Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) got a landslide victory in the 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal and formed the government with a thumping majority. Earlier in the Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) performed brilliantly in Bengal by winning 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPI(M) and its Left allies have not got a single MLA in the new assembly.
After winning the assembly elections, Mamta did not sit calmly. She had warned Narendra Modi during the West Bengal campaign to watch his seat in New Delhi rather than comment on her winnability in West Bengal. Now she is constantly engaged in the expansion of the party. TMC is continuously hunting BJP leaders and MLAs in West Bengal and Congress leaders and MLAs in other Indian states. The latest case is from Meghalaya, where 12 Congress MLAs joined TMC. With this, TMC will now become the main opposition party in the northeastern state.
Let’s look at the expansion of TMC on the national scene. A question is echoing in the political corridors these days, can TMC replace Congress as the main opposition party in India? Although neither the TMC nor Mamata Banerjee has explicitly claimed this effect, their expansionist policies reflect their ambition.
It is possible for TMC to beat Congress in terms of Lok Sabha seats
Predicting election results is always dangerous. The 2024 elections are still far away. One can make a logical case for the TMC to get more Lok Sabha seats than the Congress with this caveat. TMC’s best performance in the Lok Sabha elections was in 2014 when it won 34 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal with a vote share of 39.8%. TMC’s vote share was 48.5% in the 2021 assembly elections. In references to the parliamentary constituencies, TMC got an edge in 32 seats out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state on the assessment of the results of the 2021 assembly constituency. The BJP has become weaker in West Bengal compared to it was before the elections. This means that the TMC will be hoping to take its Lok Sabha tally from 2024 West Bengal up significantly from 2019.
Talking about the Congress, it successfully won 52 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 general elections. Of these, 31 came from just three states: Kerala (15) and Punjab (8) and Tamil Nadu (8). The performance of the Congress in the 2021 Kerala Assembly Elections was abysmal. The fate of the Congress in Tamil Nadu will depend on the seat-sharing formula with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The party faced division in Punjab due to the ouster of Captain Amarinder Singh. In Assam, Congress had won three Lok Sabha seats in 2019. However, the Congress alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) failed miserably in the 2021 assembly elections.
More Lok Sabha seats than Congress would not make TMC a national alternative
Even if TMC manages to overtake Congress in terms of Lok Sabha seats, its claim to be recognized as the primary opposition party will not be credible. The simple reason is that even in times of crisis, Congress has a much bigger place at the national level than the TMC. This is best seen in terms of vote share. In the 2019 general elections, Congress had an all-India vote share of 19.5%. Even when TMC achieved its best performance in the 2014 general elections, its national vote share was 4.1%.
Will TMC be a better challenger than Congress?
The responsibility of preventing the BJP from winning elections for the third consecutive time in 2024 rests mainly on the Congress and regional parties in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. In 2019, 115 of the BJP’s 303 Lok Sabha seats came from states with a direct contest between Congress and the BJP. The other 90 came from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. TMC is hardly a factor in these states, except for Sushmita Mohan Dev in Assam. Therefore, its claims of having a better strategy to fight the BJP, at least for now, does not inspire much confidence.
Is Mamata Banerjee eyeing a return to Jyoti Basu’s 1996 moment?
One possible explanation could be that Banerjee imagines a return to the 1996 moment in Indian politics when the BJP was the single largest party but fell short of a majority. It was looking for friends who would help her get a majority. After the fall of the 13-day-old first Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, opposition parties offered the then Chief Minister of West Bengal and veteran communist leader Jyoti Basu the Prime Minister’s post. Basu was ready to accept the offer, but his party had vetoed the idea.
One of the biggest reasons for Congress not making a rightful claim on the Prime Minister’s post in 1996 was the leadership crisis in the party. The outgoing Prime Minister Narasimha Rao lost his political capital in 1992 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the electoral defeat. Sonia Gandhi was yet to take over the reins of the party. While the current crisis in Congress cannot be compared, it has undoubtedly raised serious questions about the ability or lack of the Gandhi family in rejuvenating the party.
The TMC is right to expect that it could be the single largest non-Congress non-BJP party in 2024, and this feat will take Mamata Banerjee’s clout in national politics to an all-time high. However, there is a problem with their national ambitions. The United Front experiment of the 1990s relied on Congress crossing the 100-seat barrier. Mamata Banerjee wants to expedite the latter process. If Congress gains significant ground in 2024, the claims of Mamata’s leadership will be significantly reduced. If it falls even further, its West Bengal seats will be of little use.