Mamata Kejriwal
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee (left) and her Delhi counterpart Arvind Kejriwal (right) Image Credit: ANI

Enthusiasts of Indian politics are watching the Aam Aadmi Party and the Trinamool Congress with renewed interest. Both parties are limited to one state each, have one chief minister each, but could be at the cusp of exponential growth.

AAP and TMC are not being subtle about what they are trying to do. They are both seeking to fill the vacuum left behind by a moribund Congress party, which according to even some of its own leaders, is unable to provide and an effective opposition in the world’s largest democracy.

It is interesting to note that the two parties are very different from each other, in every possible way. Their pitch to voters, their brand identity, their roots, their history, their leadership styles, the methods they are choosing for their expansion — on every count TMC and AAP offer two alternatives. It is a tribute to Indian democracy that such alternatives are being offered.

New wine or old wine in a new bottle?

The TMC has made it clear that it wants to cannibalise the Congress. While all attention is on the small states of Goa and Tripura, where the TMC has poached Congress leaders, it is fascinating to see how the TMC is bleeding the Congress of whatever leaders it still has in Uttar Pradesh.

It is doing so at a time when Priyanka Gandhi is trying hard (finally) to get some attention from voters in the most important state in Indian politics. The TMC is not even doing this for the forthcoming assembly elections in UP in March 2022. And it is not poaching leaders from other parties, not even the declining Bahujan Samaj Party. The target is Congress.

The ambition is clear: TMC is trying to become the new Congress, the Banerjees of Kolkata replacing the Gandhis of Delhi.

Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party, on the other hand, haven’t been poaching leaders from other parties. AAP’s pitch to voters has been that it is fresh and new, not coming from the existing political class.

This is a very powerful pitch no doubt, given that a large number of voters are perennially disillusioned with the entire political class, the ‘system’. The TMC model of poaching leaders who already command some votes in their pockets is perhaps a quicker way of reaching the destination.

It will be interesting, therefore, to watch if AAP’s CM candidate is from the existing political class or a ‘fresh’ face.

Centre right vs centre left

In terms of ideological positioning, the Trinamool Congress is decidedly left-of-centre. Its vocal faces in Delhi, Derek O’Brien and Mohua Moitra, speak in ideological terms against the ills of majoritarianism. The TMC also wears on its sleeve its opposition to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

A few months ago, the TMC roundly beat the BJP in hard-fought contest in West Bengal. This has made TMC the flavour of the season for those opposed to the BJP.

The Aam Aadmi party has also defeated the BJP on its home turf, Delhi, not once but twice. Both times it was a resounding victory. Yet, ideologically, the AAP has gone from being non-committal to centre-right, endorsing religious majoritarianism and no longer being even subtle about it.

An engineer by training, Kejriwal has a simple mathematical explanation for this. The “secular” vote is divided between many small and big parties. The “Hindutva” vote has only one claimant — the BJP.

Kejriwal thinks he needs to persuade the BJP voter to shift to AAP for reasons of governance and ideology won’t be a point of friction. The TMC wants to consolidate the non-BJP vote and become its flag bearer.

Dividing the map

Between AAP and TMC, the AAP theoretically has a greater chance of succeeding, because it has a greater national resonance than TMC. Arvind Kejriwal is a Hindi-speaking politician and has some degree of acceptability in north India. The Bengali-speaking Mamata Banerjee is not fluent with Hindi or English.

But we are presuming here that TMC will sell Brand Didi to the masses. It may not do so, since it wants to rely on local leaders it will poach from the Congress and others. Didi, then, becomes more of a focal point for secular forces to unite around, not a mass leader per se.

With these differences of language and geography, TMC and AAP can enter different parts of India without always being up against each other. The TMC has made it clear it is interested in the north-east, starting with Tripura. The AAP is currently interested in north and north-western states, from Gujarat to Punjab.

Opposites attract

The TMC and AAP have begun competing for a post-Congress opposition vacuum. The contest has already begun from the coastal state of Goa.

Yet the two parties are actually offering different visions of a national opposition. To the extent that they both want to bury the Congress party, they complement each other.