Mamata Banerjee Vs Arvind Kejriwal: And The Winner Is…
India’s regional parties are ‘cursed’ by a peculiar voodoo. In the first part of this argument, I have written how the electoral footprint of a regional party stops dead at the border of the state in which its patriarch (or matriarch) is domiciled. But then I have postulated that two stormy petrels and current chief ministers — viz, Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal — are exerting every sinew to break this voodoo and emerge as the ‘first among equals’ in an opposition cohort that hopes to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024.
Who Could Break This Accursed Voodoo, If At All? Mamata Banerjee Or Arvind Kejriwal?
Mamata Banerjee scores on seniority and political heft. She is a contemporary political colossus in a large state of nearly 100 million people. She is a battle-scarred veteran with relationships across the spectrum, especially among India’s ‘swivel politicians’, i.e. those regional titans who can run with the hare (BJP) and also hunt with the hound (opposition). Who, you ask? Well, imagine a podium of Naveen Patnaik (Odisha), K Chandrashekar Rao (Telangana), YS Jagan Mohan Reddy (Andhra Pradesh), Gowdas (Karnataka), Nitish Kumar (Bihar), Chautalas (Haryana), and now even the Badals (Punjab). These are ‘swivel politicians’ who could happily support Banerjee in case she is able to cobble enough numbers in Lok Sabha.
Arvind Kejriwal, on the other hand, is a ‘junior’, relatively light-weight opposition politician. His bailiwick in the ‘state’ of Delhi has barely got 30 million people with a mere handful of members in parliament. He hardly commands any currency with the ‘swivel group’. But he is young and popular with urban youth, perhaps the most vocal constituency in India’s emerging politics. His IIT creds add to his popularity. Against Mamata Banerjee’s ‘hard secularism or pro-minority-ism’, Arvind Kejriwal is comfortable mimicking the ‘soft-secularism plus sleeve-nationalism’ pitch, a bit like the BJP. Arguably, Kejriwal’s political heft is an active work in progress that is accreting with each passing day.
But for now, on sheer political chutzpah, it’s advantage Banerjee. Witness how she can wrest BJP heavyweights, including Babul Supriyo, Prime Minister Modi’s recent cabinet colleague, a feat that is unthinkable for any other opposition politician. In fact, while Banerjee held her own against Modi in parliament elections in West Bengal in 2019, Kejriwal was routed in his Delhi stronghold.
So, on sheer political chutzpah, it’s game, set, and match to Mamata Banerjee.
A Bengali Vs An ‘Indian’
However, Arvind Kejriwal enjoys a stronger halo of perception that is so cardinal in politics. Delhi is not a ‘region’ but a ‘microcosm’ of India. The city-state does not have a native ethnicity or language. Every Indian can identify with the capital. Nobody is barred, excluded, or isolated. This has freed Arvind Kejriwal from the boundaries of a particular state. His political personality is free to roam the full diversity of India. He speaks in English and Hindi, which again gives him reach across most parts of the country.
On the contrary, Mamata Banerjee is seen as a towering ‘Bengali politician’ by the rest of India. She can rouse the rabble in Bengal but is clearly hobbled in creating a similar resonance in the cow belt. She is much more susceptible to the curse of the voodoo – i.e., incarceration within her state’s boundaries – than Arvind Kejriwal. She will need to do something dramatic to acquire a seamless national profile. Perhaps become as fluent in Hindi as she is in her native Bengali? And ‘do a Modi’ by contesting from Lucknow or New Delhi. Both these are tall asks in the three years left until 2024.
Delhi hands over another ace to Arvind Kejriwal. By ruling over the capital city, he enjoys a higher-than-proportionate presence in national media. He can use Delhi’s surplus budget to splash himself across newspaper ads, television, and digital screens in the power capital. On the other hand, Banerjee can’t justify spending the Bengali taxpayers’ money with the same profligacy in Delhi. Kejriwal also gets to geo-tag big political events – for example, by hosting visiting foreign dignitaries, where he can play a ‘mini Modi’. But Banerjee is closeted in an eastern corner of India for much of the year.
The Regional ‘Catcher’ Vs The National ‘Spoiler’
Now that we’ve catalogued the natural strengths and weaknesses of Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal, let’s pivot to their contrasting electoral strategies. Banerjee seems to be acutely aware of the voodoo. This is why she is taking aggressive steps to expand her Bengali outreach in Assam and Tripura, trying to ‘catch out’ the Congress in the east while playing footsie with it elsewhere. It’s a practical and intelligent pan-regional, and not a pan-national, strategy. This will give her higher parliamentary numbers, i.e. more chips at the table when (and if) it comes to jostling for the top job in a coalition national government.
As against this, Kejriwal is ‘spraying’ himself in an ‘everywhere contest’ against the Congress – Punjab, Goa, Gujarat, Uttarakhand. It’s an audacious (or desperate?) attempt to usurp the Congress’s dwindling national space, especially since he does not allow powerful regional colleagues to step out of his shadow. But Arvind Kejriwal is also an equal anathema to the BJP. That of course is as much of an advantage as a disadvantage. While he can pick up disgruntled votes from both, he also has to fight a two-front war. So, at the current reckoning, Kejriwal may not pick up enough votes to cross the threshold but will be accused of playing the ‘spoiler’ against the Congress and a united opposition.
Congress, Congress On The Wall, Who Is The Fairest Of Them All?
This is where we inject the critical differentiator, i.e. the stance of the Congress party and the Gandhi family. While they are implacably opposed to Arvind Kejriwal, they see a frenemy in Mamata Banerjee. She still enjoys a rapport with Sonia Gandhi, and if push comes to shove, can rely on her support. Curiously, Banerjee is also pally with the G-23, ie the rebel group of 23 Congress letter-writers. Or even someone like the 24th or 25th rebels (perhaps aka Amarinder Singh and Bhupesh Baghel). Finally, she’s got a line open with ex-Congressmen like Sharad Pawar and Jagan Reddy, who may feel far more comfortable dealing with her than an unknown maverick like Arvind Kejriwal.
To put it starkly, Mamata Banerjee only has to co-opt the Gandhis and ex-Congressmen to vault to the top; Arvind Kejriwal has to destroy the Congress to have a shot at the top slot.
Ultimately, she will only need a dexterous act of deal-making; but he will have to undertake the monumental task of creatively destroying the Grand Old Party.
Of course, all of this could be a much-wasted labour of love, because hey, who sez there’s a vacancy in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2024?
Raghav Bahl is Co-Founder – The Quint Group including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.