Mamata Banerjee to be tested in Uttar Pradesh first before taking on Modi in 2024

UP assembly election in 2022 will be a litmus test for Mamata Banerjee and the BJP. Hailed by pundits as a better placed challenger to Narendra Modi in 2024, she will have to first cross the UP hurdle

Mamata Banerjee
Mamata Banerjee

Uttam Sengupta

Mamata Banerjee is the flavour of the season. After her spectacular win in the West Bengal assembly election last month, she has been predictably hailed as the natural leader to lead the opposition against the much weakened but still formidable BJP headed by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Pundits are falling over each other to explain that she has demonstrated her killer instinct by besting the BJP in Bengal. She, it has been said, has shown that she can also mobilise resources (money) to match the BJP when needed. Data have been produced to establish that her regional outfit mopped up more donations than the Indian National Congress.

The dramatic ‘Ghar Wapasi’ of the prodigal Mukul Roy, the erstwhile Vice President in BJP, and other leaders who had defected earlier is also being cited as her ability to pay back BJP in its own coin.

As the ‘build up Mamata’ campaign gathers steam, Prashant Kishor’s meeting with Sharad Pawar followed by media speculation about an impending emergence of a non-BJP and non-Congress alternative in 2024 headed by Mamata Banerjee has added further fuel to the campaign. The West Bengal chief minister may have felt betrayed by the Indian National Congress and the Left Front getting into an alliance in Bengal and fielding candidates against TMC. Heading a non-Congress opposition alliance, from the perspective of the ‘Bengal Tigress’, therefore looks like a perfect retort.

It will obviously suit the BJP if the Congress and the Left are kept out of the non-BJP coalition. As articulated by pundits in the past and more recently by the Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, political parties fighting and competing with each other in the states will find it difficult to put up a united front nationally.

But before she rides into New Delhi, Mamata Banerjee will have to cross the Rubicon in Uttar Pradesh, where assembly elections are due in early 2022. If she does nurse national ambitions, and she has openly declared that dethroning Narendra Modi is her political goal now, there is no way she can avoid the battle for Uttar Pradesh.

It will be interesting to see her strategy for Uttar Pradesh. Two signals have already been dropped by her camp. Her nephew and confidante Abhishek Banerjee is on record saying that TMC (AITC) would henceforth contest in other states to win. The second signal are carefully planted stories in the media that she would be fielding as many as 30 farm leaders to contest in UP as TMC candidates.

The other option before her is to lead the opposition charge in Uttar Pradesh by campaigning aggressively in Uttar Pradesh. In either case her mettle will be tested in UP and if she is able to deal a blow to the BJP by either ensuring that it loses power in the state or by ensuring that it wins by a narrow margin, her claim to lead a national opposition will be cemented. But if she fails, it will be a blow not just to her own national ambition but also to the opposition.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who is allegedly being groomed by the RSS to replace Narendra Modi in national politics, had campaigned aggressively in West Bengal. Can Mamata Banerjee afford not to return the favour? But will results be also similar is the question.

Assuming that Mamata Banerjee will campaign for Akhilesh Yadav in UP, with or without the Congress, she can certainly whip up momentum for the alliance. But then Uttar Pradesh is not West Bengal. BJP has been in power in the state for a long time, unlike West Bengal. It even commands the support of a section of Muslims, who have been BJP supporters since the Vajpayee days.

The RSS is also far more entrenched in UP than in Bengal and the caste chemistry is also different. Uttar Pradesh is also far more feudal in its social structure and women are far less independent than their counterparts in Bengal. What is more, communalism is in the DNA of the state. It will be challenging therefore to defeat the BJP in UP and defeat it comprehensively.

It is also fair to assume that BJP is aware of the threat she might pose in UP. And Amit Shah and Modi will be keen to neutralise the threat in UP itself. If BJP wins in Uttar Pradesh again in 2022 as comprehensively as in 2017 and despite the misgovernance and mismanagement, it will receive a fresh lease of life and get battle ready for 2024.

That is why Mamata Banerjee cannot afford to take a false step in Uttar Pradesh. Dethroning Narendra Modi, her avowed goal, will have to begin in UP and there is nothing so far to suggest that she has thought it through.

(Uttam Sengupta is Consulting Editor at National Herald. Views are personal)

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