Opinion | For Mamata, State Supremacy Outweighs An Uncertain National Role

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About three months ago, when the Trinamool Congress (TMC) announced its candidates for all the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in West Bengal, it was considered by many as the beginning of the end of the opposition INDIA bloc experiment. As the seven-phase election entered its final stages, TMC chairperson Mamata Banerjee publicly stated that she would consider supporting the INDIA bloc if it could form a government at the Centre. She reiterated that such a coalition should not include any Left or Congress representatives from her state.

The Left doubted her integrity and sincerity in standing together as a bloc against the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). President of the West Bengal unit of the Congress party, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, also echoed similar sentiments, drawing the ire of his party chief Mallikarjun Kharge.

Cut to the results. The TMC clinched 29 seats (seven more than its 2019 performance), the Left none (same as last time), and after five uninterrupted victories from Baharampur, Chowdhury was defeated by the TMC's Yusuf Pathan. The Congress won only one seat against two in 2019. Didi was back in the reckoning after a short period of uncertainty and much churning.

A Meeting With 'PK'

Let us rewind a bit. One evening, ahead of the 2016 assembly elections, a Trinamool MP had organised a meeting between Mamata and political strategist Prashant Kishor (PK) at the party headquarters in Kolkata. The meeting ended cordially but talks did not progress further. PK had his hands full at the time and the TMC could not afford his fees.

About two years before that meeting, the TMC had steamrolled the opposition in Parliamentary elections, winning 34 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state. The Congress got four, while the BJP and the Left managed two each. The euphoria was still in the air, and everybody on the streets knew who was winning the coming assembly polls. The TMC went on to win 211 seats in the 294-member West Bengal Legislative Assembly in the 2016 elections.

Read | BJP's Bengal Heavyweight Dilip Ghosh Loses To Trinamool's Kirti Azad

Subsequently, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Modi wave did sweep the state. The BJP increased its vote share to 40% from 11% in the 2016 elections. It secured 18 seats against the two it held earlier, while the TMC managed to win 22. Leaders in the state's ruling party were convinced that the BJP was polarising the state and getting stronger by the day.

When Mamata Recalibrated Her Strategy

Enter PK. After a two-hour-long meeting at the new secretariat building, Mamata realised that he knew more about the state and its poll patterns than she had anticipated. PK does his homework. Thus, the public health expert from the UN, who flew in from Africa and landed in India's political arena in 2011, now set up a unit in West Bengal. And within days of the June 2019 meeting, changes were apparent - from launching a website, virtual access to the Chief Minister, setting up of a grievance cell, to Mamata publicly slamming her party leaders over cut-money, to even a somewhat altered political discourse.

All this time, she got involved in the affairs of the state sometimes perhaps at the cost of missing some organisational matters - an issue at times raised in different quarters. Things came to such a pass that she had to dissolve party committees and reorganise them.

Watch | 'Holi' Outside Mamata Banerjee's Residence In Kolkata

Assembly elections are due in West Bengal in 2026. The BJP has already emerged as the principal opposition party in the state with 77 seats and a 38% vote share in the last assembly polls. The TMC won 216 seats, with the Left and Congress convincingly decimated.

Why Siding With BJP Or Left-Congress Could've Been Risky

Driven by such regional compulsions, sharing a common platform with either the BJP or the Left-Congress combine would not have augured well for her party. She had formed the TMC in 1998 after leaving the Congress in protest over so-called political inertia. There were even suspicions against certain Congress leaders for being in cahoots with the then-ruling Left Front.

Mamata has always acted with prudence. Soon after forming the TMC, she chose to align with the NDA to strengthen herself against the then-ruling Left Front government. But she shifted allegiance to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), eyeing over 30% Muslim voters who were then supporting the Left Front. It was with the Congress that she formed her first government in 2011.

There is another lesson from the polls in 2024 and those preceding this Lok Sabha election. The Left parties' alliance with the Congress did not help them at the hustings. While Left cadres and supporters voted for their alliance partners, not many Congress votes were cast in favour of Left nominees. This was rooted in over three decades of feud and clashes in the erstwhile Red bastion.

Today, Mamata does not need an ally to rule West Bengal. Shrewd political calculation, determination, and her charisma helped the TMC garner over 48% of the votes in the assembly election of 2021, an increase of about 3% over her victory in 2011. In Lok Sabha polls, the share gradually increased from about 40% in 2014 to around 43% in 2019, and almost 46% in 2024.

A Singular Goal

The astute politician she is, Mamata anticipated a third term for Prime Minister Modi, and she thus wanted to convey the message across the state that she intended to stay among its people. The aim is another resounding victory in the next assembly elections. Political sensibility lies in the option of preparing for a return to power in West Bengal.

Meanwhile, an old vs. new debate was apparently brewing within her party. She overrode reported opposition from a section of the TMC and went ahead in nominating septuagenarian leaders who have proved their mettle by overcoming several odds and winning.

(Jayanta Bhattacharya is a senior journalist writing on polls and politics, conflict, farmer and human interest issues)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author