What is Mamata Banerjee's formula to defeat Modi in 2019?
'Didi' is now eyeing a bigger role for herself at the Centre, but will it work out? India Today cover story analyses all this and more.
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Women political leaders in India either inherit their parties from family members or from their mentors. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is a remarkable exception. Her political start-up, the All India Trinamool Congress, which she founded after breaking away from the Indian National Congress in 1998, completed 20 eventful years this January.
In this time, she ejected the Communists from West Bengal in 2011, a bastion they held for 34 years, and made her party a force to reckon with after bagging a second term in 2016. Clearly, no longer content with being a provincial satrap, "Didi" is now eyeing a bigger role for herself and her party at the Centre. She is making frequent trips around the country, cobbling together support for a united Opposition, meeting up with leaders like N Chandrababu Naidu, Arvind Kejriwal and K Chandrashekar Rao and brushing up her Hindi.
India Today cover story, The Challenger, for July 16, 2018.
It’s not hard to see why she sees herself as the potential nucleus of a united Opposition. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, a contender for the role, was weaned away by the BJP in 2017. The May 2019 Lok Sabha election increasingly appears to be one where the Congress will fight as first among equals. Rahul Gandhi is yet to display the stamina, tenacity, aggression or the unpredictability a challenger will need to bring into the fight against the formidable Narendra Modi.
Mamata Banerjee has all these attributes in spades and clearly this is the reason many opposition veterans, from Sharad Pawar to Chandrababu Naidu to Sharad Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav, have endorsed her candidature, seeing her as someone who will consolidate and unite the Opposition and forge a front that could dethrone the NDA next year. Her detractors in the Congress fear she is planning a coalition minus them to call the shots and bargain for the top post after the elections. They have every reason to be apprehensive.
This instinctive politician has been on our cover twice, both times for her ability to pull off surprises. Knocking out the Left in May 2011 (Marx Meets Mamata) and storming out of UPA-II in April 2, 2012 (Hurricane in a Hurry). Her third cover comes even as the ruling BJP feels the heat of rising public discontent and successive by-election defeats.
The BJP, the West Bengal CM feels, has peaked, and sooner than later, the law of averages will catch up. In consistently speaking out against the central government’s policies — from demonetisation to GST, to the linking of Aadhaar to mobile numbers — as well as on atrocities on Dalits and the recent spate of lynchings, she has positioned herself as a rival.
Her attacks against Prime Minister Modi have become less strident of late, but there is no mistaking the fact that she considers herself a prime contender.
In an exclusive interview with Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa, her most detailed interaction with a publication yet, the inscrutable Mamata Banerjee outlined her strategy for 2019 — electoral tie-ups in a limited number of seats between regional parties to dent the BJP’s chances are part of the plan.
“If it (an electoral tie-up) is done for 75 seats… then the game will be over…” says Mamata.
Chengappa, who spent an hour and 15 minutes with her, says, “She was feisty but focused. Her strength is her simplicity and ability to remain grounded.”
The only trouble is the popular perception that Mamata currently has nothing to offer beyond electoral math. She has opposed most of the government’s policies, but is yet to articulate an alternative narrative of development. As the potential leader of a united Opposition, she will have the still bigger task of convincing the electorate that a united front is worth more than the sum of its parts and that her charisma extends beyond her state.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, The Challenger; July 16, 2018.)