Mamata Banerjee, 65, has the toughest of opponents - Union Home Minister Amit Shah - in her endeavour to get a third term as Chief Minister of Bengal. The last few weeks have seen some key members of her party transplanted firmly to Shah's side in the BJP.
Finally, some astute realpolitik help is at hand - Sharad Pawar, who is the architect of the improbable ruling alliance in Maharashtra headed by Uddhav Thackeray, will visit Banerjee in Kolkata in the first week of the new year; plans are being chalked out for them to address a joint rally in Kolkata.
Banerjee and Pawar both quit the Congress to set up their own regional parties. They plan to highlight the Modi government's assault on federalism. Pawar, one of the canniest operators in Indian politics, described by PM as his "political guru", at the age of 80 and on the back of his successful booting out of the BJP government in Maharashtra, has emerged as the life coach to regional leaders threatened by the Modi-Shah electoral juggernaut.
Just weeks ago, the BJP went full nuclear on the local elections in Hyderabad, parading its top leaders there to campaign against Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao ("KCR"), whose party won the most seats but watched the BJP make huge gains at its expense. That experience presumably delivered goosebumps for other regional parties that play footsie with the BJP in parliament, voting with it on important issues, or helping out by abstaining from a crucial vote. These parties include those of KCR, Navin Patnaik in Odisha, and MK Stalin in Tamil Nadu where megastar Rajinikanth is making his political debut, one which could prove instrumental for the BJP.
Authoritative sources confirm to me that Pawar has been on an extended outreach with all these leaders to persuade them of the existential threat imposed by a maximalist BJP. Pawar has, to them, held up Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar as an example of how the BJP tramples over allies when required to emerge as the senior partner.
Interestingly, Pawar and Banerjee have also reached out to Congress Chief Ministers including Ashok Gehlot, Bhupesh Baghel and Amarinder Singh but not to the Gandhi family. Pawar is also in regular touch with Kamal Nath who has emerged as a new trouble-shooter for the Congress (despite losing his own government in Madhya Pradesh earlier this year).
The political impulse driving these "chats" is to a find common federal/regional play book against the BJP cornering ever-increasing parts of the territory of these regional heavyweights. A senior leader from Pawar's party told me that he has reached out to all opposition forces except those in Uttar Pradesh, who seem to be thrall to the BJP.
Pawar is believed to have advised Banerjee to tone down the public aggression and angst against Amit Shah's trips to Bengal (Shah will be back there on January 12 to hold his next set of rallies). An unusually Banerjee heard him out patiently. The second piece of advice from Pawar was that she should publicly declare that no member of her family will hold office - this to counter Shah's jibes of dynasty rule based on the growing influence of her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee. Leaders of Banerjee's party say that while she has made this proclamation, the media is deliberately underplaying what is a hugely significant announcement.
After Pawar conjured up a team of rivals to form the government in Maharashtra, his political stock has soared; always keenly aware of his political status, he would like to be the "eminence grise" of a united opposition. Of course this includes the hugely influential post of UPA chairperson currently held by Sonia Gandhi, interim Congress chief. Gandhi wants to retire and some senior leaders of the Congress feel there is merit in a "ghar wapsi" of Pawar to the Congress. The post of UPA Chairperson would be offered and perceived as a considerable sweetener for Pawar. The rest of the opposition is also quite clear that if the Congress cannot make up its mind about being part of a united front, distracted as it is by its interminable-Who-Next-For-President crisis, it can sit out any big new moves for a non-BJP league. "The Congress overestimates its current political heft. The reality is that they are now a third wheel as they are in the Maharashtra government. They need to come to grips with this" said a leader from Banerjee's party.
If Pawar can help put together a solid team of parties in Bengal, his model will be seen as one worth replicating quickly in other states heading soon for elections. And his political net worth will be formidable.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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