West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s visit to the national capital last week has predictably stoked speculation on whether the disparate opposition can be united and who its face will be. While it is a difficult task to bring diverse opposition forces on a single platform to fight the BJP and its mighty electoral machinery in the next general election in 2024, Mamata seems determined to explore the possibility to do so in a range of ways, for which she has given clear indications that she intends to play the crucial role of an anchor. She has also given enough indications of her willingness to play a role in national politics, though she has been cautious in her response to queries about her future role in national politics, while categorically ruling out her prime ministerial ambitions.
This is understandable, given that forging opposition unity at the national level is a difficult art that involves managing several political and ideological contradictions and individual ambitions. But since her spectacular victory in the Bengal assembly election in May against an aggressive BJP, which enthused opposition parties and BJP critics, Mamata has been making efforts to unite all opposition parties at least for talks and to bring about a consensus among them to chalk out a concrete plan to defeat the Modi-led BJP in 2024 Lok Sabha poll. “In politics, there are times when all have to bury their differences and come together for the sake of the country. This is that time,” Mamata reportedly said in an informal conversation with media persons in Delhi last week.
Not the first time
This is not the first time that the West Bengal CM is stressing on opposition unity against the BJP. In fact, she had made an effort to forge a third front in the 2019 general election as well, but at that time, no strong unity could be forged among the regional parties. During the assembly election in West Bengal, Mamata had also written a letter to 14 opposition leaders, urging them to come together to counter the BJP after the assembly polls in five states.
In her three-page letter, Mamata had expressed concerns about the ‘series of assaults’ by the BJP and the Union government on ‘democracy and Constitutional Federalism’ in the context of the passage of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill by both Houses of parliament.
She had also alleged in her letter that the BJP wants to establish a ‘one-party authoritarian rule’ in India, reducing the state governments to ‘mere municipalities’ and listed seven instances of the Centre trying to upstage the state government’s powers. These included interference by the governors, vindictive use of agencies like the CBI and the ED, and withholding transfer of funds to the state governments, especially to the non-BJP ruled states.
Stressing on the need for a ‘united and effective’ struggle, Mamata had urged all the parties to come together to draft a plan of action. This was in March. Since then, and particularly after her emphatic victory in the assembly election, she is keen on forging opposition unity at the national level and has been making efforts in that direction.
Riding high after her sweeping victory over the BJP in what was the most challenging election of her life to become the chief minister of West Bengal for the third time, Mamata’s clear message to the opposition parties, particularly the regional parties, has been to sort out their differences and start preparing for 2024. Before her visit to Delhi last week, while addressing her party workers and leaders during the TMC’s annual Martyrs’ Day rally in Kolkata on July 21, Mamata targeted the Centre over a host of issues, including the alleged surveillance of politicians, journalists, activists etc. using the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware and urged all opposition parties to unite to defeat the BJP in the general election of 2024. Significantly, her Martyrs’ Day speech was made available in several states, including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Tripura and Delhi. Also significant is the fact that several opposition leaders were present at the Constitution Club in New Delhi, where her address was broadcast live by her party.
By securing Bengal from a fledgling BJP, Mamata has set the political template to defeat the BJP’s polarising strategies. And it almost seems that her aggression has spilled over to other opposition parties. This has been quite visible in the opposition unity in Parliament’s current monsoon session, where a combined opposition has corned the government on the Pegasus issue, price rise, the government’s handling of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and its response to the farmers’ agitation on Delhi’s borders. The opposition has asked pointed questions to the government, has insisted on a debate on Pegasus and the farmers’ protest and attempted to shape a political narrative, thus sending the government on the backfoot.
While her four-day visit to Delhi in the middle of the monsoon session has succeeded in creating a perception of a revitalised opposition, it has also positioned her to play a prominent role in the years leading up to the 2024 parliamentary polls. Of course she has her limitations, given that her party lacks national presence. It is for this reason that she has ruled out the idea of a third front, or a non-Congress coalition, and insisted on a single opposition front, in which the Congress will play a crucial role as a pan-India party, which can project itself as a national alternative to the BJP.
This is a significant shift in her earlier position vis-a-vis the Congress, a result of the BJP’s significant gains in Bengal in both the Lok Sabha and assembly elections, which apparently made her realise the centrality of the Congress in any national opposition alliance. Her Delhi visit reflected such an understanding, as she had an exclusive meeting with Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
While her emphasis is clearly on building momentum and steering opposition talks at the moment, her slogan ‘Hope 24’ is clearly focused on uniting the opposition to mount an all-out attack on the BJP. But she also realises that it’s not an easy task to keep individual ambitions in check while trying to forge Opposition unity. The leadership issue will continue to vex the opposition and end up making or breaking its unity. That is why she played it down when asked to comment on the leadership issue, saying, “It depends on the situation. All of us can work together. Anybody can become a leader.” That’s easier said than done, though.
While Mamata is hopeful that a positive result will emerge in future from her initiative to forge Opposition unity, a national role for Mamata cannot be ruled out, given that she is on strong footing after her emphatic victory in Bengal and the way she continues to take on the Modi government over different issues.
The author is an independent senior journalist
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