One thing is clear. As absurd as it may seem, Mamata Banerjee is positioning herself as Prime Minister. Her giant ego has been flattered by her big victory in Bengal. In her mind, she is asking for sure: if Modi could make a bid for Prime Minister after 3 successive election victories, why not her?
On paper, her point is exactly right. If anything, her three successive victories in Bengal are actually bigger than the 3 successive wins of Modi in Gujarat. Remember that from 2002 to 2007 to 2017, the BJP actually registered marginal declines in seat tallies in Gujarat assembly. On the other hand, as incredible as it may seem, the TMC has actually gained both votes and seats in Bengal, from 2011 to 2016 to 2021!
This is why I have been daring Bengali “intellectuals” since the results of May 2. Come out and demand that Mamata Banerjee be declared the PM candidate by a joint opposition, including the Congress. If you have Bengali pride, show it. Why can’t a Bengali be PM? If you hide now, you are just cowards who are scared of Sonia Gandhi’s son.
Of course, this is where the structural limitations of the TMC come in. We hardly need to explain this point. Back in 2012, the BJP was at a low ebb. But even at that, it was a major force across northern, western and central India, along with Karnataka. The BJP was in bad shape in Uttar Pradesh, but they were always in the contest somewhere. In contrast, the TMC is absolutely nowhere in any state outside West Bengal. They actually have a small base in Tripura, but most people wouldn’t even know that.
It turned out that in 2014, the BJP swept every state in its catchment area, from Uttar Pradesh to Maharashtra. If you ask me, the BJP (technically NDA) sweep in Maharashtra was as big, if not a bigger surprise than Uttar Pradesh. In Maharashtra, the BJP snapped up seats that the Congress would never have lost in 60 years. It didn’t just pick up such seats, it gobbled them up with margins of over 1-2 lakh votes.
In contrast, the TMC is nowhere. How would it even cobble together 50 seats? Assume for a moment that BJP faces a worst case scenario in Bengal. Assume that Mamata is able to create some crazy wave of Bengali pride that runs over party loyalties (unlikely… we just saw how hardcore political loyalties in Bengal can get). Even then, the TMC is capped at 42 seats. Nothing more.
Surely, the TMC supremo has done this calculation. Her only chance lies in a fractured mandate in 2024, and sweeping Bengal, which would make her “third largest party” in the Lok Sabha. Ironically, this status of “3rd largest” once used to be occupied by the Left, using the very same Bengal as their base.
Luckily, the methods that Mamata Banerjee needs in order to realize her dream scenario also help Modi/BJP in at least three ways. For one, she has to make sure that the opposition does not rally around Rahul Gandhi. This is likely to create an unstructured, confused picture for the opposition as it takes on a BJP standing rock solid behind PM Modi.
Second, when Mamata Banerjee throws her hat into the ring, some other regional opposition leaders might start fancying their chances. The first person to think of this should have been M K Stalin, but I find the DMK lacking in ambition and somehow in awe of the Congress. But there is always Sharad Pawar. Or one of the two big regional parties from Uttar Pradesh.
These regional leaders are all in awe of the Congress dynasty to various degrees. That is what sets Mamata Banerjee apart. She demurs to Sonia Gandhi, but has nothing but contempt for Rahul. So I am not saying these other regional leaders will try to sideline Congress. I am saying they will bristle at Mamata’s assumed leadership and try to sideline her. Even with no particular aim in mind, they will trip her up just like that…
The third and most important thing is that TMC needs to keep Congress tally in 2024 to an absolute minimum. As a wannabe for “3rd largest party,” she needs the gap between TMC and Congress to be as small as possible. Now, the TMC has a hard cap at 42 seats. The Congress is at 52 seats. She needs the Congress to stay exactly where it stands now. With each seat that Congress gains, her chances get worse.
This brings me to the Congress, which is really a sleeping giant. Rahul Gandhi does not understand it. Nay, he is too dumb to understand it. That’s why he is so eager to bend backwards and compromise. Even at its very low ebb, the Congress stands a serious chance (and always will) of displacing BJP in 2024. All that the Congress has to do is carry its weight in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, win back some seats in Bihar and Jharkhand, sweep Kerala, get a good seat sharing deal from DMK in Tamil Nadu and not screw up in Karnataka. A handful of seats from Maharashtra, Haryana and Punjab will take them close to the UPA 1 score of 145. From that point, the game belongs to Congress for sure. Now, it is doubtful that all these gambles will go right for Congress, but these are not impossible either.
Rahul Gandhi does not realize that the Congress is a sleeping giant, but Modi surely does. That is why, even though Rahul’s image has been run into the ground, the BJP can never stop taunting and belittling the Congress.
This is where we have an ironic confluence of interests between BJP and TMC. Both parties see a silver lining in demoralizing the Congress. The more Mamata Banerjee flaunts her superiority in Delhi, the more Congress workers stop believing in themselves. That works great for BJP.
In Mamata’s daring bid for PM, there is a final silver lining for BJP. In some sense, Mamata Banerjee has already abdicated her throne in Bengal. Whatever convoluted strategy she has, one thing is certain. It is going to take a lot of time and energy. Since there are only 24 hours in each day, she has to loosen her grip on the administration in Bengal. Given the way dynastic parties work, it means the reins will pass into the hands of her nephew. The latter is arrogant, inexperienced and has never achieved anything in his life. This is everything you would look for in a failed administrator.
That means it is time for BJP to double up its effort in Bengal. The Assembly election of 2021 is already history. As Mamata quits the state, there are going to mistakes galore. The BJP has to do in Bengal what it has always done best: play the role of opposition.