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The Trinamool started this year in crisis. Multiple reports indicated that it was going to collapse in West Bengal in the face of a massive assault by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Assembly elections. Amit Shah, Union home minister and principal strategist for the BJP, claimed that his party will achieve a majority of more than two-thirds in the Assembly.

As 2021 draws to a close, the Trinamool’s fortunes could not be more different. The party belied the pundits and crushed the BJP in the Assembly elections. While Indians have grown used to the sight of legislators defecting to the BJP, in Bengal uniquely, it was BJP MLAs who started to defect to the Trinamool. The Trinamool, hegemonic in its home state, started to expand across the country.

The party has made a major effort in expanding to Tripura. In the Sunday civic polls results, amidst widespread allegations of rigging by the ruling BJP, the Trinamool emerged as the main opposition party in terms of vote share, edging past the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and ensuring that the Congress – the main opposition during Communist rule – is reduced to a non entity.

A Bengali-majority state, Tripura has long been connected politically to West Bengal. More surprisingly, however, the Trinamool has set up shop in Goa, with multiple reports of significant spends in outreach.

Most of the Trinamool’s drive to go national, however, has been driven by a series of defections:

  • One of the Congress’ biggest leaders in Assam, Sushmita Dev
  • Former Janata Dal (United) leader, Pavan Varma
  • Ashok Tanwar, former head of the Congress in Haryana
  • Former Uttar Pradesh Congress vice-president, Lalitesh Pati Tripathi
  • Most spectacularly: On Thursday, 12 Congress MLAs in Meghalaya switched over to the Trinamool, instantly making the latter the main opposition in the state

Unsurprisingly, the Trinamool’s deep pockets – thanks to India’s opaque political financing laws, we will never know the source of these funds – and aggression has discomfited the Congress. Knives drawn, Banerjee did not meet Sonia Gandhi during her visit to Delhi in the fourth week of November. The Trinamool has also refused to attend an Opposition meeting called by the Congress on Monday, in a sign that it refuses to accept the Congress as the natural leader of the opposition.

Tennis star and recent Trinamool inductee, Leander Paes, campaigning in Goa.

State to national?

The Trinamool’s expansion attempt is impressive given that a state party in India has never been able to go national. In fact, state borders are so important politically that very often states that are partitioned will also see a complete rejigging of their party systems (see, for example, the lack of success of Bihari parties in Jharkhand or Andhra ones in Telangana).

Recently, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Aam Aadmi Party have also attempted to expand nationally. However, these parties were identified much less with one state than the Trinamool. Driven by social movements, both AAP and the BSP, in fact, have always had a pan-India presence but were able to strike roots electorally in only one state. The Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, have always been limited to Bengal – so much so that the party picked Bengali identity as its principal plank to combat the BJP in the recent Assembly elections.

Crumbling Congress

While the Trinamool’s ambitions are impressive, it must be pointed out that till now its achievements are modest. Outside Bengal, the only places it is a major player is in the North East states of Tripura and Meghalaya. In Assam, it has poached one significant leader, but is yet to make a serious impression.

More than Trinamool achievement, what this moment perhaps best encapsulates is Congress weakness. The Congress has been on the decline since 1989 – a trend massively exacerbated with the last seven years of Modi in power. Head-to-head, the Congress fails significantly against the BJP, with the saffron’s party’s advance mostly stemmed by regional parties in the South and the East of India. The Trinamool’s expansion, therefore, provides a safe harbour for disgruntled Congress leaders who do not want to join the BJP for ideological reasons.

Bargaining for 2024

That said, any sudden decline of the Congress – and a concomitant Trinamool rise to principal opposition status – seems unlikely in the near future. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won less than 10% of seats but its vote share was nearly 20% – the gap being a result of the winner-takes-all first past the post system that India follows, where a candidate who gets the plurality of votes wins the seat even if she does not have the majority.

The Congress is also the only other party other than the BJP to have a truly national presence. It is a viable contender in Punjab as well as Kerala. Matching this will be a tall, nearly impossible order for the Trinamool in the lead up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

What is more probable is that the Trinamool is bolstering itself so that it has a stronger hand in any anti-BJP coalition – post or pre-poll – that could shape up in 2024. Having crushed the BJP in 2021 and with a long history of political service behind her, Mamata Banerjee already has a strong claim to prime ministership versus an untested Rahul Gandhi. A presence in multiple states will boost that assertion.

This also means that the Trinamool’s rise does not necessarily end chances of opposition unity. If the BJP stumbles in 2024, there is a high chance of an opposition tie up given that individually, these parties have a lot to lose from the BJP being in power.

A country of extremes

States by multi-dimensional poverty index score. Credit: NITI Ayog

India is remarkable not only for its size – but its diversity. Take a look at these multi-dimensional poverty figures – based on health, education, and standard of living – released by the government think-tank NITI Aayog last week.

Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh match with Sub-Saharan Africa while Kerala matches living standards found in the developed world.

% of population who are multidimensionally poor. Credit: NITI Ayog