At 24, Trinamool Congress eyes national stage
Kolkata: Twenty-four years after Mamata Banerjee formed the Trinamool Congress on January 1, 1998 to unseat the Left Front from power in West Bengal, her party has transcended the geographical boundaries of the eastern state and now attempts to expand its footprint across the country to pose a direct challenge to the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
With the national opposition in shambles, the TMC, which Banerjee floated after quitting the Congress, is attempting to grab that space by challenging the grand old party, branding it as "war-weary" and accusing it of failing to put up a fight against the BJP.
At the same time, the party is positioning itself as the "real Congress" and the only outfit to oppose the saffron camp tooth and nail, after its landslide victory in this year's assembly elections in West Bengal despite the BJP's massive campaign to unseat her from power.
In a bid to project West Bengal Chief Minister as the main opposition face against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the TMC is on a rebranding overdrive, inducting people from diverse geographies and political backgrounds, mooting to change the party's constitution, and its name for a pan-India appeal before it takes a plunge into a massive nationwide campaign for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Banerjee's clarion call for opposition unity to remove the BJP from power has not stopped her from expanding her centre-left party in various states. In the last six months, her party has opened units in Goa, Haryana, Tripura and Meghalaya.
The party, which hardly had any meaningful existence in Meghalaya, has emerged as the main opposition party in the northeastern state after 12 of the 17 Congress MLAs led by former chief minister Mukul Sangma joined the TMC. In neighbouring Tripura, the party aims to pose a challenge to the ruling BJP, although the saffron party swept the recently held civic polls in the state.
As part of its national expansion strategy, the TMC has inducted Congress leader from Bihar and former BJP MP Kirti Azad, former JD(U) MP Pawan Verma, former Congress Haryana chief Ashok Tanwar, Delhi-based RTI activist Saket Gokhale, former Mahila Congress chief Sushmita Dev, former Goa chief minister Luizhino Falerio, former Union minister Babul Supriyo among many others.
"The TMC wants to shed its regional party tag. None of these recently inducted leaders are mass leaders, but each has his/her own identity and strength. These inductions are part of our national expansion so that we have a pan-India appeal and a holistic view before formulating the 2024 Lok Sabha poll strategy," a senior party leader told PTI.
The party has decided to change its constitution and expand its core committee to accommodate more fresh inductees from diverse backgrounds.
"The TMC is undergoing a qualitative and quantitative change under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee to emerge as the main opposition force by 2022. We will be the real Congress. There are a lot of proposals that are being discussed on how to emerge as a national party. Talks are on with prospective allies in various states who are opposed to the BJP," Verma told PTI.
TMC sources said that the party wants to create its identity without having to carry the "baggage" of being an offshoot of Congress, and also promote the "Bengal model of development" vis- -vis the "Gujarat model" showcased by the BJP ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
"In the last 10 years, the TMC, through its stint in government, has created a niche for itself where our developmental policies have not only earned national and international recognition, but also have been followed by other states too. We want to replicate the Bengal model nationally," the party's West Bengal general secretary Kunal Ghosh said.
The party is also mulling to change its official name of All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) to something which has a national appeal and is easier to connect with the masses, while also sticking to its roots.
"Discussions are underway on changing the party's name but nothing has been finalised yet," TMC MP Sougata Roy said.
Born out of the Congress' womb in 1998, the TMC defeated the mighty Left Front in 2011, after two unsuccessful attempts in 2001 and 2006. This is not the first time that the party is attempting to expand nationally. In 2012 too, it had opened several units in northeastern states, which had to be dissolved after the party leaders switched over to the BJP or the grand old party.
But this time, the TMC has poll strategist Prashant Kishor and his I-PAC by its side, with which it has extended the contract till 2026. Kishor had played a vital role in ensuring the party's assembly polls victory this year.
Kishor has been organising meetings between Banerjee and other opposition leaders, and is also playing an important role in the induction of leaders from varied backgrounds, party sources said.
TMC's recent launching of salvos against the Congress and Gandhi family is part of its narrative to create a separate identity in national politics as an opposition party to the BJP without having to play second fiddle to the grand old party, they said.
"In national politics, one can see several regional parties that play second fiddle to Congress. The grand old party has failed, it is a spent force. We want to create our own identity," Ghosh said.
As part of its image-building exercise, the TMC is coming up with state-specific campaigns projecting Banerjee as a leader associated with "inclusivity and good governance".
"The image building exercise has two facets. One is to craft Banerjee's image as a self-made politician who comes from a non-political background, who is not a product of dynasty politics and showcasing her humble origins how she gave tuitions to students and worked in milk booths. Several movies and documentaries in various languages are being planned," a party leader said.
"The second facet is to project the TMC's pro-democracy credentials, which took a hit because of the 2018 panchayat election violence. We want to craft an image of a party that does not support violence and promotes free and fair elections," he said.
The BJP and Congress, however, ridiculed TMC's national ambitions as "dwarf's dreams to touch the sky".
"The TMC doesn't have any ideology. Its ideology is to poach leaders from other parties to gain ground. It has done this in West Bengal and now want to replicate this Bengal model across the country. But this kind of politics won't yield results," Congress leader in Lok Sabha and state party president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said.
Echoing him, BJP national vice president Dilip Ghosh said that the TMC's national ambitions will fall flat in 2024.
"There is a saying that dwarf always dreams of touching the sky. This is the same for TMC and its national ambitions. We have seen it in 2014 and 2019," he said.
Political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty however, said that the TMC has a "huge potential" to emerge as a national opposition force, but first, it has to rectify its image, especially regarding democracy and corruption.
"There is a huge vacuum in the national opposition space. It may be time-taking, but the TMC has a huge potential to fill this up," he added.