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Mamata Banerjee’s Northeast Outreach Set To Meet Its Foil: Himanta Biswa Sarma

·8-min read

According to Trinamool insiders, Banerjee has been advised by Prashant Kishor to expand the Trinamool's footprint in Northeast.

The main hurdle in that project is Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek, aided by political strategist Prashant Kishor, are pulling out all stops to expand the Trinamool’s footprints in north-eastern India.

This effort is dictated by the Trinamool chief’s ambition--buoyed by her party’s impressive win in the Bengal Assembly elections a few months ago--to play a major role at the national stage. Confined to Bengal and looked upon as a state-level player, Banerjee knows that she has to expand to other states if she is to be acknowledged as a national leader.

Expanding westwards, where there are powerful and well-entrenched players, is not a viable proposition. Top Trinamool leaders told Swarajya that Prashant Kishor did some plainspeaking and told Mamata Banerjee that she does not have any political capital in central, north, west or south India.

Banerjee was provided with the frank and correct assessment that the Trinamool will not be able to make a mark in any state west or south of Bengal because it is looked upon essentially as a Bengali party with a very Bengal-specific agenda and outlook.

Banerjee was also reportedly told that while she is acknowledged as a fearless politician in the rest of the country after having resisted the BJP onslaught in Bengal, she is far from being seen in the same league as other non-Congress opposition leaders like Sharad Pawar at the national level.

“The national political arena is packed with seasoned, astute and Machivellian politicians who can easily outfox didi (Banerjee) and give her a good run for her money. They will not concede an inch of space to her on the national stage. Hence, she was told that her best chance would be to foray into the north-eastern states and tie up alliances with other parties at the national level,” a senior non-Bengali Trinamool leader told Swarajya.

Tripura, for obvious reasons, is Mamata Banerjee’s first target. Bengali Hindus form 69 per cent of the state’s population and she feels she can make inroads into this constituency. Tripura does not have a strong opposition: the Congress barely survives there while the Left, which ruled over the state for decades with an iron hand, is a very weak party now. Trinamool now wants to occupy this opposition space and had started building the party unit in that state with defectors from the Congress and also the Left.

The Trinamool has, as per the game plan scripted by Prashant Kishor, been trying to be bullish in Tripura, but without much success.

Mamata Banerjee has deployed huge resources in the north-eastern state. A galaxy of senior party leaders have been camping there for weeks at a stretch and Congress leader Sushmita Deb (from neighbouring Barak valley of Assam who defected to the Trinamool recently) has been put in charge of the state.

That hasn’t helped much and save for marginal politicians like Subal Bhoumik--he was in the Congress, left to form his own party, then joined the Trinamool, resigned and became an ascetic before joining the BJP and then returning to the Congress--the Trinamool has not been able to induct any politician of significance.

The next fifteen months will witness the political battle hotting up with the Trinamool pulling out all stops to make a mark in Tripura and the BJP resisting the Trinamool with all its might.

The Trinamool is also trying very hard into the Barak Valley populated by Bengali Hindus and Muslims. While Hindus form 50 per cent of the population, Muslims constitute a little over 48 per cent with the rest being Christians and Buddhists.

But Barak Valley, where the Hindus are firmly behind the BJP while the Muslims support the AIUDF, is tough turf for the Trinamool. There is little political space there that the Trinamool can wedge itself into.

The Trinamool, however, is not limiting its aims to just Tripura and Assam’s Barak Valley alone. It is also eyeing Manipur, where it had a presence till a few years ago. In the 2012 Assembly elections in that state, the Trinamool won seven seats (of the total 60 seats in the Assembly) and emerged as the second-largest party after the Congress.

But all its seven legislators subsequently defected to the Congress and the BJP. In the 2017 Assembly polls, the Trinamool won just one seat, but its lone MLA--Tongbram Robindo Singh--joined the BJP later.

The Trinamool no longer has any organisational structure or base in Manipur, but it is planning to rebuild the party in that state by engineering defections of workers and functionaries from the Congress. But unlike in Tripura, the Congress is far from a spent force in Manipur and will fight back the Trinamool’s attempts to poach its ground. The Congress commands considerable resources in Manipur that the Trinamool will find difficult to match.

