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While promoting ‘federal front’, Mamata Banerjee may have strengthened Narendra Modi’s 'mahamilavat' jibe

In her exclusive interview to Network 18 group editor Rahul Joshi, Mamata Banerjee made a strong pitch for a non-NDA, non-UPA ‘federal front’. The interview, that was aired in 20 channels across the country on Thursday night, won’t displease the BJP. While promoting a "new combination" government at the Centre, the West Bengal chief minister unwittingly reinforced the chaotic nature of the stillborn 'grand alliance' that casts Narendra Modi in a favourable light. The irony was stark.

The trouble for Mamata (and other proponents of the federal front) is that in a Lok Sabha election where Narendra Modi himself is the chief issue, circumventing the question of an Opposition prime ministerial candidate plays to Modi’s strengths. It strengthens the narrative propagated by the BJP that the “coalition of rivals” or the "mahamilavat" (a term coined by the BJP) alliance is an opportunistic conglomerate whose sole motto is to oust Modi from power.

 While promoting ‘federal front’, Mamata Banerjee may have strengthened Narendra Modi’s mahamilavat jibe

File image of Mamata Banerjee. PTI

This narrative serves BJP’s cause in two distinct ways. One, it makes the election a mandate on Modi and allows him to play the personality card. BJP’s slogans and media campaigns are all centred around one theme: ‘phir ek baar Modi sarkar’ (Modi government once more). So, when Mamata says, “We (regional parties) will jointly decide our strategy. Gaining or losing is not the point. Saving the nation is our first priority, not individual goals”, the obfuscation essentially buttresses the ‘Modi vs Rest’ binary and makes the contest a presidential one — exactly what the BJP wants.

Two, it highlights the TINA (there is no alternative) factor because one of the strongest regional leaders is seen constantly shying away from answering the question on a rival prime ministerial candidate. Mamata was at pains to point out that Modi was a failure in all fronts. She took potshots at Modi’s performance, leadership style and campaign rhetoric. The legitimate question before the electorate, therefore, is: if the incumbent prime minister is a “failure”, who is the better alternative?

The Trinamool Congress supremo was at pains to point out that West Bengal has excelled in all parameters. She claimed that while “two crore people have lost jobs nationwide... in Bengal, the unemployment rate has gone down by 40 percent". She rattled off statistics by saying, "We top states providing work under MNREGA. We are No.1 in rural road construction. We top in skill training and in providing scholarships to minorities. We are No.1 in MSME growth. We have won the Kisan award from the Centre six years in a row. My Kanyashree programme has won the United Nations public service award.”

She also claimed that Bengal is “replicating Silicon Valley” and “emerging as a financial hub”. This is a ringing self-endorsement. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that Mamata has indeed worked wonders and made West Bengal “No.1 in India". So, if Modi is a “failure” and Mamata is an “astounding success” as an administrator, why didn’t she put up herself as a prime ministerial candidate?

That would have presented before the electorate two clear choices. On the one hand there is Modi, who according to Mamata is a “failure”, and on the other hand there is the Bengal chief minister who claims to have done some really good work. This would have made the contest interesting and forced Modi to counter it.

This is where the ‘federal front’ runs into a problem. For all her claims, Mamata knows that the moment she suggests her own name as a prime ministerial candidate, the amorphous 'third front' will cease to exist because it is a grouping of ambitious regional leaders who have their eyes fixed on the big prize. And regardless of the statements being made by N Chandrababu Naidu, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, Sharad Pawar or Mamata, all these "rivals" are fervently hoping for a hung Parliament where it becomes easier to become kingmakers or queens.

So, when the interviewer asks Mamata if she will back Rahul Gandhi as prime minister if TMC were to get 42 out of 42 seats (as she claims), the Bengal chief minister is quick to dispel the notion.

"This is not a matter that I can decide; we need to decide together. Whether it's Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Bihar or Assam, we will all sit down and choose our leader together, based on the common minimum programme. I can’t predict what is going to happen. I don’t want to comment on the prime minister face right now. I believe in collective leadership. We will do it together.”

The interesting thing about Mamata’s "common minimum programme" which the regional parties are busy hard selling as "federalism", is that it may only come into play if the BJP fails to get simple majority on its own or at least cross the 250-mark. For the regional chieftains, the ‘best-case scenario’ could be BJP failing to get more than 220 seats despite being the single largest party. If the regional parties cobble up around 150 seats between them, it will be easier for them to coax Congress (which is realistically trying to breach the 100-mark) into backing a 'federal front’.
This arrangement will leave enough leverage for regional parties to play their game and implementing a “common minimum program”.

The BJP may still be invited first to form a government, but it is anybody’s game. This is the reason why Mamata stressed on Uttar Pradesh (80) and West Bengal (42) as the game changers in this election. Between them, the states send 122 MPs into the Lower House of the Parliament. If the SP-BSP combine does well in Uttar Pradesh and TMC holds its ground in West Bengal, it's game on.

"This time, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh will be critical. These two states will make the government”, said the West Bengal chief minister, adding that she is in touch with “everyone” including TRS chief K Chandrasekhar Rao, TDP chief Naidu, Tejashwi Yadav of RJD and “whoever will be chosen by everyone, will be the PM face".

Mamata’s position on Congress was interesting. It is obvious that she has not taken kindly to Rahul’s barbs, but she stopped just short of criticising the Congress president. Perhaps mindful of the fact that the ‘third front’ will need a backing from a national party.

While she sounded rueful at “Rahul Gandhi (is) following whatever Narendra Modi is doing", she is quick to add “this is their attitude. But I am not like them. Rahul Gandhi abuses me like Narendra Modi does. What should I do? I want to work in tandem with other states. All regional leaders are my friends".

This careful calibration arises out of her assessment that “Congress will not be able to form a government alone. How will they do it? All state parties are very strong now. I am telling you, neither NDA nor UPA will form the government. Maybe a new combination will take shape".

The interview was not devoid of ‘Mamata’ touch, where she sounded utterly convincing in taking positions in contrast with her past actions. She derided Modi for getting a “biopic based on him” and claimed that she considers it “embarrassing to blow one’s trumpet”, yet there’s a biopic based on her titled Baghini: Bengal Tigress is scheduled for release on 3 May and the BJP has moved the Supreme Court to prevent it.

Ironies abound. Mamata claimed she doesn’t “get angry easily", and referred to an old interview by Karan Thapar of Modi, where the then Gujarat chief minister had walked out of the show.

"I don’t do such things," declared Mamata. Perhaps she doesn’t remember that she, in 2012, as the newly minted Chief Minister of West Bengal, she called a University student "Maoist" for asking her uncomfortable questions and walked out of a television channel show.

She claimed that “the EC is an impartial institution” and she doesn’t “want to question its actions”, yet just a few days ago on 6 April, the West Bengal chief minister had shot off a strongly-worded letter to the EC slamming the transfer of four senior police officers in the state and had accused the EC of acting “at the behest of the ruling party at the Centre".

Such inconsistencies abound in the interview where Mamata’s stand contradicts her actions. The gist of the exercise, however, is clear. The federal front will come into the picture only when certain permutations and combinations align. Her justification for an alternative front, however, betrays the cause. It also nails the inherent contradictions of the mythical ‘third front’.

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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2019 21:59:00 IST