In Mamata’s national leadership push, populism and opportunism at display

Using the NRC issue, she is on an overdrive.

Using the NRC issue, Mamata is on an overdrive.
Using the NRC issue, Mamata is on an overdrive.

It would be an error to interpret Mamata Banerjee’s remarks on the NRC as merely another instance of her mercurial nature.

When Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee warned of a civil war breaking out in case the Modi Government continued with its ‘discriminatory’ attitude in the preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam, her apologists said it was an emotional outburst keeping India’s interests at heart. When she declared that the Centre had imposed a “super emergency” by preventing a delegation of her party’s leaders to visit some of the families left out in the draft NRC list announced recently, her supporters said she had not exaggerated. It’s true that the West Bengal Chief Minister is known to be hyperbolic and that many of her utterances are dramatic in nature. But it would be an error to interpret her remarks on the NRC as merely another instance of her mercurial nature. There is a method in her madness.

It is because the Trinamool Congress supremo considers the NRC issue good enough to serve her national ambitions, that she brought the fight to Delhi.

The method has to do with her desire to emerge as the predominant voice of the opposition. She was shrewd enough to pick on the NRC issue because she had the field all for herself. There are many reasons for it. One, the Congress had to be muted in its criticism of the NRC because its regimes had in the past backed the exercise as a way to differentiate between genuine Indians and infiltrators from Bangladesh. Besides, public opinion in Assam is heavily in favor of the ongoing exercise, and the Congress, desperate to crawl back in the reckoning after being ousted by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the State election, cannot be seen as condemnatory of the NRC. Two, the Trinamool Congress has little to lose in electoral terms in Assam. Three, other regional parties, although voicing their opposition to the manner in which the NRC has been conducted, have largely kept out of the issue, simply because it does not directly impact their politics in their respective States. And four, Mamata Banerjee believes that by taking on the Modi Government over the NRC, she can further burnish her credentials amongst the Muslim community in her own State ahead of the Lok Sabha election in mid-2019 — a dominant number of the 40 lakh persons who have not found their names in the NRC of July, belong to the minority community because a vast majority of those who have crossed over to India illegally and settled in Assam are Muslims.

It is because the Trinamool Congress supremo considers the NRC issue good enough to serve her national ambitions, that she brought the fight to Delhi. She has positioned herself as not just the principal voice on the subject, but also the leader in ‘protecting minority (read Muslim) interests’. As part of this script, she has thundered that she would not allow an NRC for West Bengal. Incidentally, West Bengal is the other State where a good number of illegal entrants are said to be not just living but flourishing on Government patronage.

The only certainty is that the opposition parties have given up on a consensus candidate for the prime ministership.

That Mamata Banerjee is an opportunist, is without a doubt. Just a little over a decade ago, she had created a ruckus in Parliament over the issue of illegal immigrants in West Bengal and had vowed to oust them if she came to power in the State. It was not national interest then which made her furious; those immigrants had been patronized by the Left Front and had turned into committed Left voters. Today, also, her about-turn has nothing to with national interests; the immigrants have become her vote-bank over the past few years and need to be protected.

Using the NRC issue, she is on an overdrive. During her recent visit to Delhi, she not only met a host of leaders from opposition parties but also BJP veteran LK Advani, perhaps hoping to work on his hurt sensibilities. It would lead anyone to believe that Mamata Banerjee, not Rahul Gandhi, the president of the country’s largest opposition party, the Congress, is spearheading the anti-Modi campaign. Interestingly, while only a few months ago, Rahul Gandhi had projected himself as a prime ministerial candidate of a possibly united opposition, he and his party have effectively abandoned that line. This is less to do with any new-found magnanimity of the grand old party, and more in keeping with the realization that there are few takers for Rahul Gandhi’s leadership outside of the Congress.

Mamata Banerjee’s aggression is based on a simple calculation. She believes that the Trinamool Congress will be the single largest regional party outside of the NDA fold. Since the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are expected to contest as partners in Uttar Pradesh and share seats, neither of these can hope to get bigger numbers than the Trinamool Congress. The only other regional party which can come close is the Biju Janata Dal. But there are ‘ifs’ here too. It is possible that the Trinamool Congress may end up with fewer seats than it expects. In case that happens because of a successful push by the BJP in the State, Mamata Banerjee’s bargaining power will diminish. Most importantly, the last word has still not been said on whether the Congress is prepared to hand over the leadership of a united opposition, even post-election result, to her.

The only certainty is that the opposition parties have given up on a consensus candidate for the prime ministership. In a way, this makes sense because the prime ministerial candidate issue is divisive and divisions cannot be afforded in an election battle. But who is to say that those divisions will not break out in the open, post-election — assuming that the BJP-led NDA falls short of a majority and the opposition has to stake a claim.


Note:
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.

Rajesh Singh

Rajesh Singh

Rajesh Singh is a Delhi-based senior political commentator and public affairs analyst
Rajesh Singh

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