Bengal win makes Mamata Banerjee most formidable force against BJP: Sushmita Dev

Trinamool Congress MP Sushmita Dev speaks to ET’s Vasudha Venugopal on the party sweeping the recent bypoll in West Bengal, Congress’ rout in Assam, TMC‘s plans to contest elections in Tripura and Assam and why she thinks the TMC’s win in West Bengal has positioned Mamata Banerjee as the most formidable force against the BJP. Edited excerpts:

On TMC’s sweep in recent bypolls in West Bengal

Dinhata of Cooch Behar in North Bengal has a very strong presence of the
Rajbongshi community and more significantly, this is from where the BJP started making inroads into the state. The BJP won the seat in 2019 and got 50.7 percent vote share. When the TMC came down to 22 seats in 2019 (in Parliamentary polls) it was kind of a warning that all is not well and that is what the party worked on. By winning Dinhata, the TMC has got back the bastion of the BJP which makes the victory more meaningful for us. In Santipur, which used to be a CPI(M) stronghold, the TMC won for the first time. This is a sign that in 2024 (Lok Sabha polls), Mamata Banerjee is likely to sweep Bengal.

On exodus of BJP MLAs to TMC

A lot of people overestimated the Modi-Shah wave in West Bengal. Even someone like Dinesh Trivedi who I personally respect, and many others put their bets on the wrong horse without realising the ground reality. Bengal rejected communal politics. It is not the first state where the BJP went lock stock and barrel and tried to communalise the campaign, but the mandate that came was against the same, which is actually the real feather on Mamata Banerjee’s cap. Fighting communal politics is the biggest challenge today. Many other states have not been able to do it. You cannot compare West Bengal to Rajasthan or Gujarat or Chhattisgarh because the demography is different. It is easy to communalise an election in a place where the minority population is high. It becomes a laboratory for communal politics, which is why beyond a point they cannot communalise Rajasthan or MP, but in Bengal they tried their best. The BJP has a narrative that it is because of the minority votes that AITC won Bengal which is not true because if you look at the vote share, it is evident that all sections of the society voted for her. It is a complete inclusive mandate.

TMC’s big move in Tripura

Even earlier, TMC fielded candidates in Tripura, but the vote share was just above 1%. But now, the writing is clear on the wall that the general people do not want to vote for the BJP again. Question is who will they vote for? The Congress is just a signboard here, almost non-existent. There is the Left and TMC. The people of Tripura have already rejected the Left and they don’t want the BJP anymore. They have seen Mamata Banerjee defeat the BJP decisively. What has added to our cause is that though the CPI(M) is the primary opposition in Tripura, it has been totally silent for the last three and a half years. We used to hear so much about Manik Sarkar as the CM, but as opposition he is completely cornered, not even allowed to visit his own constituency. The way IPAC and TMC leaders have been attacked in Tripura shows how even the BJP thinks we are the only contender there. For the Congress, Tripura is in the periphery but for Mamata Banerjee, it is all important, it is plus two (LS) seats. The Congress has 52 seats in Lok Sabha followed by the DMK at 23, then the TMC at 22 and the YSRCP at 20. If Mamata didi wins 40 in Bengal, these two seats in Tripura will put her at 42 making her a force to reckon with. The Congress has eight seats in Tamil Nadu and 15 in Kerala as of today. In Kerala we know the Congress did not do well in assembly elections and the next Lok Sabha will be tough. So, if you look at the numbers game, Tripura is critical to Mamata Banerjee’s positioning in 2024.

On Congress prospects in 2024

It is crystal clear that the performance of the Congress in state assembly elections is no reflection of how the party will perform in the general elections. The party in 2018 formed governments in both MP and Rajasthan, but in general elections, they got only one seat in MP. In Karnataka, we are praising the Congress today for its performance in the bypoll saying they managed a victory in the CM’s home district but in Lok Sabha the Congress just managed to get one seat of DK Shivakumar’s brother. The battle is very different in Lok Sabha. One has to accept that people like Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot and Captain till he was in the Congress are strong regional satraps. And what is up in the air at the time also matters. I feel that the Congress narrative around Rafale didn’t click at all. Pulwama was a much bigger factor. The Congress has never portrayed a PM candidate. They have never openly said if Sonia ji or Rahul ji will be the PM. If the TMC manages to get the numbers right, the entire game can change. If you look at the RJD, TRS or the SP, none of them have a government outside their own states. If we manage to pull off Tripura with all our might, Mamata Banerjee could be the first and only person, after the BJP and Congress, to have a government in another state.

