What Mamata’s Opposition meeting on joint presidential candidate indicates


The TMC chief has once again shown that she is well placed to be the uniting factor for the Opposition to take on the BJP-led NDA in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls

Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee, some analysts would say, has achieved the near impossible. By bringing 17 anti-BJP parties, including arch rivals Left, to a roundtable on June 15 to discuss a joint Opposition candidate for the upcoming presidential election, Mamata has once again indicated that she could be the leader who could unite the Opposition to take on the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

At the end of the meeting held in New Delhi, the Opposition parties declared their intent to field a common candidate for the post of president of India. While no candidate was announced, the meeting, sources say, saw efforts to convince Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) supremo Sharad Pawar to be the consensus nominee. Apart from Pawar, the names of two other potential candidates came up: Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and a former West Bengal governor; and National Conference (NC) boss Farooq Abdullah. Both names were Mamata’s pick.

Mamata organised the meeting at a short notice of less than a week. With a call to ’save’ the democratic and social fabric of the country, she wrote to 22 leaders/chief ministers of various political parties to come together. These included the CPI(M), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), Shiv Sena, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).

“The presidential election presents a perfect opportunity for all progressive Opposition parties to reconvene and deliberate on the future course of Indian politics,” stated the West Bengal CM’s letter. Of the 22 parties invited, 17 took part. The five parties that stayed away are AAP, SAD, TRS, BJD and YSRCP.

The Congress too had initiated efforts to field a joint Opposition presidential candidate, with party president Sonia Gandhi advising senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge to take matters forward. To many, Mamata’s parallel move appeared as a bid to overshadow the Congress. The Congress, though, chose not to make an issue out of it and deputed Kharge, Jairam Ramesh and Ranjit Singh Surjewala for the meeting. The Left, which was initially hesitant, too sent a representative— Elamaram Kareem.

While Mamata had made similar efforts in the past to bring anti-BJP parties on a common platform, these weren’t successful. Analysts say this was particularly so because the Congress perceived it as Mamata’s one-upmanship and attempt to hijack the grand old party’s position as the principal Opposition force.

Over the past year or so, relations between the Congress and the TMC have taken a further hit as the latter’s pan-India expansion drive has led to the poaching of Congress leaders in various states. Then, the TMC pitched itself as the ‘real Congress’; Mamata’s nephew and TMC second-in-command Abhishek Banerjee remarked that the Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) was as good as dead; and TMC mouthpiece Jago Bangla targeted the Congress and its leaders. On the other hand, the Congress blamed the Trinamool for nixing its chances of coming to power in Goa in the recent assembly elections by splitting the anti-BJP vote. To many, and understandably so, efforts to forge an Opposition unity for the 2024 poll battle had appeared jinxed from the word go.

It will be interesting to watch whether Mamata’s latest move changes the situation. Politically, the Congress appears to be far more rattled than before. The party was routed in the assembly polls held in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur. The Congress is in the middle of a long process to elect a new party president (Sonia Gandhi is interim chief), and Rahul Gandhi was recently interrogated by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in the National Herald case.

For that matter, even Abhishek is facing an ED probe for alleged corruption. Some would say there exists an invisible empathy for one another as the Mamata reminded the Opposition parties that “all progressive forces need to remain aligned and resist the divisive forces plaguing us today”. She also used the June 15 meeting to accuse the BJP of bulldozing political dissent and misusing central institutions like the ED and CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) to further its political goals.

Sources say Mamata, at the Opposition meeting, was critical of the ED’s interrogation of Rahul, which many read as a sign of change in the TMC’s stance on the Congress. Mamata has always shared cordial relations with Sonia, but under the influence of Abhishek, the TMC has been harsh towards the Congress on multiple occasions. But Mamata realises that a unified Opposition is unthinkable if the Congress is kept at a distance.

While it is too early to suggest a thaw in TMC-Congress ties, Mamata has said that such Opposition meetings need to happen more often, and on a broad range of issues. It was perhaps her indirect appeal, particularly to the Congress, to forget the differences of the past and unite against the BJP. It remains to be seen how this show of unity plays on the ground. However, the presence of so many Opposition parties at the meeting did indicate a growing realisation that staying united was critical to take on the might of the BJP.

By allowing Pawar to preside over the meeting, Mamata also gave a signal that she was ready to let seniors take the wheel. What she expected in return was a more proactive Opposition. With less than two years to go for the Lok Sabha elections, the proposed anti-BJP coalition will need to go hammer and tongs on every issue to corner the Modi government. Mamata would be more than willing. Will others play ball?