West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee marked the 25th anniversary of the annual Shahid Diwas (martyrs’ day) rally with an unusually pugnacious display, which is saying something given that she is even at the best of times not one to pull her punches. But on 21 July this year, she made more than rhetorical points. And all of them were aimed at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Banerjee’s fundamental point pertained to ideological premises, at least on the face of it. Accusing the BJP of importing a Taliban brand of Hindutva, she stressed that the version which came with guns and swords was not part of the political culture of Bengal or the constitutional spirit; the people would have none of it. Broadside followed broadside as Banerjee disinterred the remains of the hundreds of people killed in fake encounters in Uttar Pradesh and the 13,000 farmers who had committed suicide across the country. It was one of her most trenchant denunciations of the BJP and the government it runs at the Centre.
What followed was her agenda of an inclusive Opposition to the current dispensation in Delhi. She announced a mammoth rally to be held at the Brigade Parade ground on 19 January, 2019, to which all those opposed to the BJP would be invited – even the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which, however, immediately declined the invitation. Reports said that the Congress’s Sonia Gandhi had already been issued an invitation, most likely to dispel the notion that the Congress was to be left out of the embryonic ‘federal front’.
Also announced were two meetings at the Midnapore College grounds, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi had recently held a not-particularly-reverberating public meeting; and the launch of a ‘BJP hatao, desh bachao’ campaign, to commence on 15 August. Trinamool watchers have noted that Banerjee has just stepped up her involvement in national politics several notches.
Alongside the ideological positioning and the programmatic statement, came Banerjee’s prognostications for short-term political outcomes. In Bengal, she said, her party would win all 42 seats in the next Lok Sabha elections, scheduled for the summer of 2019, barely ten months from now. This was possibly a riposte to BJP president Amit Shah’s prediction that his party would win 22 seats, followed by the claim made by local party leaders that it could win up to 26. Country-wide, she gave the BJP a maximum of 150 seats, down from the 282 it won in 2014. She proceeded to give a state-wise breakdown of seats the BJP would lose.
Banerjee’s claims are worth examining. Let’s begin with Bengal. A complete sweep is not an impossibility, nor even an improbability. The CPM won two seats in 2014, Raiganj in North Dinajpur and Behrampur in Murshidabad. They won because the non-Left vote got divided as the Trinamool Congress launched a vigorous campaign against the Congress. The Congress got the other two seats in Murshidabad. Going by the panchayat election results and desertions from the Congress, it is entirely possible that the Trinamool will win all three seats. The Congress won both the seats in Malda district. Going, again, by the panchayat elections in which the BJP overtook the Congress, the likelihood is the ruling party in Bengal will capture both. Desertions from the Congress to the Trinamool are ongoing and can only turn into an exodus. A strong rumour is that one of the MPs from the district will switch loyalties.
At the rally, in fact, several high-profile leaders from the Congress and CPM joined the TMC. Former BJP Rajya Sabha member (and former member of the party’s National Executive) Chandan Mitra, who recently quit the BJP and attended Banerjee’s rally has also signed on.
The BJP won two seats – Darjeeling, as a gift from the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), and Asansol, which Union minister of state Babul Supriyo won. With Bimal Gurung on the run and the new GJM leadership aligning itself with the Trinamool, the outcome there is a no-brainer. The BJP will in all probability not be able to hold on to Asansol either. It has a whisker of a chance in Purulia, Jhargram and Alipurduar, where it did well in the panchayat elections, by winning over the loyalty of the tribal population, but winning a Lok Sabha contest is a much steeper climb. Going by the zilla parishad results (as opposed to the gram panchayat outcomes), these, too, are peaks the BJP will probably fail to conquer.
As for Banerjee’s prognostications about the national elections, it would be unwise to make a commitment either way. First, the elections are too far away. It would be wise to wait for the Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan before taking anything like a definite position. Two, the sheer size and complexity of India make impromptu, back-of-the-envelope estimates meaningless. Nevertheless, it may be noted that if certain conditions are fulfilled – mainly Opposition unity in key states – Banerjee’s estimate is not completely extra-terrestrial.
At the very least, all the available evidence suggests that the BJP is taking the 2019 challenge very seriously. You could actually go a step further and say that the evidence suggests the BJP is getting a mite jittery as well.
Updated Date: Jul 22, 2018 18:29 PM