The author has worked with Deccan Herald for two decades, and also with various TV channels such as al-Jazeera and CNN. He currently heads the Eastern Bureau of Parliamentarian
THERE has been much brouhaha about the January 19 Mega Opposition Conclave hosted by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee; a critical stock-taking too might have been done in various sections of the media. Perhaps, the one that follows, might as well be stale within a fortnight or so. The overriding reason is obvious: it’s poll time and permutations and combinations fluctuate and shape up all too suddenly, taking even the seasoned poll forecaster off guard.
One example at the beginning would be enough; the Bharatiya Janata Party and its now-sweet-again-sour, belligerent partner Shiv Sena have forged a deal in Maharashtra for the assembly as well as Lok Sabha polls, having buried long-drawn hatchets. And in New Delhi, AAP and the Congress have sworn not to make an inquest of the body (read rivalry) after exhuming it from the coffin and embraced a new relationship around the Valentine’s Day!
Be that as it may, Mamata Banerjee’s mega show of galvanising the virtual` who’s who’ from the Opposition at the beginning of the year served a unifying force at the nick of time. Didi, it must be conceded, still commands the gusto to liaise and egg on the tie-ups with a single point agenda – BJP Hatao/Bharat Bachao. That she succeeded in gathering together ‘heterogeneous heads’ under a single roof, is no doubt, quite commendable. However, the point that is a logical follow-through, is, what after this; the conclave had to keep at bay the crucial question of who would be at the helm of the country replacing Narendra Modi in the coming polls, she had perforce to declare at a subsequent meet in New Delhi that the burning issue of the prime ministerial candidate of the Opposition would be declared in due course.
Many in the Opposition, as also in Trinamool Congress, found in Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee the best qualities of an emcee executed with tremendous professionalism. Because she took it upon herself the role of playing the anchor-woman so that nothing went amiss nor the top-notch leaders of the Opposition - Mallikarjun Kharge, Sharad Pawar, Chandrababu Naidu, Arvind Kejriwal, Farooq and Omar Abdullah, Akhilesh and Tejashwi Yadav, Shatrughan Sinha, Yashwant Sinha, and the last, but not the least, Narendra Modi’s two main tormentors in his home state of Gujarat, Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Left-leaning Dalit mascot Jignesh Mevani - would feel hurt during any time of the grand unity show.
The questions or the issues that have been hogging the limelight in the political vortex in the aftermath of the successful conclave, are: • Is she engaged in astute political manoeuvring to slowly establish her credentials as an alternative to Modi, given the united show of the opposition in the rally convened by her?
• Is she sending an indirect yet firm signal to Sonia Gandhi-Rahul Gandhi (and now Priyanka Vadra Gandhi)-led Congress that the contest for the hot seat post the Lok Sabha elections will not go undisputed?
• Did the Modi-Shah-led BJP deliberately allow the conclave to be a successful in order to take the heat and media attention away from Rahul Gandhi?
• Can the conclave be construed as part of a BJP gameplan to drive a wedge in the opposition unity with one block supporting Mamata as the future PM and another Rahul or Priyanka (a political greenhorn though)?
The last issue has already gained credence, as within a few days after the rally DMK leader Stalin had declined to accept Mamata Banerjee’s leadership at the centre and made it clear that the Southern states would love to see Rahul Gandhi as the next PM. BSP chief Mayawati from Uttar Pradesh too challenged the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.
In sharp contrast, RJD leader and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s son Tejashwi Yadav reposed full faith in Didi, while Chandrababu Naidu is yet to officially accept her as the future PM.
Naidu had lavished praise on her at the rally though, appreciating her sincere efforts to raise the pitch of the fight against the BJP at all levels. So, the BJP, one may assume, has gained post the mega Mamata rally in two ways; first, it succeeded in keeping the issue of the prime ministerial candidate still burning. Secondly, seeds of division in the opposition unity over the same issue, have been carefully sown.
True, the Congress got wind of it and struck fast in a quick counter-attack, by declaring and roping in Priyanka Gandhi as the party chief in Uttar Pradesh, the Yogi Adityanath-ruled state BJP has still been banking on a potential yield in terms of seats in the coming parliamentary polls. As for Didi, it was a mixed fare. She had a groundswell of support for her commitment to float an anti-BJP front at the national level. That she could stitch together a heterogeneous front and remain at the helm without triggering a single divisive voice, proved beyond doubt her credentials as a seasoned administrator.
All this has also made her a serious challenger for the top job.
On the home front, she, however, suffered some reverses a little later. What we cannot afford to forget is the fact that she had made the announcement of the mega opposition rally on July 21, 2018, long before the anti-BJP mood-swing could really have gathered the present storm. “Where was that pronounced swing against the BJP?” asked a senior Trinamool Congress leader. Didi, undeniably, has been mocked for her call ‘Delhi Chalo’; as if, she has been raring to go for the hot seat, come what may.
Her success has also ferried some worries for the Congress leadership.
Senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who were present at the rally, carried a special missive from Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Though both of them were invited, the mother-son duo gave the gathering a miss. Reasons cited were a bit mysterious though both wished the rally a grand success.
