By Rovel Sequeira:
The run-up to any election in India is filled not only with exaggerated promises made by politicians from all parties and by utopian manifestoes promising to cure the ills of the country and the world in the next five years, if elected, but also all manner of speculations about power sharing arrangements among various parties, given the coalition nature of politics in India since the last two and a half decades.
This election is particularly significant given that the ruling UPA-2 led by the Congress has widely and long been seen as providing weak and corrupt governance and the fact that its reputation is in shambles after a series of scams including the 2-G and the Coalgate scams. The BJP is seen as an alternative to the Congress not so much for itself as for its prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Modi, but has been projected by the media as making increasing gains in his name. The upcoming election has emerged as a personality contest for the PM’s post, rather than a battle between parties, with the key players being Modi, Rahul Gandhi and now, Arvind Kejriwal. With the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party on the political scene, and since its dramatic takeover of power in Delhi in December 2013, the electoral fray has been thrown open. Enter the period for other parties to jump on the national bandwagon. Taking its cue from the AAP’s anti-corruption drive, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has decided to take itself to the national political arena in full force this time around, citing anti-corruption and strong leadership as its key USP’s in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
While Kejriwal’s AAP itself had benefited from its early association with the Lokpal advocate, activist and erstwhile freedom fighter Anna Hazare and his nationwide movement, it split from him due to Kejriwal’s decision to participate directly in party politics rather than remain solely as part of a protest movement. In the fallout, Hazare has been vaguely disapproving or non-committal of the AAP as a party due to his differences with Kejriwal, but had recently sent out a 17 point manifesto to all political parties demanding their acceptance of it in order to secure his personal endorsement. In the vacuum left by AAP with Hazare, Mamata Banerjee decided to step in, being the only political entity to do so and thus, secured Hazare’s praise as being a PM-worthy candidate. She landed in Ramlila ground to give a speech in tandem with Anna Hazare only to find out that the veteran freedom fighter had backed apparently citing extremely low crowds for the rally. During the zenith of the Anna Hazare movement, the activist, used to pulling crowds of tens of thousands for his rallies, could barely manage to get 2500 people to turn up. Clearly disillusioned, he blamed his key aide for organizational blunders and for deceiving him while Banerjee herself was outraged at the no-show, marking the end of the alliance that never really began. The incident displays two things: first, that Mamata Banerjee is a regional figure and lacks the national appeal to make any significant inroad into the Lok Sabha other than in West Bengal, and secondly, that the moment of the Anna Hazare movement is over, for now at least, and has been overtaken by practical politics symbolized by its illegitimate child, the AAP.
Despite the recent release of Banerjee’s election manifesto for the Lok Sabha polls, wherein she expresses the hope of forming a federal grassroots based front at the Centre, Banerjee remains a parochial figure. On the national scene she is best remembered as railway minister under the NDA, when she resigned after the Tehelka expose of the Bofors Scandal (despite not being tainted by it) and later as railway minister under the UPA-2 from which she stepped down to become the CM of West Bengal. Given her history on the national scene of making politically expedient alliances, she lacks nationwide credibility.
An exaggerated and fiery figure in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is best known for her paranoid histrionics and periodic outbursts during speeches against the Maoists as well as her vehement anti-CPI(M) rhetoric than for her policies or for the success of her current government in Calcutta. Riding into power on raging anti-incumbency against the then ruling (for 34 years) CPI(M) in 2011, Banerjee’s TMC was voted into the State Assembly more due to the animus against the CPI(M) in the aftermath of the Nandigram and Singur land issues and the Rizwanur case which displayed the deep inroads capitalist magnates had made into the CPIM administration, than due to her personal appeal. Banerjee currently circulates widely only as a lesser evil as against the CPI(M), as an increasingly authoritarian dictator incapable of taking any criticism and often as a joke given her paranoia. The incident in April 2012 wherein she had Jadavpur professor Ambikesh Mahapatra arrested for circulating caricatures of her is well, and not fondly remembered. At the same time, despite her populist measures in the railways during her second tenure as railway minister under the UPA-2, she ignored the mounting debt of the railways and later as CM of West Bengal forced the resignation of her own nominee to the recently vacated post of railway minister, Dinesh Trivedi, because he had dared to increase railway fares across the board after ten years in order to keep the railways from becoming bankrupt. Mamata’s regionalism and populism in West Bengal at that time hurt her image as a credible national figure, while even at the regional level, she was far more popular and effective as opposition leader rather than CM, and the poribartan (change) promised by her in the 2011 elections has not borne fruit.
In the aftermath of the Anna Hazare incident, realizing her lack of popularity outside her home state, Banerjee may know that her desire to form a TMC-led government at the Centre is mere bluster. She is therefore, currently busy shoring up her own regional campaign for the next Assembly elections nominating celebrity figures like famous Bengali film actress Moon Moon Sen and footballer Baichung Bhutia as candidates against the CPI(M) rather than experienced politicians, hoping that their star power will garner her party the votes it needs to maintain power despite her poor governance.