Skip to main content
xYOU DESERVE INDEPENDENT, CRITICAL MEDIA. We want readers like you. Support independent critical media.

Frenemies Congress and TMC put Opposition Alliance on Thin ice

S. N. M. Abdi |
Their electoral strength makes Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi most-watched participants in next week’s Opposition meet.

Image courtesy:

Come Friday June 23 and Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi will come face to face in Patna at the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal-hosted grand conclave of Opposition parties. It would be interesting to watch how Banerjee and Gandhi—who have a deeply troubled relationship—greet one another and study their body language to assess whether they are conciliatory or confrontational.

As things stand, Banerjee expects the Congress party to commit political and electoral hara-kiri in West Bengal by not contesting any of the 42 seats in the upcoming Parliamentary elections so that the anti-BJP vote doesn’t split and Trinamool Congress bags every single seat. And, in return, she would back the Congress party everywhere outside West Bengal—as if she wields great influence across the length and breadth of India!

A galaxy of Opposition bosses—Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray, Akhilesh Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal, MK Stalin, Hemant Soren, Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, Sitaram Yechury, D Raja and Dipankar Bhattacharya—are assembling in the Bihar capital, not to speak of hosts Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav, besides the one and only Lalu Prasad Yadav who is mentoring the whole exercise I’m told.

But the vibes that Gandhi and Banerjee transmit when they sit together at one table in Patna next week is a matter of grave national importance because they head India’s largest and the second largest Opposition party.

The Congress party has 81 Members of Parliament; 50 in the Lok Sabha and 31 in the Rajya Sabha, while the Trinamool Congress has 35 MPs; 23 in the lower house and 12 in the upper. The two parties are clearly not well disposed towards each other. Yet their sheer parliamentary strength underlines their centrality in the Opposition spectrum. Monitoring their leaders is, therefore, of utmost importance.

The Congress party has confirmed that Gandhi will go to Patna accompanied by Mallikarjun Kharge, which is a dead giveaway of the importance the largest Opposition party is giving to the event. Banerjee, too, isn’t going alone. She will take her nephew and heir-apparent, Abhishek Banerjee, with her.

At present, relations between the Congress party and the Trinamool Congress are tense and adversarial. And the chances of their ties worsening in the coming days before the conclave cannot be ruled out. The two parties are already locked in a bitter conflict in West Bengal, where nominations are being filed and election tempo is picking up ahead of Panchayat polls on July 8. It’s touch-and-go, to be honest.

Gandhi’s and Banerjee’s signalling when they are under the same roof in Patna will have a direct bearing on Opposition unity, which is critical for forging a powerful alliance to take the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-led Bharatiya Janata Party headlong in 2024.

The portents, however, are ominous. On May 29, within a day of the May 28 announcement that Opposition leaders would assemble in Patna on June 12—it was later postponed to June 23—Trinamool Congress poached and displayed like a trophy the lone Congress party MLA in West Bengal, Byron Biswas, who had won from the Sagardighi seat as recently as in March defeating the Trinamool Congress’ candidate in a by-election. It was like a declaration of war by the Trinamool Congress against the Congress party ahead of the Patna meet.

While Trinamool Congress, particularly Abhishek, gloated and Mamata readily justified the “catch” after snapping up Biswas, Congress party’s West Bengal president, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury—who vehemently opposes any alliance with Trinamool Congress nationally or at the state level—retorted that “engineering defections would ultimately lead to Mamata’s downfall”.

There were echoes in Delhi too. Senior Congress party leader and spokesperson, Jairam Ramesh, slammed the Trinamool Congress. In a tweet, Ramesh called the Byron episode a “complete betrayal of the mandate of the people of the Sagardighi” and that such acts of “poaching by the TMC” were both detrimental to Opposition unity and “serves the BJP’s objectives”.

In private conversations with journalists, Congress party leaders were even more furious with Mamata and did not mince their words, revealing the spiralling animosity between the largest and second-largest Opposition party.

The best thing about Mamata is that she voices her demands—however ridiculous—pretty openly. She doesn’t want the Congress party to contest a single Lok Sabha seat in West Bengal so that all its votes are cast in favour of the Trinamool Congress to help it defeat the BJP in all 42 constituencies! She wants the Congress to annihilate itself in Bengal for Trinamool’s sake!

After the BJP rout in Karnataka, Mamata congratulated the voters there without mentioning the Congress party or giving Gandhi any credit at all. She has also announced her “formula” for seat adjustment among Opposition parties: the Congress party must not contest more than 200 Lok Sabha seats next year. And in the remaining 334 seats, the Congress party must extend unconditional support to regional parties like the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and Punjab, and of course, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, to name a few. She essentially wants the Congress party to shoot itself in the foot!

Mamata and Rahul haven’t met even once since 2021. Rahul was present when Mamata called on Sonia Gandhi at 10 Janpath in July 2021. Importantly, when Mamata revisited Delhi after a couple of months, a journalist asked whether she had any plans to visit 10 Janpath again. And Mamata shot back—is going there my constitutional obligation? During that visit to the capital, Mamata held a long meeting with Narendra Modi.

Notably, there is a build-up in the Trinamool Congress-Congress party feud ahead of the Patna meet. A Congress party worker, Phulchand Sheikh, was shot dead allegedly by Trinamool Congress cadres no sooner than panchayat elections were announced, resulting in a war of words between leaders of the two parties amid exploding bombs and calls for revenge and retaliation.

Will Gandhi and Banerjee have a heart-to-heart talk in Patna to bridge the gulf that separates them and take the first steps to reach a strategic understanding based on give-and-take, or will they remain adversaries because of their compulsions? The answer is blowing the wind.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

Get the latest reports & analysis with people's perspective on Protests, movements & deep analytical videos, discussions of the current affairs in your Telegram app. Subscribe to NewsClick's Telegram channel & get Real-Time updates on stories, as they get published on our website.

Subscribe Newsclick On Telegram