West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is in opposition mode again. On Tuesday, the chief minister landed in Delhi to take on the National Democratic Alliance government for its demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. On Wednesday, she plans to rally all Opposition parties into a march on Rashtrapati Bhavan, where they petition the president to act against demonetisation.
The politics of opposition finds Banerjee in her element. This is the leader who cut her political teeth with the Congress in the late 1970s, when the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had already established itself in West Bengal. Over the years, her reputation as an opposition leader in Bengal was cemented through the spectacle of confrontation - rallies, marches, strikes against the government which often drew violence from the state or the ruling party.
In 1990, there was the savage beating at the hands of the CPM cadre after Banerjee led a rally through a south Kolkata neighbourhood. In 1993, the march on Writers’ Building, the heart of the state administration, which turned into tragedy as the police opened fire, killing 11 protesters. In the late 2000s, as the Left Front showed signs of weakening and came under fire for land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram, there were hunger strikes, rallies and bandhs.
The proposed march on Rashtrapati Bhavan seems to draw on the agitational politics that Banerjee perfected over those decades.
Chief minister in opposition
As social scientist Sumantra Bose has observed, political tussles over land acquisition were common across states, but Banerjee was the only leader who harnessed the discontents into a statewide surge against government. In 2011, it led to the fall of the Left Front bastion in Bengal and a new era of dominance by Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
But resisting the Left Front was so hardwired into Banerjee’s politics that the new chief minister was accused of continuing in opposition mode, raising the spectre of a CPM “chokranto (conspiracy)” at every turn. Five years later, the chief minister has reached out to her old bête noire to fight against a new adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
These are early days yet to make predictions about Banerjee’s ambitions on the national stage or the formation of a new Third Front led by the Trinamool chief. But the new conciliatory approach towards the CPM reflects a new political reality in Bengal. As the Left fades, the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have been a growing presence in the state. While the party has steadily added to its vote share in state and national elections, the Sangh expanded its footprint through new shakhas and workers. So as Banerjee sets out to vanquish the emerging opposition in the state, she has turned her own considerable powers of opposition against the Centre.
No united front
But the opposition that Banerjee hopes to lead against the NDA is an untidy one, ranging from BJP ally Shiv Sena to the Congress, with various political agendas that jostle for primacy. Her stewardship was enabled by the vacuum left by the Congress and the equivocation of the Janata Dal (United)’s Nitish Kumar, generally cast as the leader of a nascent Third Front.
While the Congress has failed to take charge of any agenda after it was decimated at the Centre, Kumar came out in support of demonetisation a few days ago. Now, his party vows to challenge the government’s measure in Parliament.
Some difference have arisen over strategy, with a few parties appearing to be squeamish about Banerjee’s agitational politics. While the JD(U) is in favour of taking the fight to the House first, the Congress floated the idea of a joint parliamentary committee to look into the government move, though it found few takers. The CPI(M) is no stranger to protest politics but will content itself with joining the angry chorus in Parliament. Apart from other considerations, it is wary of joining hands with an old rival, especially since the Trinamool is already making forays into the last Left bastion, Tripura.
Other differences are those of substance. The Congress, for instance, has refrained from asking for a complete rollback of demonetisation, unlike the Trinamool. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam will stick to questioning the government on implementation. Some regional voices are not even entering the fray - the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which has maintained a studied silence on the matter, and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal, which supported the move.
Meanwhile, several regional agendas compete for visibility. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samajwadi Party, fighting the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh elections and a prime target of black money accusations, has launched its own protest against the ruling party, accusing it of being anti-Dalit. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, also fighting elections in UP, has lashed out at the government for hurting farmers.
So far, Banerjee’s warmest supporter has been the Aam Aadmi Party, led by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, which tabled a resolution against demonetisation in the assembly. Kejriwal has also been known to favour the politics of opposition, sitting in protest outside Parliament soon after he was elected chief minister in 2013. But the AAP, also fighting the BJP in the approaching elections in Punjab, has its own axe to grind.
Will these regional leaders be content to be absorbed in a unified opposition led by another regional leader? As Banerjee moves on the Centre, she will have to reckon with these strains and contradictions of the opposition. The black and white politics of agitation, which eventually worked against the Left in Bengal, may be lost in a variegated national stage.