The political expansion spree by West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Mamata Banerjee is proceeding at breakneck speed. Last week, the TMC ‘swooped down’ on most of the Congress legislative party in Meghalaya, including former Congress Chief Minister Mukul Sangma. The effect was as intended; it created much flutter in political circles over whether an ascendant TMC might soon displace a fast-declining Congress as the principal Opposition party of the country.
In terms of vote share
Such prognostications need to be tempered with a heavy dose of reality. Even now the Congress is a 20% vote-share party and five times the size of the TMC. At the State level, the vote share of the Congress exceeds 30% in 10 Indian States. It is hard to imagine the TMC coming close to this level of a national presence anytime soon, particularly with its current crop of inductions. Outside the North-east, the entrants comprise a ragtag group of political lightweights — disgruntled local politicians, ageing intellectuals and media-influencing celebrities.
This national expansion drive of the TMC is geared towards quickly transforming the party into a national political brand. The objective is to turn Mamata Banerjee from a Bengali leader to a national leader, and thereby the most prominent non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), non-Congress Party contender for the post of Prime Minister. The party has pitched itself squarely to disaffected Congress voters as a much more capable force than the Congress to take on the BJP. But does the expansion strategy of the TMC represent a serious long-term challenge for the Congress? The answer probably lies in the negative.
In order to understand this we must look at the different routes a party might take to scale up as a national player, and how the TMC’s peculiar route places limitations on its spread. There have been two traditional routes a party takes to expand its national footprint, none of which is available to the TMC, because of its intrinsic limitations.
Social base, ideology
The first one is leveraging a committed social base. The Swatantra Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are good examples of this. The Swatantra Party’s distinct appeal among the land-owning dominant castes repelled by the Congress’s flirtation with socialistic policies (examples being the Rajputs in Rajasthan and the Patidars and Kshatriyas in Gujarat) allowed it to expand rapidly, perhaps becoming the most prominent Opposition party of the 1960s. Similarly, the BSP built its support base among the Jatav Dalits to establish a significant presence across North India, especially Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.
The TMC, however, lacks a distinct social base, especially if one views the party from outside West Bengal. Ms. Banerjee’s appeal among women and Muslim voters of Bengal has been nurtured over a period of time with specific welfare benefits targeted at them; hence this appeal might not readily transcend State borders. While her anti-BJP credentials might appeal to many Muslims outside Bengal, these voters would more likely choose the best bet against the BJP in their State rather than plumping for a greenhorn such as the TMC.
Another route is through a distinct ideological platform, a path trodden by the Communists and the BJP. Being a centrist umbrella party, the Congress had always been vulnerable to raids on its ideological flanks. The Communists (as well as an assortment of socialist parties) steadily built themselves up by poaching the Congress voter base from the Left; as subsequently the BJP did through appropriation of upper caste Congress voters from the Right.
But there is little that is recognisably different that the TMC offers in terms of ideology from the Congress, or indeed other regional parties. All these parties follow a similar brand of centre-left politics along with a commitment to secularism. In fact, in terms of ideology, the Congress retains the important advantage over the TMC of not being hamstrung by a regional/linguistic identity. As far as the BJP voters are concerned, the TMC remains a non-starter owing to its strident anti-BJP anti-Narendra Modi rhetoric.
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However, these two fundamental constraints — the lack of a social base and a distinct ideological platform — are also shared by the other claimant to the Congress space, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
AAP’s strategy, the NCP
Yet, the AAP has been able to fashion for itself a new route to expansion — an alternative model of governance. It is the AAP’s promise of the Delhi model of governance — free public services and clean governance — that is primarily behind its surge in greenfield States. Even though the TMC has also instituted its own share of successful welfare schemes in Bengal, they have not quite crystallised themselves in the public imagination as a novel and attractive model of governance. This is partly the outcome of the TMC’s own national messaging, where it has privileged burnishing its anti-BJP credentials over communicating a positive vision of governance. In contrast, AAP has sought to cultivate a broad buy-in to its model of governance by muting its anti-BJP character.
If there is a precedent for Ms. Banerjee’s fast-track route to expansion, it lies in retracing the path taken by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) under Sharad Pawar, around the turn of the century. This strategy involves three elements.
First, the instrument of expansion is the leveraging of financial resources to co-opt regional elites. The TMC’s focus on the North-east is only partly a function of geographical proximity. In Tripura and the Barak valley of Assam, the TMC seeks to build on its Bengali constituency. However, the wider North-east crucially represents the most fertile terrain for the strategy of winning over freewheeling ethnic elites with political patronage, a long-standing pattern in the region. It is not a coincidence that the NCP also found considerable success (outside Maharashtra) only in the North-east. Within five years of its formation, even as its expansion drive was flailing elsewhere, the NCP controlled two dozen MLAs across four different States in the North-east.
In terms of leadership
Second, the rationale for expansion is not made in terms of policy or ideology, but in terms of leadership. The NCP’s aspiration to be the principal anti-BJP pole in place of the Congress grounded itself in Mr. Pawar’s superior claim over Congress leader Sonia Gandhi to the chair of Prime Minister, who was seen as an inexperienced usurper of foreign origin. Similarly, the TMC claims it has been pushed to take over the national opposition space because a fiery street fighter such as Ms. Banerjee is better suited to the mantle of national leadership than a feckless Rahul Gandhi, Congress leader.
Third, the objective of ultimately occupying national leadership is designed to be achieved more through elite politics than popular groundswell. Mr. Pawar’s national aspirations were based on his famed networking abilities across party lines, and not so much on the numerical strength of his party in the Lok Sabha. In this strategy, even a model presence of the party outside the home state, even if caused mainly by defections, is enough to carry its leader to the top office. For the function of the party's national presence here is to build up the credentials of the party leader, and to provide a degree of legitimacy to the elite compromise that eventually makes them the Prime Minister.
Similarly, the TMC understands it would be hard put to compete with the Congress’s numbers even if it sweeps Bengal and some tiny pockets of the North-east, its realistic arena of expansion. Therefore, Ms. Banerjee is also banking on an elite compromise should the BJP fall short of the majority mark in 2024. This is why political operatives such as Prashant Kishore and Yashwant Sinha have been duly assigned to maintain a constant line of communication with regional party bosses. The purpose is not so much to forge a pre-election coalition as to nurture a stream of goodwill for Ms. Banerjee across party lines, which might be put to good use in the event of an indecisive mandate.
There are a few downsides to the TMC’s national ambitions. The party seems unusually secure in its home State of Bengal, with a battered BJP and a dormant Left providing little opposition. Projecting Ms. Banerjee as a likely prime ministerial candidate would likely play well in Bengal, only adding to its dominant position in the State. There is a long-standing yearning among Bengalis to see one of their own occupy the top chair. Even to this day, Bengalis ruefully remember Jyoti Basu’s missed opportunity of 1996.
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However, outside Bengal (and Bengali-speaking areas, the party that is more likely to appropriate the electoral space of the Congress is AAP and not the TMC. In line with its long-term plans, AAP is laying down deeper roots in new States — building up a local leadership in place of engineering defections; crafting State-specific narratives instead of blanket anti-BJPism, and privileging coherent planning over headline-generating manoeuvres. In cricketing parlance, the TMC is playing T20 cricket while AAP is playing a test match. Even as the dazzle of the TMC might cause periodic headaches for the Congress, it is still well placed to see off the TMC challenge much like it did with the NCP. It is the steady encroachment of AAP that the Congress should view as the bigger threat.
Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in Delhi