The West Bengal unit of the Congress boycotted the conclave on the plea that it could hardly participate in a unity show with a party which ‘is no different from Modi’.
By dispatching Kharge and Singhvi, the Congress leadership might have just been testing the waters as also the overall mood of the opposition camp, and whether the leaders were really missing the presence of Rahul Gandhi. But she being Mamata Banerjee, Didi completely overshadowed everything, let alone the absence of Rahul Gandhi. It was abundantly clear to all those present on the dias; she made none feel the absence of the Gandhi parivar. And as stated earlier that Rahul would not be the undisputed king of the throne has been made categorically clear.
Hardly had Mamata Banerjee started basking in the glory of the magnificent gathering when she was greeted by a rude jolt. She got embroiled in a fierce controversy involving the jurisdiction of the CBI and that of the state government and its police force.
Citing victimisation and vengeance (by the Modi government for organising the Opposition Conclave, she indulged in a ruckus that hardly befits the stature of a chief minister. Instead of asking the Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar, who happens to be a close confidante of Didi, to come to her place or office, the chief minister herself drove to the official residence of the top cop to prevent his purported arrest by the CBI sleuths over the multi-crore Saradha chit fund scam that ruined millions.
The dharna that subsequently followed and the coercive action by the Bengal police against the CBI officers hardly behove a federal apparatus where the rule of the law is very well defined.
The CBI raid at the residence of Kumar, who had reportedly been evading summons by the CBI, had been described as ‘an affront on the federal set up’ by the chief minister who launched the ‘Save Democracy’ dharna.
Barely a week back, Mamata, the succinct force behind the massive rally, who had demonstrated her extraordinary ability to unite leaders of diverse ideologies, was suddenly reduced to a situation from where the Supreme Court directive, fortunately, provided her with the dire oxygen and a face-saving exit route.
Had not the CBI top brass moved the apex court and the latter not come up with an interim directive, the ill-conceived dharna would have continued! Even though she claimed it (the SC directive) to be a moral victory, there is no doubt that the directive itself was a severe loss of face for her.
The apex court issued contempt notices against her top officials and directed the CBI to conduct the interrogation of the top cop at a ‘neutral’ venue – Shillong; this only suggests that the same could not be conducted even-handedly in Kolkata. Doesn’t this clearly shed a poor light on her governance?
Both the opposition CPIM and Congress in the state lambasted her for what the parties described as ‘shameless act of providing protection’ to a top cop, triggering a bevvy of questions.
“She did not demonstrate an identical alacrity when her party MP Sudip Banerjee was arrested by the CBI. Does Rajeev Kumar hold some special key to the Saradha scam?” asked the state Congress chief Somen Mitra who happens to be Mamata’s strong bete noire.
What is equally intriguing is the fact that after so much of noise and the resultant heat, the chief minister had to shunt out Rajeev Kumar from the post of Kolkata police commissioner to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) as its head. The grilling of Kumar at Shillong has still been on, though. Secondly, the chief minister who has been crying hoarse about being a champion of democracy and questioning the Modi government’s constitutional propriety, is being lampooned by the BJP for not practising what she has been preaching.
“It is sad to see that Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has been denied permission to land his helicopter for the Lok Sabha campaigning. Earlier, prime minister Narendra Modi was denied a huge ground as his venue for a public meeting in North 24 Parganas district by the state administration. It’s so ridiculous to see her launching a Save Democracy campaign,” alleged the BJP Bengal unit chief Dilip Ghosh.
Meanwhile, the latest action by the Kolkata police left a section of the city intellectuals fuming and gaping in wonder. “Bhabishyoter Bhoot” (Ghost of the Future), a film by Anik Dutta that has dealt with the modern times in an extremely satirical manner, was forcibly taken off from the cinema halls in the city, citing ‘law and order’ issue.
A shocked and surprised Dutta, who launched an impromptu dharna in front of the Academy of Fine Arts, claimed that any “dissenting voice in the state is being systematically stymied by the state apparatus.”
Weird as it may sound, the latest police swoop is an eerie reminder of the identical action taken by the then Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-led CPIM government in the state which stopped the staging of the play ‘Winkle–Twinkle’ that contained a veiled criticism of the Left government. In fact, ironically though, the Left often compares Mamata Banerjee’s rule with Modi’s, citing intolerance. While she has continued to attack prime minister Narendra Modi over his government’s and party’s intolerance, her government and party face similar allegations from the state opposition parties.
Nevertheless, all said and done, the pro-poor image of Didi as a resilient fighter still holds sway over a wide swathe of West Bengal. Much though the BJP could try to rock her applecart, it is too early to predict that the saffron brigade could really push her to the corner.
Didi, it appears, has set her eyes firmly on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls which might trigger a surprise. In the event of a hung parliament, which many think is hovering, she has been quietly working up to a plan which is tailored to suit a regional player like Trinamool Congress where TMC could play a major role in policy decisions. But in that case, the Congress would require to play the second fiddle.
Whether that would be possible is a wide open question, answer to which we need to await a couple of months more.