For the past few months, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is on a recruitment drive, inducting former MPs and MLAs from different political parties, especially the Congress. This involves poaching of legislators from the Congress in small states such as Goa, Tripura and Meghalaya and recruiting small players in the big states. This might have initially come as a surprise since the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was until recently a strong proponent of Opposition unity to strengthen the fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the 2024 Lok Sabha election. In January 2019, she had assembled leaders of 23 Opposition parties in Kolkata, where they pledged to defeat the BJP. But after her spectacular victory in the assembly elections earlier this year, she is eager to further her own claims as the potential leader of the Opposition coalition and not necessarily furthering the cause of Opposition unity. She is keen on dislodging the Congress from its perch as the leader of the Opposition.
To achieve this goal, the TMC has launched a strident campaign to discredit the Congress which it now regards as its principal adversary. Its leaders have been loudly contending that the Congress is a poor challenger to the BJP and it is ready to tackle the BJP more aggressively than the Congress. Rahul Gandhi has been dubbed as a failure in the fight against the BJP since he lost his seat in Amethi. But irrespective of the declining fortunes of the Congress, the BJP continues to train its guns on the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. It relentlessly attacks the Congress, which it sees as the principal danger, and not regional parties or the TMC. It has not deviated from the goal of Congress-mukt Bharat since 2013 when Narendra Modi was anointed as the party’s prime ministerial candidate and announced the explicit objective of a ‘Congress-free India’. The TMC is continuing the task that the BJP set out to do after 2014 — eliminating the Congress.
The TMC’s expansion plans beyond West Bengal is perfectly legitimate as the party has every right to contest in every state but the strategy it has adopted for this is competitive politics in the Opposition. The expansion spree is not based on the natural growth of the party but on defections of disgruntled leaders from other parties. The issue is not the right to contest elections but the defection-driven model of party-building outside West Bengal. There is a political pushback against this model of expansion after the drubbing the TMC suffered at the hands of the BJP in the recently concluded Tripura civic body despite serious doubts about the fairness of these polls.
This frantic expansion activity benefits the BJP because the TMC is entering states where it is directly challenging the Congress first rather than taking on the BJP. Right now, it is keener on splitting the anti-BJP vote rather than unifying the Opposition which would give an advantage to the BJP in states in which the main contest is between the BJP and Congress. Also it is worth noting that the TMC has been trying to make inroads outside Bengal for several years but without much success.
This will be more difficult now as Opposition parties have to confront the changing dynamics of inter-party competition with different implications and greater need for the Opposition’s cohesion. The TMC’s effort to establish its primacy in the Opposition has thrown a spanner in the gruelling process of building a united opposition front. Opposition unity to fight the BJP seems to have become harder. The TMC skipped the meeting of Opposition parties called by the Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge ahead of the Parliament’s winter session in the backdrop of the party’s ambitions to become the principal opposition force nationally. But keeping away from the Opposition meetings or the decision not to sign the joint statement issued by Opposition parties, to protest the suspension of 12 Rajya Sabha MPs, two of whom belonged to the TMC, will not give the TMC a bigger voice. Actually, its arbitrary actions are a self-negating proposition — a sign that the party is not quite up to the task of leading the Opposition.
Even as Mamata Banerjee aims to occupy the Congress space, it will not be easy for her party to become electorally viable in states where it has no social base or party organisation. Barring a few leaders, none of the new entrants carry much political weight in their respective states; most of them lack local ground support and will be unable to help in the expansion of the TMC in Haryana, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. Its seat share will not increase significantly in 2024 unless it can win seats in these and other Hindi speaking states or the non-Hindi speaking states of southern and western India where it will find itself pitted against regional parties. Even if the TMC wins a larger number of Lok Sabha seats in 2024, its claim to be recognised as the principal Opposition party will not have the desired credibility for the simple reason that the Congress has a much larger national footprint and vote share, and the party is not about to disappear despite the expectations of the media.
Opposition parties face the challenge of competing on an electoral playing field that is structurally skewed in favour of the BJP. It is an established fact that authoritarian and autocratic leaders employ a range of tactics aimed at reducing the Opposition’s visibility, raising costs of electoral contestation, and restricting the access to necessary resources, quite apart from an all-out effort to discourage and deter unity. The question in these circumstances is how Opposition parties will be able to take on the ruling party. The ability of Opposition parties to cooperate and form coalitions is a key determinant of their success. In India, things are going in the opposite direction presently. Eventually, Opposition parties will have to join hands as a divided Opposition will benefit the ruling party, making it easier for it to return to power in 2024.
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