In politics, there cannot be a vacuum. Nor can the party identified as the “enemy” be allowed to advance unchecked, because electoral politics is a state of permanent contest and confrontation.
The exercises in constructing a new platform that smaller and regional anti-BJP parties have embarked upon must begin with an assessment of the political scenario. If that throws up the question “Where is the UPA?” and the answer is that after 2014 the Congress-led alliance has ceased to exist, the Congress must acknowledge that it failed to hold the anti-BJP forum together.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s fast, aggressive exercises in filling the space the Congress wilfully vacated can be seen as opportunistic or it can be perceived as a necessity. For both the smaller regional parties and the Congress, the BJP is the common enemy. It’s hard and presumably satisfying when the regional and smaller parties defeated the BJP in the Assembly or other civic polls, as Mamata Banerjee did in West Bengal and the NCP, Congress and Shiv Sena did in Maharashtra. By blocking the BJP occupation of more political space, the anti-BJP parties stalled the deeper and wider erosion of the middle ground in Indian politics and kept the Sangh Parivar’s hard right communally divisive identity politics at bay.
The opposition to the BJP, based in the states, especially those that go to the polls in 2022, including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand in February-March and Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in November, has a tough fight ahead. Any boosters it gets from parties outside the regional contest, like Mamata Banerjee for instance, could help convince risk-averse voters that first, the BJP isn’t invincible, and second, that there’s an alternative in the making against the BJP.
It’s precisely this space that Ms Banerjee seems to have decided she must fill after her impressive victory in West Bengal earlier this year in what turned into a face-off with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marketing his brand of autocracy encapsulated in the “One Nation-One Party” and “Double Engine Sarkar” slogans. If she’s the self-appointed icon of the regional parties’ fight against the BJP’s hegemony, she is filling a vacancy in the Opposition the Congress is unable to fill.
The Sharad Pawar-Mamata Banerjee meeting in Mumbai recently was significant. It signalled a closing of ranks between two successful parties, both offshoots from the Congress and its formidable legacy, as the party that occupied a substantial part of the middle ground, keeping the hard right in check and the parliamentary Left as an inconsistent ally in critical situations, like in 2004 and even earlier when Indira Gandhi reigned over a minority government in 1969.
Sharad Pawar said as much when he articulated the role of the emerging platform as a collective leadership that would work “unitedly” against the BJP. He also emphasised that no party would be excluded in the league of the willing.
It has been Ms Banerjee’s contention, obviously due to her exasperation, that the Congress has been an “absentee landlord” and hasn’t taken on the role which is its responsibility, as the largest Opposition party not only in the Lok Sabha, but with deep pockets of influence across states. She has again and again attacked the Congress and underscored that time is running out for the anti-BJP platform to get started on the toughest ideological battle it needs to win in 2024.
The Pawar-Mamata meeting was an endorsement, but an unstated one, that West Bengal’s fiery petrel should go ahead and grab the vacancy to lead and focus the anti-BJP fight. There was tacit approval of the urgent necessity to do so, without waiting for the Congress to resolve its internal leadership problems and its complicated equations with regional parties.
Mr Pawar was pointedly mum about the defections from the Congress to the Trinamul Congress. It’s interesting that Samajwadi boss Akhilesh Yadav, the face of the anti-BJP fight in Uttar Pradesh, has chosen this moment to endorse Mamata Banerjee’s leadership at the national level. It points to a need to put a face and a name in place in the fight against the BJP.
Mamata Banerjee is a face and name the BJP has helped to hoist as a symbol of a successful combatant against the popularity and obviously patriarchal appeal of Narendra Modi, with his 56-inch chest and muscular hyper nationalist rhetoric. She is a woman of substantial presence and power, independent, assertive and a successful warrior.
In many ways, the Opposition strategy, approved by and spoken about by Mr Pawar, of battling the BJP state by state in order to loosen the ground from under its feet and weaken its mesmerising hold on voters as the only and inevitable party worthy of exercising power, is both smart and doable. It echoes what Ms Banerjee has been saying: that regional parties should strongly fight the BJP and prevent it from digging itself deeper into the ground on their turf. Her advice to the anti-BJP parties has been consistent: they should consolidate votes and take on the BJP in direct one-on-one contests as far as it’s possible to do so.
The strategy is smart, because it puts pressure on regional rivals to resolve their issues, which will be hard enough to do without further compounding the problem by including the forever needy Congress in the exercise. The Congress has been riding on the backs of regional parties and contesting in state elections by entering into interminable negotiations and then arriving at seat adjustments, the outcomes of which have been mostly disappointing. Its capacity to convert candidates into winners with the support of regional parties has effectively helped the BJP in states like Bihar, where the RJD is an effective challenger to the Nitish Kumar-led coalition.
The Congress trapped in its own problems is neither a viable Opposition anchor nor a winning proposition. As a full-time, energetic campaigner, Ms Banerjee is striking in that she now commands attention on the social media, television and print and web news portals that makes her a larger than life presence as a challenger to the BJP and Narendra Modi.
The new anti-BJP narrative in the making takes the exercise in building a platform and creating a coalition several steps further in shaping a stronger and more vibrant multi-party democracy that may not be as stolidly stable as the model of a single-party majority government, but is certainly more representative of the complex mosaic of interests and aspirations of a maturing Indian polity.