Predictably, Mamata Banerjee’s stupendous electoral success in securing a third term for herself as chief minister of West Bengal -- after staving off an aggressive challenge from the BJP -- has earned her encomiums from other opposition leaders. She has shown them that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP are not electorally invincible even though they command better resources and manpower.
It is not surprising that these leaders see renewed hope and opportunity to join hands for forging a common front against Modi in the run-up to the next Lok Sabha polls in 2024. Though this is not the first time the opposition leaders have felt so, they believe that, in the aftermath of the public health emergency owing to Covid-19, Modi's popularity could have hit an all-India low. Therefore, they must act fast to show they are forging a new plank against Modi, sinking their individual ambitions.
Building up a narrative
Coupled with the economic ills already afflicting the nation, they see the possibility of building upon a current narrative against the BJP as a number of states go to polls in the next three years. Even before the polls in West Bengal drew to a close, Mamata had given a call for all parties to unite against the BJP. One view is that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi probably responded to her appeal and did not campaign in the state, barring once before the fifth phase, citing Covid-19.
In fact, Mamata wrote a letter to the leaders of various parties on March 28. They included leaders like the Congress’s Sonia Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party, Tejaswi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Omar Abdullah of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, among others.
She wrote in the letter that she wanted to convey her “serious concerns over a series of assaults by the BJP and its Government at the Centre on democracy and Constitutional Federalism in India”. The three-page letter listed how the BJP was trying to ‘destabilise’ the country by harassing opposition parties using various means, undermining state governments run by opposition parties, engineering defections in opposition parties using money gained from ‘questionable sources’ and using investigating agencies run by the Centre to intimidate leaders of non-BJP parties.
She also urged the leaders to deliberate on these issues after the assembly elections were over and chart a plan of action. “We can win this battle only with unity of hearts and minds, and by presenting a credible alternative to the people of India,” she wrote. With her party’s spectacular win now in the state elections, Mamata looks even more ready to play a big role in the shaping of a new combine of opposition parties.
Note of caution
But her strategist, Prashant Kishor, has already struck a note of caution. Kishor, who has played a crucial role in advising Mamata and her party in its battle against the BJP, has said in interviews after the poll results that a formidable front against Modi cannot just be formed by opposition leaders symbolically holding hands together.
They would have to do more than that to make a display of unity--by actually putting their heads together to identify issues, work out solutions to be placed before the people and an agenda of action that looks not opportunistic but a genuine effort to offer an alternative to the BJP at the national level.
Without that kind of homework, Kishor believes, the efforts of the opposition leaders would go in vain, as it has happened in the past. First of all, they would have to convince themselves why they are choosing to come together and how it will be different from previous times when they have tried similar optics.
Show of hands
A similar show of unity in Bengaluru when H D Kumaraswamy became chief minister of Karnataka in March 2018 was short-lived when the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress parted ways more than a year later. A similar scene was witnessed when the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and the Shiv Sena came together to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) in November 2019. This arrangement, which is united by the cause of keeping the BJP out of power, has had its share of challenges.
The outcome of the assembly elections in four states and one Union Territory—West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry—will, no doubt, have a deep impact on the political fortunes of both national and state leaders in the months and years ahead. This verdict has posed a big challenge to Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Their supremacy in electoral politics has been seriously questioned. But it would be a mistake to read the verdicts as a vote against the BJP-led Centre because of its failure in handling the Covid-19 crisis, though the results have come at a difficult moment.
BJP picks up more seats
Elections were completed in Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry long before the second wave rose. In Bengal too, five phases of voting had been completed before the second wave was in full fury. Of course, in Assam, the BJP managed to return to power, increasing the number of seats.
In Tamil Nadu, the BJP won four seats, which is impressive, compared to their past performance. In Bengal too, the BJP has emerged as a real alternative to the Trinamool Congress, stronger than before, displacing the Left and the Congress. But because the PM’s political capital was utilised by the BJP in Bengal, there is little doubt that the star of this round of state elections is Mamata.
After all, Modi was hoping that Bengal would come under his influence in his second term, just as Uttar Pradesh was won by the BJP in his first. He campaigned extensively in the state, even amid a pandemic. He challenged Mamata by promising a ‘sonar’ (golden) Bengal if the BJP won. But the people decided to stick by their Didi. The BJP made the big mistake of making this election a contest between the PM and the CM. But the impression is that the results are directly related to the situation caused by Covid-19.
What the opposition parties would have to bear in mind is that the BJP will remain a dominant player (as compared to the Congress) despite the verdicts. But the BJP’s political capital may appear to be diminishing because of its handling of Covid-19. But the situation is not irreversible for it.
If Modi returns to focusing on governance and the economy and steers the country towards overcoming the corona crisis, the BJP could still be back in the reckoning before the next round of elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa next year. The economy too could bounce back.
As his critics have conceded, even after the latest round of elections, Modi still commands support across sections. For the opposition leaders to really pose a challenge, they would have to do more than just spout acerbic commentary. They may have to look for a credible face to lead them against his leadership. Does Mamata fit that bill? Beyond Bengal, the answer may not be a resolute yes.
The writer is former Senior Associate Editor, Hindustan Times, and Political Editor, Deccan Herald, New Delhi.