It’s rare for a state chief minister to be able to attract crowds in other states. Mamata Banerjee’s rally in Tripura on Tuesday was therefore of special interest as the West Bengal chief minister attracted a sizeable audience, cementing the position of the Trinamool Congress as a serious player in the North Eastern state.
And it isn't only Tripura. With West Bengal more than secure – the Trinamool Congress won more than 70% of the seats in the state Assembly in the 2016 elections – Banerjee is looking to be a serious player in Delhi as well by building an alliance of state parties, a federal front, to take on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Banerjee first displayed her national ambitions in the months leading up the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, when she tried to get Anna Hazare to support her politically. In February, 2015, Hazare claimed that India would change if Banerjee would be at its helm and announced that he would campaign for the Trinamool. This unlikely honeymoon between Hazare – with a tiny base largely limited to India’s middle class – and Banerjee came to quick, embarrassing end as Hazare stood Banerjee up at a rally in Delhi.
Strength to strength
Even as this dubious alliance did not fructify, the Trinamool strengthened its base, near doubling its Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. With 34 seats in the current Lok Sabha, it is the fourth-largest party in the house and just 10 shy of the Congress. Banerjee made her position even stronger in the 2016 Assembly elections, roaring back to power with a huge majority.
While Narendra Modi’s swearing-in had a galaxy of leaders from South Asian, Banerjee replicated that within India, inviting state leaders from all over. With Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, DMK leader Kanimozhi and Telugu Desam Party leader Thota Narasimham in attendance, the signalling for a federal front was as clear as day.
Banerjee still continues to work on a federal front. The Indian Express reported that Banerjee met Arvind Kejriwal as well as Nitish Kumar last month. She also attacked the Narendra Modi government on federalism, complaining about the delay in disbursing funds to the states.
While a federal front is still some way into the future, chances of Banerjee leading it directly might be low with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar being a far more acceptable face, given his ability to connect with voters across the crucial Hindi belt. As a backroom controller, though, Banerjee’s sheer size makes her difficult to ignore. And her strength is only slated to increase, given that the Opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress are in disarray in West Bengal and any serious challenge from the state Bharatiya Janata Party, should it happen at all, is still quite a bit away.
The Trinamool’s strength is buttressed by the inroads it’s making into Tripura. Given Tripura’s status as a largely Bengali-speaking state, it has always been amenable to influence from Kolkata. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has, therefore, ruled the state for the past 23 years. Of course, with the Trinamool now in power in Kolkata, the CPI(M) in Tripura is feeling the heat. In June, six Congress legislators defected to the Trinamool, making Mamata Banerjee’s party the main Opposition. In addition, veteran Congress and ex-Tripura Chief Minister Samir Ranjan Barman has also put his weight behind the Trinamool and was present on stage along with Banerjee on Tuesday’s rally.
If the Trinamool does manage to wrest the state from the CPI(M) in the 2018 Assembly elections, it would provide a significant boost to the party’s chances in the Lok Sabha elections to be held a year later in 2019.
Overall, the Trinamool’s strategy maybe points to a future where opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party will come not from the Congress – which has suffered multiple setbacks after it crashed to its worst-ever defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections – but from strong, grassroot state parties across India.