Did Mamata overstep the line in sounding UPA’s death knell?

The Congress is the only opposition party that has a national footprint and whatever Mamata Banerjee or the TMC’s feats may be, they still have a distance to cover. Banerjee may be in a hurry to do so but a giant leap ahead of  time may be imprudent. 

With West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s shocker announcing the demise of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance or the UPA as it is better known, a section of the Opposition is in a tizzy. The UPA, Banerjee had said, was virtually non-existent.

The Congress’ coalition partners in Maharashtra, namely the Shiv Sena and the NCP, who Banerjee met during her recent visit to Mumbai, were in a bind because of this outburst.

For the uninitiated, after a meeting with Nationalist Congress Party’s Chief Sharad Pawar, Banerjee had said: “What is UPA? There is no UPA?”.

Earlier during her visit to the national Capital, New Delhi, Banerjee had skipped meeting Congress chief Mrs. Sonia Gandhi: “It is not constitutionally mandated” she had said when asked why she did not meet the Congress President. Even if the battle lines were, then, a bit hazy, her sounding UPA’s death knell has deepened the political divide.

Banerjee, it may be recalled, was a constituent of the UPA when it was in power between 2004 and 2014. She even served as Union Railways Minister during Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure as Prime Minister.

Till 1998, she was part of the Congress before she broke away to form the Trinamool Congress. At heart, she remained ingrained in the Congress ideology. She also enjoyed a special rapport with Congress chief Mrs Sonia Gandhi.

However, of late the relationship between the Congress and the TMC has hit an all-time low. The TMC has unabashedly welcomed well- known Congress faces into its fold, particularly Rahul Gandhi’s loyalists.

The Congress is crying foul alleging large scale poaching by the TMC that has not confined itself to the home state. If anything, it has extended its footprint even in the north. This is because Banerjee is now looking beyond Bengal and therefore the need to rope in leaders from states like Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Haryana, Bihar and still counting.

Apart from Sushmita Dev, Mukul Sangma, both from the north east, the most notable inductions are from Uttar Pradesh wherein the Tripathis have joined Banerjee’s bandwagon.

It is pertinent to point out that Dev was considered as part of Rahul Gandhi’s “inner circle”. The Tripathis, on the other hand, have had a long association with the Gandhi family.

The erstwhile Railway Minister, Kamlapati Tripathi, was Mrs Indira Gandhi’s closest advisers and his daughter-in-law Chandra Tripathi, too, bonded well with her. The relationship continued till Rajeshpati and his son Laliteshpati, quit to join the TMC.

Earlier Jyotiraditya Scindia had quit the Congress. It is another matter that he chose to join the BJP instead of the TMC.  But when Scindia broke away, the TMC was not in the reckoning. Today, Scindia is a Union Minister, with the coveted Civil Aviation portfolio.

Apart from recording a mere sequence of events, it is important to underline the fact that the Gandhis have given a short-shrift to people who have stood by them through thick and thin. In fact, if Scindia could leave then anyone can.

Apart from the association going back to Jyotiraditya’s father Madhavrao, the Scindia scion and the Gandhi siblings were also personally close.

This perhaps is the reason why Jyotiraditya Scindia did not raise a banner of revolt when he was upstaged by Kamalnath for the office of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister. This was quite unlike Sachin Pilot who extracted a pound of flesh and bagged the post of a Deputy while conceding the Chief Minister’s post to his bete noire Ashok Gehlot.

Internal politics apart, this time around, the Congress is pitched against an ally turned foe: the diminutive street fighter Mamata Banerjee who is in a tearing hurry to unite anti-BJP forces.

Immediately after her win, she had signaled the need for Opposition parties to come together to take on the BJP. And she had made it clear that the Time starts now.

In August this year, a few weeks into the TMC’s spectacular win in her home state West Bengal, Banerjee had said: “Nothing can be done by a doctor who comes after the patient has died. The patient can be saved if treatment is given on time. Now is your Time”.

Even while she sounded the Opposition unity bugle, Banerjee was unwilling to wait and watch. It is her DNA to act and once she makes up her mind then she pursues the course irrespective whether others join in or not. In this sense, she is kind of an akela cholo or a solo politician. She can seek camaraderie but if it does not come her way, so be it.

