As Mamata Banerjee landed in Delhi Tuesday evening to join the protest by opposition leaders in the Capital, she will be handling a challenge of turning a threat into an opportunity.
It was a difficult process that she launched on the evening of February 3, a couple of hours after a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) team went to the official residence of Kolkata Police commissioner Rajeev Kumar.
As police personnel were locked in a widely televised jostle with a CBI team trying to enter the red brick building at 2 Loudon Street, tongues began to wag in Bengal that the Trinamool Congress chief will now have face the heat as the federal agency could now crack down on those close to her in the Ponzi scam cases just before the Lok Sabha elections.
But hardly could her rivals predict that the 64-year-old would park herself on a chair on the pavement at a busy intersection in the business district of Kolkata close to 8:45pm and announce a ‘satyagraha’ against the Narendra Modi government, alleging the Centre is bent of destroying the Constitution, the federal structure of the country, the police force and democracy itself.
From the extremely awkward situation that the rivals began conjuring up for her in early evening, Mamata Banerjee began a counter-offensive by late evening that brought a few leaders of opposition parties to her platform over the next two days, catapulted her to the headlines and prompted more than a dozen of other leaders to issue statements supporting her stand and criticising the Union government.
It seemed that Mamata Banerjee picked up from where she left during the rally on January 19 when almost two dozen leaders of parties opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party gathered at her unity show in Kolkata’s Brigade Parade ground pledging to keep their differences aside and continue a united fight against the Modi government.
While the possibility of a CBI crackdown on those who benefitted from Saradha and other scams still looms, Mamata Banerjee has succeeded, at least initially, to partially divert attention towards something that might benefit her politically and salvage her from a gloomy situation.
It is with this objective of taking the attack right into the rival camp that the Bengal chief minister will be visiting Delhi to participate in another dharna.
Her critics admit it’s a high-risk game and unlike any other that she has undertaken in her long political career. The dharna in Kolkata has committed her to a position where she will be held guilty of trying to shield police officers if they are found guilty of wrongdoing, something that opponents pointed out she did not carry out even when senior Trinamool leaders such as Sudip Bandyopadhyay were arrested in connection with the Rose Valley scam.
The dharna has done two things for the Trinamool Congress chief. While it has made her one of the most prominent anti-BJP faces in the country, it has also brought her into a sharp attack by senior BJP leaders. Since Mamata Banerjee’s Kolkata gambit, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party president Amit Shah have made it a point to highlight her in election rallies across the country as “the first chief minister in the country to stage a dharna in support of persons accused in the Ponzi scams.”
Most political observers feel the special mention of Didi helps improve her position as a leader of the emerging anti-BJP front, it also indicates that she is moving farther and farther beyond the point of no return.
There are a few other apprehensions too. Many feel that over the years Mamata Banerjee has failed to build a trusted circle of her own in the nation’s capital that is crucial to be recognised as a leader leading a platform of opposition parties. “Building this acceptability is crucial for a bigger political role in Delhi,” said a senior bureaucrat, who has watched her long as both as an opposition leader and as an administrator.
Political observers also point out that the Bengal chief minister also has to fix her relationship with India’s oldest political party. The Congress is still the country’s only opposition party that has a countrywide footprint and after the victory in the assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh it is more upbeat than it has ever been in the recent years. Mamata Banerjee’s relation with the Congress, and especially its president Rahul Gandhi, has been cold at best.
She did not even congratulate him after the assembly election results and though Sonia Gandhi and her son warmed up to her before the January 19 rally in Kolkata by sending personal letters and senior leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Abhishek Manu Singhvi to the programme, Mamata Banerjee’s party continues to aggressively wean away Congress leaders away to her outfit. Since she came in power in May 2011, as many as 29 MLAs and one MP from Congress have joined the Trinamool Congress that has led state Congress leaders to allege that she is bent on obliterating the party from West Bengal.
Over the past one year, Mamata Banerjee has been purveying the theory that if in each state the party that is the strongest takes on the BJP (and the rest of the opposition rally behind it), the ruling party at the Centre will be roundly defeated in the Lok Sabha elections. But many have questioned the theory, wondering whether the rather simplistic theory would work on the ground in the absence of a cementing force either in the form of a wave or an individual.
None articulated this need more emphatically than former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, who during his brief speech in Kolkata on January 19, said that the senior leaders of the opposition have a lot of hard work to do beyond Modi bashing. He reminded them that a small group of senior leaders have to work out how they can go ahead and give good governance to the country that seemed to be a clear hint at a common minimum programme.
Deve Gowda, the Janata Dal(Secular) supremo, also said that the leaders have to work out the contentious issue of seat sharing.
As the atmosphere of the bitterness and tension continues and the opposition leaders join the dharna in the national capital on Wednesday and Thursday, these questions would perhaps be tormenting the Trinamool Congress chief, who has risen from a lower-middle class family without any godfather to oust the world’s longest-running elected Communist government.
But if the leaders continue to pursue their individual goals of maximising their own seats in order to increase their post-poll bargaining power, it might help their individual objectives but not the purpose with which they have come together in the first place – something similar to what many films with powerful individual performances held together by a loose screenplay suffer from.