Mamata Banerjee pitches herself as national leader with Kolkata rally, but keeping Opposition united will be tricky

There was an old joke that a Bengali's ambition is limited to being the president of The Calcutta Club. But then Pranab Mukherjee broke the jinx. Now, Bengalis are bracing themselves for the tantalising prospect of having one of their own as a prime minister. Ask any Bengali who has seen Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee up close. She will not dismiss the possibility as far-fetched.

Before Mamata, Mukherjee was the only Bengali politician of note to have revolted against the Congress. He had formed his own party — the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress — only to make a quiet return in a few years.

Mamata Banerjee pitches herself as national leader with Kolkata rally, but keeping Opposition united will be tricky

Mamata Banerjee at the United India Rally in Kolkata. Twitter/TMC

Much earlier, in the mid 1960s, a breakaway group called the Bangla Congress was formed. But that was neither fish nor fowl. It was part of the first two short-lived United Front governments with the Left under Ajoy Mukherjee. The Bangla Congress was subsequently subsumed in the fire of the Naxalbari movement that had engulfed Bengal then, and Ajoy Mukherjee faded into the sunset, while the younger lot like Siddhartha Shankar Ray, ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury and Pranab Mukherjee went back to the new Indira Congress, or the Naba-Congress as it came to be known in Bengal.

Thus, when Mamata Banerjee walked out of the Congress in 1988, many thought it was just a matter of time before she, too, went home like the prodigal daughter. But people had underestimated both her foresight and tenacity. Even though the Trinamool Congress was gaining traction in West Bengal, largely at the expense of a decaying Bengal Congress, few expected her to achieve the near miracle of uprooting the Marxist hegemony in the state.

One may recall that when Mamata gave a call of "Ebar (this time) or Never" in the run up to the 2011 Assembly elections, a famous television anchor had joked on a live broadcast that what she actually meant was "Never, Ever". He could not have been more wrong.

Even after she had firmly ensconced herself in the chief minister's chair, not many would have thought she would be audacious enough to set her eyes on Delhi. The conventional assessment was that she would emerge as a powerful regional leader like former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa who would conveniently switch affection between the ruling coalition at the Centre based on her interests.

So even in 2014, there was speculation about the Trinamool Congress re-joining the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. But Mamata was in politics for the longer haul and would not let herself be lost in the rainbow of a coalition.

To her credit, when all parties were reeling in the aftermath of the Modi tsunami in 2014, the Trinamool Congress had maintained its ground. Mamata could justifiably take pride in restricting the BJP to just two seats in West Bengal, even though the party's vote share had risen, negating all speculation of a Hindu push-back in certain parts of the state.

In the high-decibel politicking of the past few months, one may have forgotten that it was one of Mamata's emissaries in Delhi who had first mooted a formula to defeat the BJP in 2019. At that point, few took him seriously, besides a few of his friends in the media.

However, Mamata had sensed an opportunity in the decimation of the Congress and the dismembering of the Bengal unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Hindi heartland parties were putting their pieces together after suffering a further setback in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, and the Congress looked broken beyond repair.

Sharp as she is, Mamata would have also figured that it was only a matter of time before the Modi sheen wanes and some degree of anti-incumbency sets in. While other parties (except Mayawati's BSP) had displayed a degree of ambivalence on demonetisation, especially after it failed to work in the Opposition's favour in Uttar Pradesh, Mamata was consistent in her attack on what turned out to be Narendra Modi's hubris.

That was the time for her to strike and occupy centre-stage on the national scene.

In politics, nothing remains static, and the plates have shifted. From the looks of it, the relaunch of Rahul 2.0 has worked for the Congress. After its wins in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the grand old party has regained much of its old chivalry, and the Bua-Bhatija alliance in Uttar Pradesh — the alliance between Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party and Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party — looks good to go.

In this situation, Mamata needs to make her moves carefully to maintain her primacy in the anti-BJP front. With the enigmatic Naveen Patnaik keeping his cards close to the chest, N Chandrababu Naidu looking unsure on this own turf, the wily KCR keeping everyone guessing, and DMK prematurely throwing in its lot with Rahul as a prime ministerial nominee, Mamata has some tricky navigation in store for her.

Altogether, these make the Trinamool-sponsored "United India Rally" in Kolkata on Saturday as much a show strength for the Opposition allies as it is for the nation at large. In a way, it is Mamata announcing her arrival as a national leader.

But what does it hold for the ordinary Bengali? It will be a stretch to think that a Bengali will get carried away and start viewing Mamata as a potential prime minister from tomorrow, but it can certainly reinforce their faith in her playing a far more important role in national politics.

For far too long, Bengalis have suffered from an inferiority complex of not getting their due share and recognition because of their lack of political clout in Delhi. Didi now holds out that hope in the image of a strong leader of "Maa, Maati, Manush". This can give her unexpected dividends in the upcoming Lok Sabha election in warding off any inroads by the BJP on her home ground.

Therefore, the "United India Rally" may have been well worth the investment for Mamata.

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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2019 16:46:02 IST

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