On August 20, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made a whirlwind visit to the flood-affected Malda district. Wading through the floodwater, she reached out to the victims and consoled them. Unlike most other politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who did aerial surveys of the flood-ravaged areas, Mamata opted to travel by road. The strategy worked, evident from the effusive praise she received on social media. And, she was unusually magnanimous, expressing solidarity with victims from not just West Bengal, but also Bihar and Gujarat, which were also badly affected. “Bihar’s problem is my problem. Gujarat’s problem is also my problem. I am not against granting money to those states,” said Mamata. “But West Bengal should not be deprived.”
Mamata, whose motto has always been Bengal first, was perhaps dropping broad hints about her national ambitions. Almost at the same time, banners surfaced in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, praising Mamata as one of the key pillars of a potential opposition alliance. The Trinamool Congress chairperson was the major attraction at a meeting of the opposition leaders convened by Congress president Sonia Gandhi on August 11 in Delhi, and grabbed attention in the rally organised by RJD leader Lalu Prasad in Patna on August 27.
“I know what you want me to say, whether she would be prime ministerial candidate or not. But time has not come to tell you about that,” said Trinamool Congress vice president and Lok Sabha MP, Sultan Ahmed. Mamata’s decision to join the opposition alliance is a well calculated move. She is now virtually unchallenged in West Bengal, with the BJP being her only opposition. In the August 13 elections to seven civic bodies in the state, the Trinamool decimated the left and the Congress, while the BJP finished a distant second.
It has led Mamata to dream a bigger role in the next Lok Sabha elections. She has told her party members that the Trinamool would enter the electoral fray in the Hindi heartland. “In UP and Bihar, opposition parties are doing politics with photos of Mamata. She has certainly become a key figure outside Bengal as well,” said Ahmed.
The Congress, it seems, is not averse to join hands with Mamata on the national level. “For the time being, we will have to forget what is happening in Bengal. The BJP is destroying the social and economic balance of the country. At the state level, we are ready to compromise with any party which wants to uproot the BJP at the Centre,” said Congress MP Pradip Bhattacharya.
Bhattacharya said the attempt to bring together the opposition parties was initiated by Sonia Gandhi. “Regarding a prime ministerial candidate, that issue has not been discussed yet. But I feel that no one outside the Gandhi family is capable of leading such a front.”
Ahmed, however, said there would be no option but to accept Mamata as the leader. The Trinamool is not taking the leadership issue seriously as of now. Instead, it is working on gaining a foothold in the Hindi heartland. Mamata knows that even if she wins 40 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, it would not be possibly enough to exert control in Delhi. So, she is eyeing a few more seats from the heartland. “If we win 30 or 40 seats more, that would be a big achievement,” said an MP.
It would be interesting to see how the regional satraps would react to Mamata’s move to take the lead in Delhi. Lalu and former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav seem to be open to the idea. Kiranmoy Nanda, national vice president of the Samajwadi Party, said the leader could be anyone, from Rahul Gandhi to Akhilesh to Mamata.
Will the Congress be open to it is the million-dollar question.