerjee. Though the 66-year-old likes to call herself “LIP” or “Least Important Person”, she knows that if there ever were a time to audition for the country’s top job, it is now.
In May, from the confines of a wheelchair, she collected a lush victory in Bengal, returning for a third term as its head. Her record numbers were even more impressive coming, as they did, after a campaign against her led by the Prime Minister and Home Minister Amit Shah and their combined firepower.
Mamata Banerjee’s triumph over them was exemplary for an Opposition that seemed to have accepted that the PM was invincible in elections where he took the lead role. And having accumulated massive political capital, Mamata Banerjee is now exercising her spending power, not least by suggesting that the Congress’ impotent but aggressive self-regard as a national party instrumental to an anti-BJP formation needs to be shot down.
To that end, she is being ably assisted by aide-de-camp Prashant Kishor or “PK” who helped design her Bengal campaign and has emerged as among her closest advisors. PK had worked earlier with the Congress in states like Punjab. And after enabling Mamata Banerjee’s re-election, he began in earnest talks for a top role in the Congress. The negotiations were held directly with the Gandhis but sank over differences about PK’s role and accountability for the approaching elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
Since then, PK appears to have placed the Congress at the centre of his dart board, hurling at it, one after another, moves to further diminish its standing. Happily for him and Mamata Banerjee, this is best-accomplished by his skills as a headhunter – he has in states ranging from Goa to Meghalaya enlisted leaders from the Congress to join Mamata Banerjee’s party. Many of those leaders have publicly credited PK for placing them. It looks like the Gandhis jilted the wrong guy, a move not foreign to their playbook – and PK wants them to know it.
Mamata Banerjee’s itinerary is likely to include more meetings soon as she roll calls other leaders to gauge whether they will agree to her as the new centre forward. The fact that the Congress’ allies in Maharashtra, one of the few states it still governs, did not avert their eyes as she made her notions known, will embolden her.
“What Sharad-ji said (is that) there should be a strong alternative of those who fight. What do we do if one is not fighting?” she remarked, suggesting that the Congress’ inertia is now bogging down others who want to defeat the BJP.
Sharad Pawar was more circumspect, as always, typical of his always-shrewd politics where he dials up or dials down pressure (and support) on demand.
Both his party and Mamata Banerjee’s were born out of the Congress and they share an anti-Congressism as a reflex, as also an unflattering opinion of Rahul Gandhi.
Significantly, Sharad Pawar, on an earlier occasion, described the Congress as an “old zamindars still reminiscing about their lost lands”.
A leader from Sharad Pawar’s party said to me, “The Congress is (still) trying to make Rahul Gandhi happen. The country has already decided that his leadership won’t happen. We have to move on. If the Congress is asleep at the wheel, it is not our problem”. Even Rahul Gandhi’s critics concede though that for all his failings, he remains a leader who refuses to soften in any way his stand on the BJP and its majoritarianism politics.
So convinced is Mamata Banerjee of the path she is taking that in Delhi recently, she even met Subramanian Swamy, BJP MP and perpetually loose cannon and habitual Gandhi family-baiter. The subliminal message: she is happy to do business with any politician who is anti-Gandhis.
The future is becoming clearer for Opposition unity: politicians like Mamata Banerjie and Arvind Kejriwal know that they need to operate together to make a serious attempt at defeating the PM, whose personal charisma and connect with voters remains his biggest asset. But they are also determined to quickly occupy the space ceded by the Congress in states like Goa to move their regional identities and parties to a higher rung on the ladder of national politics.
The Congress isn’t making this tough for them. After a range of electoral losses, it remains wandering the Self-Help aisle, without very much to show for it. In Maharashtra, where party leaders complain often that Rahul Gandhi is against being in alliance with the Shiv Sena, even though it keeps the party in power, MLAs are apparently ready to move to Sharad Pawar’s team if it comes to that.
No wonder regional leaders are coveting a bigger share. The Mamata Banerjee Express is boarding. Tickets now available.