“Hum aap se ek mat hain. Aap ke saath rahengey (I am in agreement with you. I will work with you).”
This was what West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said to her Telangana counterpart K Chandrashekar Rao in March last year, after he hit upon the brainwave of a federal front without Congress and BJP.
Two weeks later, KCR (as Rao is known) said after meeting Banerjee in Kolkata that the front he wanted was an “amalgamation of like-minded people who are determined to reinvent national politics.”
Forget reinventing politics, national or otherwise. Mamata and KCR have reinvented themselves since then. Instead of walking into KCR’s front, Mamata sought to launch her own in the West Bengal capital on Saturday. And it was in the fitness of things that KCR made himself scarce at Mamata’s rally, with the Telangana Assembly session coming as a convenient ruse.
So what happened between Mamata and KCR?
For one thing, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leader wants to be as far away as possible from any front which has even a remote connection with Congress, his main rival in Telangana. And he wants to have nothing whatsoever to do with any grouping where his sworn enemy and Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu hangs out.
With both Congress and Naidu marking their presence at the United India Rally, there was no way the Telangana satrap could be part of it. Even Mamata has no love lost for Congress, a party she has been fighting in West Bengal, but she suffers from no qualms in rubbing shoulders with it nationally.
That’s the politics of it, from the outside. And now, dig deeper.
Aside from the fact that both Mamata and KCR believe that they are of the stuff prime ministers are made of, they are differently inclined towards Congress and BJP, despite their history of past associations with the two parties.
But in the aftermath of the 2014 poll result and depending on who musters how many seats, the impetuous Didi is perhaps more inclined to go the Congress way and continue to fight that party locally — that is if she can’t manoeuvre herself into the South Block. And KCR may head in the direction of Modi. That is when opportunism puts on a dress with the convenient label of ‘conditional support’. In the end, the idea of a Congress-mukt and BJP-mukt front may not be as exciting or suffocating as the more elastic conception known as ‘keeping options open’.
This is not to suggest that the whole rigmarole of Opposition unity centres round the chief ministers of West Bengal and Telangana or that the battle for Delhi hinges on an East-versus-South tussle. It’s also not the case that all those who were present at the Kolkata rally were bubbling with enthusiasm for having Mamata, who anointed herself as a “national leader”, as the champion of Opposition unity (= future prime minister). Mamata and KCR are just two examples of clashing ambitions and conflicting interests in the whole bizarre drama over cooking up a chowchow of sundry parties to take on Narendra Modi in 2019.
The likes of Mamata, however, may end up committing the mistakes of their political lives if they dismiss offhand the likes of KCR as poor Opposition cousins from South. Nobody should forget how, in 1996, Deve Gowda became an “accidental prime minister”, a title bestowed upon Manmohan Singh for different reasons later by a book and a movie.
But numbers can’t be accidents, though what they lead up to might be. Mamata can reasonably hope to muster 30-plus Lok Sabha seats of West Bengal’s total of 42, if her Trinamool Congress does as well as it did in the 2014 election. Telangana has 17 seats and, if the voting pattern of December’s Assembly election repeats, KCR may walk away with nearly all of them. But he won’t be happy with that.
That’s a good reason why KCR is allying with Jaganmohan Reddy of YSR Congress Party of the neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, though the arrangement hasn’t been formalised yet. KCR’s calculation is that if Jagan — as Reddy is known — wins some 15 seats of 25 in Andhra Pradesh, they might have between the two of them 30-plus strength in Lok Sabha. That won’t be a bad figure in a hung House.
This is the best KCR could get, at least for the time being, even if KCR’s proposition of a federal front didn’t exactly take India by storm. In the mind-boggling permutations and combinations that could crop up in case of a fragmented Lok Sabha result, having a front with two and a half parties, if you count KCR’s friend and ally Asaduddin Owaisi of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, is better for than ploughing a lone electoral furrow.
Deputy PM job beckons too
The job of a prime minister is a pretty good thing for KCR, but if things don’t exactly work out that way, it’s more than likely that he may not be too fussy about demanding and accepting the next best post of a deputy prime minister. And if he goes to Delhi, his son KTR (short for KT Rama Rao) who was recently made the working president of TRS, is all set to step into the father’s formidable shoes in Hyderabad.
There is another reason why KCR wants to team up with Jagan, Naidu’s chief rival in Andhra Pradesh. By extending all help to Jagan to win the Assembly election there — which will be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha poll — the Telangana chief minister wants to kill two birds with one stone. Trouncing Naidu is an ambition almost as important for KCR as grabbing a high office in Delhi. That’s the “return gift” KCR promised to Naidu in Andhra Pradesh for poking his nose in the recent Telangana election.
For the Telangana leader, the local cake comes with a national icing. KCR, who shares Deve Gowda’s rustic simplicity and political cunning, knows what to do if he isn’t part of Mamata’s front, or if she isn’t part of his.
Author tweets @sprasadindia
Updated Date: Jan 19, 2019 23:15:43 IST