On Assam being on TMC’s radar

In Assam, there is no opposition. The bypoll performance of the Congress in Assam vindicates me and the stand I took on the alliance and that there is no opposition on ground in Assam and the Congress’ narrative is absent. Also, the BJP in Assam is totally overshadowed by Himanta Biswa Sarma ji. Most of the MLAs in BJP are people from the Congress, not core RSS groomed ones. Just like the Indira Congress, the BJP in Assam is centred around HBS. He defeats the Congress with a strategy, not because of his capability as an administrator. His election strategy involves tactics and resources, and unfortunately there are many in the Congress who continue to deal with him. He also controlled the AIUDF or someone like Bodoland leader Hagrama Mohillary. These factors were really worrying for me during the assembly elections. It is like he controls everything and that is why there is no opposition. I have reservations with his governance and his divisive politics, but he has beaten others on election strategy which is why I feel only someone relentless and uncompromising like Mamata Banerjee will be able to take him on. The acceptability of TMC in Assam is much more than the Congress, and people of Assam see a hope in her. There is definitely an opportunity for the TMC. I have discussed this with both Mamata didi and Abhishek Banerjee. I am a Bengali from Assam, and we are aware of the critical role identity politics plays in the state. The issues are very different in Barak valley, Brahmaputra valley or lower assam. So, we have to plan this properly so that when we make an entry in Assam, we are a formidable force.

On Congress breaking ties with AIUDF

My view was that it is a risk fighting without the AIUDF. But if you lost after not tying with them, the blame would have gone on Ajmal ji but it would have been a defeat we could have bounced back from. After tying up with him and then losing, Congress is going to take decades to get over this defeat. When you do these kinds of alliances people no longer understand what you stand for. Congress in Assam has no narrative, and neither does a Bengali Hindu know what the party has to offer, nor does the Bengali muslim. Assamese Hindus and tea gardens have firmly voted for the BJP for whatever reasons.

Focus on Northeast

There is a lot of space here. In Nagaland, there is only one party. In Manipur, the Congress is in a fight, and I hope they do well. In Meghalaya, it is a direct fight between the NPP and Congress and the Congress has not done well in recent bye-elections. To succeed in the Northeast, we have to find the right regional satraps.

On Abhishek Banerjee taking on the mantle of the TMC

He is an excellent communicator and has proved himself in the last assembly elections that he is not only capable of running the organisation but also winning an election. When you talk to him, he makes it possible to have a candid conversation without we having to tiptoe around him. Often, entire politics falls apart because you are tiptoeing around your leader. Abhishek may not agree with you but one can call a spade a spade around him. I may not have an hour conversation with him after every political development but I am at liberty to write it all down in a report and send it to him to which he responds. It is not a one sided conversation. However cliched it might sound, it is important for a leader to have fire in his belly which Abhishek has. What he has handled very well is there is no narrative about old guard versus new guards around him. There is no denying that Mamata Banerjee has a key role to play in this. His messaging is also very clear which makes it easier for people to believe him.

On allegations that the TMC is poaching leaders from the Congress

To build a leader it takes years if not decades. To expect Mamata Banerjee to build leaders is going to take her 20 years. And the need of the hour is to defeat the BJP. It is not like you pay someone crores of money and they join the party. Mamata Banerjee is actually reaching out to people who need a different political space as their present political space is shrinking in the Congress. If Congress can bring Revanth Reddy and Nana Patole and give them leadership roles in states, why blame Mamata Banerjee for reaching out to leaders from other parties.

On allegations by Congress leaders that TMC is helping the BJP

Opposition unity is not synonymous with restrictions on political parties from growing. The NCP has been fielding candidates all over the country. I can ask, is the Congress helping the BJP in Odisha? It is a misplaced argument because then, the Congress should shut shop in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Puducherry, Bengal and Tripura. West Bengal elections have shown that Mamata Banerjee is the fiercest counter to the BJP.

On an opposition unity without the Congress

It is not only about what Mamata Banerjee feels about the Congress as many others including YSRCP, BJD or even SP are all factors who might or might not want Congress to lead. There are political realities that we cannot ignore. Of the 545 seats in Lok Sabha, there are about 150 seats where the BJP and Congress are in direct fight with each other. So, you have 350 odd seats left. Who will fight it out there? On August 20 in the opposition meeting Mamata Banerjee made an important point that even the NDA allies have to be convinced about opposition unity because even today the numbers that the TMC, YSRCP, BJD, etc., put together are more than the Congress. Opposition unity cannot be a one-way road where questions are being asked only of Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar. Even the Congress needs to answer what it wants to do. Mamata Banerjee left the Congress and formed the TMC. She fought the Congress all these years in her state, and yet is talking to Sonia Gandhi ji. To give credit to Sonia ji, she left the country’s prime ministership, and she can do it again. Both of them have enough history in their lives to tell me they are capable of crossing over obstacles when the time comes. I am optimistic about it.

On the decision to quit the Congress

I remember Rahul Gandhi ji has said often that the Congress is like the idea of India. It is inclusive, believes in social justice and constitutional values of secularism. There can be no copyright on ideas. It is exactly what Mamata Banerjee stands for. I may have signed the resignation letter but there were many things that happened to me that are not written anywhere. It is just a matter of perspective if I left the party or the party left me. The party did what it thought was best for its interest, but I have the right to fight for my survival. The legacy of Congress does not belong to one address. Our fathers and grandfathers too have contributed to it.

On post-poll violence in Bengal

I have never understood what is post-poll violence and pre-poll violence. No violence is good. Of the 21 deaths, 16 are of TMC workers, I am told. If the BJP thinks unleashing violence is wrong, then why are they doing the same thing in Tripura?

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