New Delhi: As a major economy and an emerging power, the world is closely watching India as it gets ready for the general election in the summer. Indian general elections are the largest electoral exercise in the world and perhaps in all history and countries without the benefit of liberal democracy marvel at the smooth and bloodless transfer of power at the end of it. Prime ministerial choices for 2019 are being randomly listed and published in a special Newsinsight series from today and their order of appearance should not be equated with ranking and winnability. Where possible, candidates will be rated and numbers assigned.

Mamata Bannerjee, the first candidate to be considered for 2019’s top job, has the backing of the opposition Bengal BJP leader, Dilip Ghosh. Conveying birthday greetings to the chief minister of his state some ten days ago, Ghosh said with uncontained exuberance, “Bengal’s fate depends on her success. She needs to be in good health because if someone from Bengal is selected as prime minister, she has the brightest chance.” Embarrassing his party which is at loggerheads with the Mamata government over a rath yatra through the state, Ghosh quickly backtracked. What Ghosh said, however, was unexceptionable, although the timing was cruel. Had Mamata been a top contender for prime minister after the poll results, it would have been perfectly natural for one Bengal politician to support another. Provincial pride overrides national considerations. All Andhra Pradesh backed P. V. Narasimha Rao when he needed to be elected to the Lok Sabha for confirmation as prime minister. Manmohan Singh was not put to that test in Punjab but even the opposition Akali Dal swelled with pride to have a fellow Punjabi lead the country.

But what really are Mamata’s chances? Bengal has forty-two Lok Sabha seats of which Mamata’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) won thirty-four in the last general election in a quadrangular contest. Impressive as this is, Bengal is not outsized like Uttar Pradesh with eighty Lok Sabha seats. And despite persevering to expand her footprint in the east and the northeast, she has not succeeded, and she does not have the spoiler’s reputation of Mayawati, which permits the Dalit leaderene to have an extra-Uttar Pradesh influence in government-formation in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan without replicating her Uttar Pradesh successes in these states.

Having risen alone, Mamata has not bound TMC to an alliance system like the Congress has (although patchily and through compulsion) and even the Bharatiya Janata Party (to a limited extent). And the 2019 general election is about alliances because neither of the two national parties, the BJP and the Congress, is expected to get their own majorities, and alliance support becomes still more critical in the event of a hung Parliament. Mamata won a first term as chief minister in a loose alliance with Congress although she had exited it to become a success story. At that point, her number one adversary was the long-reigning CPI-M government. Once the Marxist Left was decimated, Mamata powered ahead alone, fighting every other party in the state for a second term, which she won handsomely. But what was meat for Bengal is poison for the limitless Delhi stakes today. Mamata stands alone without state allies. And if anything mars her prime ministerial chances, this will.

Having made her mark after shedding her Congress identity, Mamata seems terrified of losing it again should she get close to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi who hold the reins of her old party. She sees no rivalry with Sonia who turned down the PM post in 2004 but Sonia’s ambition for her son cuts into her own which makes her persist with the phoney non-Congress, non-BJP front of which the BJP stooge, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, is a member. In Mamata’s limited vision, the considerable street challenge she faces in the state from the BJP (replacing the erstwhile thuggish CPI-M) entitles her to lead any prospective non-BJP government at the Centre. She quite forgets that she is not the only one who faces a BJP challenge. Aside prominently from Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, the list also includes Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, N. Chandrababu Naidu, M. K. Stalin of the DMK, and so on. At least Mayawati and Akhilesh sensibly have come together in an alliance. It fits with the organic nature of the approaching general election. How can Mamata claim one rule for Bengal (no alliance) and still contrarily demand a place at the head of a coalition government in Delhi?

After Atal Behari Vajpayee showed the way, the Congress swallowed its pride and accepted the necessity of functioning in a coalition framework. In the far more limited domain of Bengal, Mamata is not able to accommodate her ambition within a coalition paradigm. Her compulsions are understandable: the more Lok Sabha seats she wins, the greater her bargaining capacity. But it cannot be only numbers. If no other party gains by her strength in Bengal, why should they support her for prime minister? A coalition mindset begets a coalition leadership.

To be continued...

Editor’s Note: The regular staple of geopolitical and geo-economic analyses will feature in between this series.