“In 2012, the Trinamool managed to win seven seats because there was no strong opposition to the Congress then and the opposition space was splintered. The Trinamool projected itself as a strong and viable opposition. But the defection of its MLAs left the party in shambles and the final nail in its coffin was the defection of its lone MLA (Tongbram Robindro), who was also the president of the Trinamool state unit, to the BJP a few months after the 2017 polls,” Th. Koijam, a senior Congress leader, told Swarajya from state capital Imphal.

Senior Trinamool leaders told Swarajya that the party leadership is finalising a strategy for the Manipur Assembly elections scheduled about six months from now. Prashant Kishor is in touch with disgruntled Congress leaders as well as some functionaries from the National People's Party (NPP) that is headed by Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma.

But here too the opposition space is crowded and the Congress, NPP and other parties will oppose the Trinamool’s entry tooth and nail. The Trinamool will bat on a very weak wicket in Manipur since it is looked upon as an ‘outside’ party based in Bengal.

Meghalaya is yet another state that the Trinamool has set its sights on. The Congress there is riven by warring factions and former chief minister Mukul Sangma has openly revolted against the recent appointment of Shillong Lok Sabha MP Vincent Pala as the president of the state Congress. Sangma, angry with the Congress ‘high command’ over not being consulted on Pala’s appointment, flew down to Kolkata last week and reportedly met Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and anointed heir Abhishek Banerjee.

Elections in Meghalaya are about one-and-half years away and though Sangma is not expected to take any precipitous action now, speculation is rife that he may break away from the Congress and launch the Trinamool in Meghalaya along with some Congress MLAs and leaders from the Garo Hills.

Nagaland, which also goes to the polls in early 2023, is another state that the Trinamool is eyeing, albeit cautiously since politics is in a big flux there due to all parties coming together to present a united coalition to aid the Naga peace talks that have entered the final stage.

Interestingly, Mamata Banerjee is said to be taking the ‘church route’ to reach out to politicians in the two Christian-majority tribal states of Meghalaya and Nagaland. On Prashant Kishor’s advice, she is learnt to have enlisted the help of the church--she is close to senior figures of the catholic and protestant churches in Kolkata--to facilitate her party’s foray into those two states.

Trinamool’s Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien, a close aide of Banerjee, is also learnt to be in talks with politicians of various non-BJP tribal parties in not only Nagaland and Meghalaya, but also Christian-majority Mizoram and the hills of Manipur, as well as Arunachal Pradesh where Christians form a substantial segment of the population.

“The broader strategy is to craft a coalition--even a loose coalition or alignment will do--before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. There are 25 Lok Sabha seats in the Northeast and if our (Trinamool) allies or friends win even five, it will add to our numbers and will strengthen Mamata Banerjee’s claim for an important and decisive role in the national arena,” said a Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP.

There is, however, a major hurdle here: the Trinamool’s plans for Northeast will hit a major and powerful roadblock in the form of regional strongman Himanta Biswa Sarma. The Assam chief minister is an astute politician who knows the region like the back of his hand.

Sarma heads the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) which has eleven regional parties as its constituents. Constituents of the NEDA are in power in all the eight north-eastern states. Sarma has good personal relations with all senior politicians of the eight states and had been instrumental in government-formations in Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh in the past, both as a senior leader of the Congress and then the BJP.

Sarma is considered to be a shrewd politician and also possesses excellent organisational skills and has vast resources at his command.

The Assam chief minister has strong grassroots connections all over the region and is an excellent orator. Sarma is also an aggressive politician who will not concede any corner to the Trinamool which is nothing but an ‘outsider’ in the north-eastern political arena.

The sailing for the Trinamool in the already choppy political waters of Northeast will, thus, not be a smooth one at all. Despite deploying huge resources and launching a full-scale offensive in Tripura, it is yet to make much of a mark in that state.

And going by that, the Trinamool may well fall flat on its face when it ultimately meets the ‘Sarma’ rampart .

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