A week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared his demonetisation policy on November 8, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee landed in Delhi. The heavy smog aside, what made her uncomfortable there was the silence of political parties on her appeal to join a protest march to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. She eventually found support in the Aam Aadmi Party, the National Conference and the Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP. Though her MPs had rung up chief ministers of most states, only Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was part of the delegation that submitted a memorandum to the president seeking a rollback of the demonetisation scheme.
Mamata then moved her protest to Parliament, trying to unite the opposition against the Union government in the two houses. But it was easier said than done. A senior Trinamool leader was sent to Patna to meet Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. He, however, was not given an appointment. A desperate Mamata then hinted that she would have no issues in aligning with the left. She also decided to call a truce with the Congress, which had aligned with the left for the West Bengal assembly elections early this year. As Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi came on board, the left, too, joined the protests, but not before making it amply clear that the cooperation would be restricted to Parliament. Mamata also spoke to Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, harping on how demonetisation could hurt the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh polls. Both the parties decided to fall in line, with the Janata Dal (United), too, joining them in Parliament.
But unity among the opposition looked far more appealing within Parliament than outside it. At Mamata’s Jantar Mantar dharna on November 23, the JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav was the only big political leader present. The Samajwadi Party was represented by Jaya Bachchan, who shares a personal rapport with Mamata, and its vice president Kiranmoy Nanda.
A couple of days after her dharna, the left decided to, predictably, go on a strike on November 28. A miffed Mamata called up leaders of regional parties and expressed her anguish. Trinamool Congress secretary general Partha Chatterjee said Mamata was perturbed over the bandh called by the left. “The Congress is also supporting it. Mamata Banerjee asked government officials to oppose the bandh. We cannot create anarchy to stop another,” he said.
Both the JD(U) and the Samajwadi Party admitted they had no idea about the strike called by the left. “I was surprised to know that they have called a bandh. There was no discussion about it,” Nanda told THE WEEK.
But Mamata desperately wants to cash in on the demonetisation policy to extend her Trinamool Congress into other parts of India, having consolidated her position in West Bengal and making inroads into the northeast. Her target is clear—lead the anti-BJP front in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Party insiders said Mamata stood a chance in view of the leadership vacuum in the opposition. And she wants to make her political mark with the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where she will be supporting Kejriwal’s AAP. Mamata has already reached out to other parties in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. While she is in talks with Mayawati, Mulayam and Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal in Uttar Pradesh, she looks for Sharad Pawar’s support in Maharashtra to dislodge the BJP government there. She also reached out to Hardik Patel—her best bet in Gujarat—saying, “I am ready to support your fight against the BJP.”
Her trusted MP Sultan Ahmed said Mamata would be ready to lead any front against the BJP. “Our chief minister is in talks with the AIADMK and NDA constituents as well,” he said. “She would like to make it big in national politics. The movement against the demonetisation is the beginning. She will take a tour across India to convince people about the misdeeds of the BJP government at the Centre. She would start that with Uttar Pradesh.” Mamata is counting on her Muslim support base to help gain ground in the Hindi heartland.
The difference between Mamata’s earlier demonstrations in Delhi and the current one is that she did a great deal of homework this time. Also, she understood the need for floor coordination in Parliament. Her MPs were seen coordinating with Congress leaders in both houses. Trinamool leaders Sudip Bandyopadhyay and Derek O’Brien spoke to Rahul and worked out a game plan to stall both houses. The two parties together attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and demanded his presence during the debate. The left had little choice but to join in. Mamata abandoned her usual tirade against the left, perhaps noting that they have the support of other regional parties. She knows that wooing political parties is as important as wooing voters. She lost the trust of national parties owing to her previous attempts to pull down two governments—the Atal Behari Vajpayee government and the Manmohan Singh government that followed.
But gaining the trust of political parties won’t be easy. The CPI(M) has already belittled Mamata’s protest rally, saying it did little for the people. “They [Trinamool] are never interested in launching a movement against the BJP. They are themselves patronising black money holders in the state,” said Mohammed Salim, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member.
Also, the BJP doesn’t view Mamata as a threat, yet. “Please don’t give too much importance to what she says,” said Rahul Sinha, national secretary of the BJP. “She would stop her movement if given three to four days by our prime minister to use old currency. Her party is badly hit by this demonetisation. After the Saradha scam, she does not have the credibility to lead the nation.”