THE Trinamool Congress (TMC) has made it clear that it is tired of waiting for the national leadership of the Congress to get its act together. The party has decided to expand its footprint in the country, arguing that in due course, it would be the ‘real Congress’. Last week, former Haryana Congress chief Ashok Tanwar joined the TMC, as did former diplomat and Rajya Sabha MP Pavan Varma, ex-adviser to Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, along with retired cricketer Kirti Azad, who has journeyed from the BJP to the Congress and now to the TMC. There is a flurry of activity around TMC chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, but what does it all add up to?
A plan to expand in non-traditional areas is ambitious and could work only if the TMC does indeed become a magnet for disillusioned members of the Congress, the largest national party after the BJP. It’s worth remembering that one of the most significant Congress leaders in Assam, Sushmita Dev, is now a TMC Rajya Sabha MP. Indeed, it’s in the Northeast where the TMC has gained a foothold and seems to have occupied the Opposition space in BJP-ruled Tripura that was for decades ruled by the Left. So, in a sense, this TMC expansion challenges both Congress and the Left and works on Mamata Banerjee’s zest to defeat the BJP, besides her equations with satraps of other regional parties.
It is also the first time in contemporary Indian politics that a party perceived as regional, which also benefits from tapping sub-nationalism in Bengal, is making a serious bid to go national and is in effect saying ‘Dilli Chalo’. Members such as Pavan Varma and Mumbai-based RTI activist Saket Gokhale will be visible as spokespersons of the TMC to give the party a more diverse texture, besides the many forceful speakers from Bengal. After a few days in Delhi, Mamata Banerjee will head to Mumbai to meet Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. Indeed, the arithmetic behind the moves is to ensure that regardless of what happens in Uttar Pradesh, the two states that send the second and third largest contingents of MPs to Parliament — Maharashtra (48) and West Bengal (42) — bring down the BJP’s numbers in the 2024 General Election.
The process from going local to going vocal (nationally) began after the TMC defeated the BJP in the Bengal Assembly elections in May this year. It’s since become clearer that the party leadership mantle will be passed on to the CM’s 34-year-old nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, an MP who has also been active in getting former TMC members who shifted to the BJP back into the fold, and in expanding the party in other parts, particularly Tripura and other areas of the Northeast. Simultaneously, the groundwork has begun under successful election strategist Prashant Kishor. His political consultancy, I-PAC, has been signed up for a five-year contract by the TMC, the longest commitment for the company that has a good success rate in managing elections in several states. From polling voters to detailing booths to messaging, I-PAC is recruiting youngsters under its ambitious expansion plans.
The journey began with TMC strategists preparing a blueprint and first exploring if the Congress could be revitalised and made to work in harmony with strong regional forces. In most direct contests with the Congress in 2019, the BJP won over 90 per cent of the seats, but when confronted with a regional party, it won 52 per cent. Currently, the BJP has 12 chief ministers and 10 of them are in states where the Congress is the main Opposition party. The BJP rarely wins in states ruled by regional forces. But the team now working for the TMC concluded that under its current leadership, the Congress cannot be relied upon to lead a robust Opposition. The fact that the Congress has not considered removing its Bengal state unit chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, known for making disrespectful remarks about Mamata, possibly also rankled, even as this also reveals the Congress’ lack of application to building harmony within the Opposition space.
There is a conundrum about Rahul Gandhi. Most Opposition parties, even allies, believe his approach to politics fundamentally amounts to holding his space in the troubled party and waiting for the BJP to defeat itself. The BJP, meanwhile, believes that as long as Rahul is pitted against Narendra Modi, it has the upper hand. The Prashant Kishor team, say sources, also checked out AAP as a vehicle for a national plan, but concluded that the young party’s vision currently seems to be confined to being a BJP-like party built around a charismatic leader. Besides, AAP has national ambitions of its own.
Meanwhile, from within the Congress, Priyanka Gandhi is indeed on the ground in Uttar Pradesh. But overall, the Congress’ leadership strategy appears to be to remain on top of the Opposition ladder without doing much work. The TMC is now ready to challenge that model and it has nothing to lose by trying. But it’s an onerous task to conquer new territories without a traditional electoral base.
The TMC’s plans will really work only if Congress members with a support base of their own start migrating to the party. And that would depend on the results of the forthcoming Assembly polls, leadership decisions within the Congress and the gains they could get from joining the TMC. But Mamata is certainly on a mission of expansion and outreach to other parties; she believes that her natural allies would be DMK, Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party, Biju Janata Dal, YSR Congress Party and Telangana Rashtra Samithi. But should the SP-led alliance in Uttar Pradesh manage to defeat the BJP, all national-level Opposition calculations are likely to change.
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