On May 2, the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) declared victory in the West Bengal legislative assembly elections. Three days later, the first-term TMC member of Parliament Mahua Moitra published an op-ed in The New York Times titled “I Know How to Defeat Narendra Modi.”
Moitra argued that the TMC’s win in West Bengal constituted a turning point for opposition politics in India. Blaming the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for mismanaging the country’s Covid-19 response, she said Prime Minister Modi can be defeated by a party “that stays true to its grass roots and a secular, inclusive ideology.”
Moitra’s claims shouldn’t be dismissed. Commentators framed the West Bengal elections as nothing less than a referendum on the soul of India, with the BJP facing off against the TMC, a regional powerhouse led by the country’s only female chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. The BJP challenged the TMC’s decade-long incumbency, pouring resources into the state and turning out high-profile figures like Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to help campaign. The TMC’s resounding victory in the face of this mobilization—the party won 213 out of 292 seats—speaks to the popularity of Banerjee, a savvy critic of Modi known to voters as “Didi,” or older sister.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to read too much into the results. The BJP has underperformed in state elections in the past, notably in 2019, and yet still dominates national politics. The BJP’s electoral strategy was to exploit communal divisions, which are particularly pronounced in West Bengal, a formerly Muslim-majority state cleaved in two in 1947. But the BJP has never held power in the state, which was dominated by Left Front governments for four decades before the TMC’s 2011 breakthrough. Meanwhile, Banerjee and the TMC have struggled to root out the corruption that had plagued the Left Front governments and an entrenched political culture marked by violence and voter intimidation.
The TMC remains synonymous with Banerjee, who founded the party in 1998 after splitting with the Indian National Congress, the party of independence and, along with the BJP, one of the country’s two major parties. But her most vocal defender, and the TMC’s rising star, is Moitra. Elected to the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha or “House of the People, in 2019, the 46-year-old Moitra has emerged as a fiery critic of the BJP.
In her first speech in Parliament in February 2019, Moitra addressed the house in a white and indigo sari, her dark hair down around her shoulders and a prominent bindi on her forehead. Over heckling from the government benches, she denounced Hindu nationalism, and took aim at the BJP’s National Register of Citizens, which requires residents in the state of Assam to furnish documents proving their citizenship, and which critics fear could be extended to the whole country. “People who have lived in this country for 50 years are having to show a piece of paper to prove they are Indians,” she said. “If only you would open your eyes, you would see that there are signs everywhere that this country is being torn apart.” Parliament is usually the domain of gray, aging politicians. Moitra’s speech went viral.
India’s devastating Covid-19 crisis has further galvanized opposition parties like the TMC, which occupies the fourth-largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha. In Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, one in two residents tested positive for the virus in late April. The TMC government imposed a two-week lockdown that began on May 16, but the second wave of infections still seems not to have peaked.
The Election Commission, a nominally independent national body, decided to hold the elections in eight phases over four weeks, a ruling widely cited as contributing to the rise in cases in the state. Lauded by the BJP, the Election Commission’s calendar was protested by the TMC, the only party to propose shortening the elections by merging phases.
Moitra condemned the Election Commission’s decision. But her opposition to the government’s handling of the crisis has not just been rhetorical. In March 2020, when the pandemic first swept India, she petitioned the Supreme Court to direct government agencies to make arrangements for the welfare of migrant workers, as well as to require employers to provide wages and shelter to workers for the duration of the crisis.
An instantly recognizable figure in elegantly draped saris and her trademark oversized sunglasses, Moitra has a distinct profile in Indian politics. Does her brand of unapologetic secularism represent the way forward for an embattled opposition?
As Covid-19 rates soar, the BJP has come under fire for allowing mass gatherings, including packed election rallies in West Bengal. In April, the federal government allowed the Kumbh Mela, a religious gathering held every 12 years that attracts millions, to go ahead despite restrictions on large gatherings, a decision seen as a concession to the Hindu right.
The Covid-19 crisis has reinforced Moitra’s position as a vociferous critic of the BJP government—most notably on social media. According to a recent study by Arshia Arya and Joyojeet Pal, Moitra had the second-highest increase in Twitter followers of any Indian politician between December 2020 and March 2021.
Moitra’s prominence, both on Twitter and on the floor of Parliament, speaks to the Congress party’s failure to nurture talent. Moitra spent her formative years abroad, studying economics and mathematics at Mount Holyoke before embarking on a career in investment banking in New York and London. But politics beckoned, and she returned to India in 2008, joining the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi. She served as a co-coordinator of the Youth Congress’s rural empowerment program in West Bengal before quitting two years later, citing the party’s minimal on-the-ground presence. Switching allegiance to the TMC, Moitra was mentored by Banerjee, winning a legislative assembly seat in Karimpur, Nadia district, in 2016.
Now the TMC’s spokesperson and general secretary, Moitra has largely deflected charges that she appeals only to educated, middle-class Indians. The district she represents in the Lok Sabha is a rural area that was held by the TMC in the two elections preceding her 2019 selection as a candidate. But Moitra was not simply parachuted in to serve as the face of the TMC’s well-organized grassroots cadres. She spent three months in Krishnanagar canvassing for the Congress party before the 2009 general elections, visiting every election booth in the constituency. She ran her 2019 Lok Sabha election by recruiting well-organized field staff and showing up in dusty villages on roadshows, a mainstay of Indian political campaigning that involves touring an area in an open-topped vehicle. “She wins elections,” said Neelanjan Sircar, a political scientist at Ashoka University and visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “And she actually wins elections in a place that is quite difficult for the TMC. It’s a place with a lot of Hindu-Muslim polarization, where the BJP actually has a significant presence.”
After the 2019 elections, Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress party president. But this has not led to change: His mother and predecessor as party leader, Sonia Gandhi, remains interim president. Against this backdrop of inertia, Banerjee and the TMC have reinvigorated opposition politics, wooing voters with a combination of welfare schemes and women-friendly initiatives that won the support of West Bengal’s poorest populations. The TMC victory positions Moitra as a key opposition figure, and the young, dynamic face of a secular political tradition that has appeared in danger of flickering out.
Recent popular opposition to the BJP has been mounted by dispossessed segments of the population—Muslims and refugees concerned by the Citizenship Amendment Act’s threat of revoking citizenship, farmers protesting the new farm laws. But the pandemic, unlike the government, does not discriminate. Religion, party affiliation, and even social status are no longer enough to guarantee a hospital bed. On April 27, Moitra issued a poignant tweet: “Democratic freedoms—to protest, to critique, what to eat, who to love—much like oxygen, hurt only when taken away.” With so many Indians gasping for breath, Moitra’s words are a rallying cry.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mamata Banerjee founded the TMC in 2011. She founded the party in 1998. The article has been updated to reflect the correct date.