In April-May 1996, India went to the polls. Nationally, 1996 may be most significant for being the first election in which the BJP won more seats than the Congress. In West Bengal, the BJP contested more assembly seats than any other party, but electorally, it was peripheral. The state's politics were bipolar: Left Front (led by the CPI(M)) versus Congress.
In 1996, the Left Front and Congress combined for over 88% of West Bengal's votes, and 288 of its 294 Assembly seats. On the campaign trail Jyoti Basu, the Left Front's long-serving Chief Minister, asked voters to stay home if they were unhappy with this government, rather than vote for the Congress.
25 years later, the rivals of 1996 were alliance partners. In 2021, West Bengal's voters elected, for the third time in a row, a party that did not formally exist in 1996. The Left Front and Congress combined for a little over 8% of votes cast. They won 288 fewer seats than they had in 1996, that is to say, zero. The only alliance partner to win a seat was Abbas Siddiqui's newly-created Indian Secular Front, and he was soon publicly disowned by the Congress. The protagonists of 1996 were as irrelevant in 2021 as the BJP had been 25 years earlier.
This story is important in part because it illustrates that in democratic politics, party systems are necessarily contingent. In 1996, West Bengal appeared to have one of India's most stable political orders. No sane person could have predicted its eclipse. But it is important, also, because of the identity of those protagonists - and of the person who eclipsed them both.
From Goa to Meghalaya, from Haryana to Assam, Mamata Banerjee has been poaching Congress politicians. With only a few exceptions thus far, those poached are either insignificant or over the hill. None of them is likely to form or topple a state government in the manner of Himanta Biswa Sarma or Jyotiraditya Scindia. But Banerjee and her advisor Prashant Kishor ("PK") stand accused of disloyalty to the anti-BJP cause, of not knowing her place, of being the BJP's B-team.
The last of these is too absurd to merit refutation. Yes, she met Gautam Adani, but crony capitalism in general and proximity to mining interests in particular are issues that unite, not divide, the BJP and Congress. To Banerjee, the other accusations will be especially familiar. They illustrate the Congress and Left's continued inability to learn from their experience of the past 25 years. They remain incapable of taking Mamata Banerjee seriously.
There are many factors behind the decline of the Left in Bengal and the Congress nationally. But common to both is a culture of entitlement and sclerosis, perhaps the inevitable consequence of uninterrupted decades in power. It was this sense of entitlement that gave Banerjee her opening in Bengal, and it is no accident that her first expansionist moves are at the intended expense of the Congress (in Goa and Meghalaya) and CPI(M) (in Tripura).
To those who believe that the future of the Republic depends upon an Opposition capable of defeating the BJP in 2024, Banerjee's recent moves pose a number of questions. Is she a plausible and/or deserving candidate to lead that Opposition? By taking the Congress head on, isn't she hurting the cause of Opposition unity? Is the Congress a necessary component of any viable Opposition?
One can fully acknowledge the scale of Banerjee's personal and political gifts-above all, courage and relentlessness - while remaining sceptical of her candidature for national leadership. Her MPs may grandstand about constitutional values on the floor of parliament, but back in West Bengal, she and her party have combined many of the worst traditions of her own state (from violent intimidation to institutional capture) with those tragically common to so many Indian states (the suppression of civil liberties, cult of personality, and nepotism, which etymologically happens to mean favouring one's nephew).
She cannot point to a record of notable achievement as an administrator. Nor is there evidence, yet, of her political appeal translating outside West Bengal, either to voters or to the leaders of other regional parties.
The case for Mamata Banerjee is as follows. The present BJP poses an existential threat to the Republic on two major fronts. The first is the matter of whether India's 200 million Muslims will be allowed to live as equal citizens in social and political practice as well as law, whether the constitutional vision of India as a home to all will survive. The second is an intensified version of the threat posed by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s: of the crippling of republican institutions by the identification of the Republic with a single individual.
Few if any contemporary politicians have fought Hindutva with as much success as Banerjee. Unlike the vast majority of her Opposition peers-including the Congress' present leadership - she led anti-CAA/NRC rallies herself. Even if this were her only qualification, it could not be dismissed. On the second point, Banerjee is on weak ground. The only counter that can be offered to her record of authoritarian Caesarism is that she could not act in Delhi, as the head of a coalition, as she does in Kolkata.
Should that coalition be led instead, as previously, by the Congress? When the Prime Minister announced the withdrawal of his three farm laws, Rahul Gandhi was justifiably praised for having predicted their repeal. It is not the first time that Gandhi has been proven right on an issue of national importance. He was one of the first politicians in India to point to the seriousness of the pandemic.
But Gandhi is not auditioning for Pratap Bhanu Mehta's job, but for Narendra Modi's. In this light, what is salient is not the foresight he has displayed as a political commentator, but his and his party's failure to appeal to the electorate. He predicted the farm law's laws' repeal, but he played no part in it.
A Congress which has consecutively won fewer than 10% of Lok Sabha seats, and which has exactly 10% of India's Chief Ministers, cannot claim Opposition leadership by right. At the state level, the Congress has been increasingly willing to take on the role of junior partner, including in states where it is the historically dominant party (Maharashtra, Karnataka), in the short-term quest of denying the BJP power. In Kerala, the central leadership have tacitly consented to an arrangement in which the Congress does not vigorously contest state elections, and in turn wins a reliable majority of Lok Sabha seats.
In practice, Congress leadership of the Opposition means Gandhi leadership, which means a contest that Narendra Modi and a pliant media are allowed to define in presidential terms. It means a contest this country has run twice already. Those who think it will go differently a third or fourth or fifth time are confusing the country they think they ought to live in with the one they actually do.
On one plausible reading of Banerjee and Kishor's tactics, they care nothing for Opposition unity, or the threat to the Republic posed by BJP hegemony. Like the Aam Aadmi Party, they see the Congress ceding political space and see no reason why they shouldn't claim it. On another - more applicable to Kishor than Banerjee - these are attempts to force change in the Congress, or force the country to move on from the paradigm of "BJP versus Congress". Either way, in a democracy, with no individual or party entitled to leadership, and the Congress unwilling or unable to lead, what are they really guilty of? Ambition. To accuse a politician of ambition is like accusing a giraffe of having a long neck.
Whether we should focus on the identity of the Opposition's Prime Ministerial candidate is another matter. Presidential-ising an election asymmetrically benefits the BJP. The Prime Minister is advantaged by his sheer ubiquity. The Opposition's best chance lies in a coalition as broad as possible, one that includes the Congress, but is not necessarily led by it. Mamata Banerjee may or may not be fit to lead it - but she shouldn't be faulted for trying.
(Keshava Guha is a writer of literary and political journalism, and the author of 'Accidental Magic'.)
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