When West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress Chief Mamata Banerjee led a march to the Rashtrapati Bhavan on November 17 to protest the Centre’s decision to invalidate high-denomination currency notes, she was joined by the Aam Admi Party, the National Conference and the Shiv Sena.

On Wednesday, exactly a week later, when she held a demonstration against the Modi government and the demonetisation move at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi, Banerjee had on her side the Janata Dal (United), the Samajwadi Party and the Nationalist Congress Party, apart from the AAP.

Addressing the rally, Samajwadi Party’s Dharmendra Yadav and NCP’s Majeed Memon said their parties were willing to fight against the government’s move under Banerjee’s leadership. Memon went so far as to say that NCP chief Sharad Pawar had instructed him to tell the Trinamool Congress president that they would support her in her agitation against Centre.

These declarations of support and the response of parties to Banerjee’s protest call indicates the possibility of a realignment of political forces. Significantly, it points to the emergence of Banerjee as a powerful leader, on who other regional parties are willing to concede is best-placed to head an alternative political front.

Standing united

Ever since the mahagathbandhan or the grand alliance of the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress swept the Bihar assembly polls last year, there have been periodic calls for the formation of an alternative front of secular parties to check a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party.

It was generally expected that as a national party with the widest geographical spread, the Congress would anchor such an alliance, especially since its Party President Sonia Gandhi had succeeded in bringing together like-minded political forces on a common platform in the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. This Congress-led alternate front – the United Progressive Alliance – went on to win two successive general elections.

However, the Congress appears to be in no position to replicate the UPA-type experiment. Unlike in 2004, the Grand Old Party is much-subdued political force today, having been decimated both at the national-level and in the states. Reduced to a mere 44 members in the Lok Sabha and with only six state governments under its belt, the Congress has to put its own house in order before it can try to stitch together an alliance of other political parties.

Further weakening the Congress is the fact that Sonia Gandhi has not been in good health and is eager to hand over the baton to her son, party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi.

In 2004, Sonia Gandhi had personally reached out to potential political partners and eventually emerged as the pivot of the UPA. Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is yet to inspire the kind of support and respect or display the same kind of political acumen as his mother. Ever since he took over the party’s electoral campaigns and started playing a bigger role in its functioning in 2014, the Congress has suffered massive losses in the Lok Sabha as well as Assembly polls. Several party members too doubt whether he has what it takes to energise the cadres and revive the Congress, leave alone taking the lead in bringing together disparate political parties.

Enter Didi

In this scenario, Banerjee could likely step in and fill the vacuum created by the weakening of the Congress, which is presently the largest opposition party. The Trinamool’s stupendous victory in the West Bengal assembly elections in May and the bypolls, the results of which were declared on Tuesday, has further emboldened the West Bengal chief minister.

After a series of protests in Delhi, Banerjee is now planning similar public meetings in Lucknow, Patna and Punjab against the demonetisation move, something she has been a vocal critic of from the beginning, which could catapult her to prominence on the national stage.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had also tried to position himself as a national leader with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls after the Janata Dal (United)-led grand alliance’s success in the Bihar assembly polls last year. But Kumar has slowed down of late, having to focus his energies on in his home state, his pet project, the liqour ban in Bihar, and a fractious coalition government.

On the other hand, Banerjee is marching ahead. She beat the other opposition parties in highlighting how this move will hurt the weak and vulnerable. This helped refurbish her image as a messiah of the poor. Many Congress officials said that Banerjee seemed to be emulating the late prime minister Indira Gandhi in the way she was establishing a connect with the marginalised. “She has beaten the Congress and the Left parties on this front,” said a Congress leader who did not wish to be identified.

Even before Banerjee stormed into the scene, there had been talk among opposition parties that NCP’s Pawar had been saying that his party, the Trinamool Congress, and the YSR Congress should join hands, as all of them had emerged from the Grand Old Party over the years and their members shared the same ethos and ideology. With time, several Congress members who are unhappy with Rahul Gandhi’s leadership could migrate to this proposed grouping. According to the buzz, since Pawar is aging and has health troubles, he would be willing to mentor this front while Banerjee would be its leader.