Nothing demonstrates this better than what she said recently: “What do we do if one is not fighting? …If somebody is afraid, if they cannot take a decision, they just waste time and allow the BJP to become more and more powerful… we will not allow that. We are watching for the last six to eight years, but if somebody is not coming out openly, then somebody (else) has to bell the cat,” Banerjee said. Even though she did not name the Congress, the inference was clear.

Equally, when she referred to “holidays abroad” she did not name Rahul Gandhi but it was clear that she was referring to Gandhi’s sudden, secret and mysterious holidays at the drop of a hat.

The Gandhi scion is known to be abroad during crucial times including the farmers protests and the Congress’ 136thFoundation Day celebrations: “You can’t be abroad most of the time. Continuous endeavor is necessary in politics,” Banerjee said during an interaction with civil society during her controversial Mumbai visit.

One cannot fault Banerjee for being enraged at the Congress’ inertia. What others can clearly decipher, the leadership seems ill-equipped to decode.

There is a large-scale exodus from the grand old Party, which is not so grand anymore. Those who chose to stay back are also restless because the Party is doing little to assuage feelings or address concerns. At the macro level, it has failed to comprehend the challenge posed by the BJP.

This is Banerjee’s angst and hence her outburst because she is unwilling, and rightly so, to stake her or her Party’s future at the whim and fancy of the Congress. Her political upbringing and fiery spirit has taught her to seize the moment and this being the opportune time she is raring to go. Not the one to mince words, Banerjee has, therefore, made her stance and observations about the Congress and its heir explicitly clear.

Enter Shiv Sena’s trouble-shooter Sanjay Raut dangling a dramatically changed script:  from No UPA to there cannot be any Opposition without the Congress. 

In an editorial in its mouthpiece Saamana, the Shiv Sena said that strengthening the UPA is the only option before the Opposition parties. The editorial came a few days after Banerjee’s No UPA remark.

Technically, Raut is right. The Congress is the only Opposition Party that has a national footprint and whatever Banerjee or the TMC’s feats may be, they still have a distance to cover. Banerjee may be in a hurry to do so but a giant leap ahead of Time may be imprudent.

In a Party to Party comparison, the Congress is way ahead and despite the TMC trying to enlarge its footprint, it still has a long way to go.

For starters, it would have to shed its Bengali Party tag and pitch itself as one which is sensitive to the aspirations of the non-Bengali people who live outside Banerjee’s home state. For this it would have to adjust its mental geography.

Those who are familiar with Banerjee’s style of functioning are also aware that even as Union Minister her national boundaries started and ended with West Bengal.

Of course the recent win, and that too a spectacular one has given her bigger dreams and there is no reason why she should let anyone trample over them, least of all the Congress. Hence the need to reinvent her Party and go beyond the Bengal-boundary as it were.

To be fair to Banerjee, she is not suggesting that the united Opposition should be Congress-less. If anything she is advocating a strong alternative force: “We want everyone to join the fight,” she is reported to have said. This was reiterated by Sharad Pawar who said that the intention is to have a platform of “collective leadership”.

Unlike Pawar, Banerjee’s problem is that the Congress does not appear to be in the fight. Irrespective of the ground reality, perception is a crucial factor in Indian politics and on that count, the Congress is on a weak footing.

Raut’s other salvo was to declare that he had asked Rahul Gandhi to take the lead in discussing the strategy for the 2024 national elections.

Even if this is not about leadership, pitching the Gandhi scion against Banerjee is bad politics. They would never be on the same page. They think differently and their working styles are poles apart: Rahul elite and suave while Banerjee rustic and ordinary: actually a common person’s version of what an Indian politician should be.

Add to this, her street fighting instincts and she can easily be shaped into a mould which is perfect to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi: the recent West Bengal elections being a curtain raiser to the final drama waiting to pan out in 2024.  In this battle of the giants, Rahul has little place.

It may be too early to project Banerjee as a national alternative to BJP’s Modi. But then the elections are not tomorrow. On the other hand, Banerjee needs to take one step at a time rather than precariously positioning herself at the edge, from where a premature leap can prove fatal.