West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee made a resounding point on Saturday when she got opposition leaders across the board to attend a rally, mammoth if reports are to be believed, pledging to unseat the current dispensation.
Several points of interest emerged from the Kolkata rally, not all of them unambiguous. First, almost all the opposition was present, save the Left, which was doing its own thing elsewhere. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) were there, as was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Janata Dal (Secular). There were the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rebels as well.
In one voice they castigated the current regime, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Most of what was said was pro forma. We shall not go into it in detail here. What stood out at this mammoth exercise was that one person had managed to get so many heads under one roof. And that was Mamata. If politics is a stage, Mamata, who for the most part was conducting the show, played her role with aplomb.
But, as we know, performances on the political stage are not meant primarily for the delectation of the audience. Mamata was not on the stage merely to please the admittedly large crowd gathered for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. She was making the point that she had a legitimate claim to the biggest prize: the prime ministerial chair.
That may still be in the distance, though the Kolkata show, if merely as an index of Opposition unity, has surely rocked the boat. That was quite apparent from Modi's reaction. He has been reported to have said that the Opposition has formed an alliance to save itself from the BJP. ‘They are seeing public support slipping away and I can hear screams of bachao, bachao, bachao,’ Modi was quoted as saying.
A prime minister, once seen as puissant, can, of course, say no less. It is clear, though, to even the most casual observer that public support is slipping away from the BJP. Modi’s approval ratings have taken a beating. And the BJP has lost three governments in northern India. The momentum is with the opposition. And it is that momentum that Mamata is trying to harness. It is worth looking at the possibilities.
If a dispensation comes to power that is headed neither by the BJP or the Congress, several claimants can offer their service for the occupancy of 7 Lok Kalyan Marg. If the BSP does sufficiently well in Uttar Pradesh, its boss, Mayawati, will be in the frame, especially if other leaders from northern India backs her candidature for prime ministerial office. But she is by no means a shoo-in. From the south, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu could stake a claim, being one of the progenitors and prime movers of opposition to the BJP and the construction of a platform of unity.
His claim would depend, however, on his having numbers behind him. It is unlikely that he will command that kind of strength. He could, however, emerge, as a consensus candidate, as, indeed, did former prime minister HD Deve Gowda.
On the other hand, Mamata is practically sure to send a minimum of 35 members to the Lok Sabha from Bengal. Slim pickings from the North East are possible. With that kind of contingent behind her, Mamata could, in the event of a united front kind of government, claim prime ministerial precedence. The Kolkata show, fairly successful by any account, was meant to underline that claim.
It is worth examining Mamata's political situation in the context of a 'bid' for prime ministerial office. When former Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu was offered the prime ministerial ‘throne’ a joke was doing the rounds in Bengal. Impossible, some asked, who will be our chief minister if Jyotibabu goes off to Delhi? This witticism applies to Mamata as well.
If Mamata were to go off to Delhi, she would have to place somebody on the chief ministerial chair in Kolkata. Given her proclivities, it is extremely unlikely she would entrust this responsibility to any of her colleagues. Her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, already being groomed for some kind of succession, is a possibility.
The problem is that it is unlikely that Mamata junior could hold the party together. Trinamool leaders obey Mamata's ukases, however whimsical they may appear, because, despite her many failings, she engineered the downfall of the Left Front through sheer grit. Senior leaders would not easily bend to the dictates of a neophyte.
Which raises the question: Who? The Opposition must solve this conundrum. It may say that the fight against the Modi regime is collegial, but normally the electorate wants to know who it is voting in as the leader of the government (or country). There being no obvious candidate is a disadvantage, even if one discounts a presidential-style campaign.
Just as the Opposition needs to put together a credible manifesto, as suggested at the rally by Deve Gowda, it must pick someone to head a disparate coalition. And despite Mamata's impressive show, it can’t be she who will be the ‘face’.
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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2019 09:10:24 IST