Mamata Banerjee
Mamata Banerjee Reuters

Even if the front-running, conservative Bharatiya Janata Party of Narendra Modi wins the Indian general election next month, polls suggest that the BJP will not gain an outright majority of seats in Parliament, thereby requiring delicate negotiations to form a coalition.

Assuming that the incumbent Congress Party would want nothing to do with any BJP alliance, Modi -- the presumed next prime minister -- will need to appeal to regional party bosses to form a government. Polls suggest that the BJP, and its existing coalition of regional allies – called the National Democratic Alliance – will still fall short of a majority in Parliament by 40 to 50 seats.

One such local power broker could be Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the northeastern state of West Bengal, who has long exhibited a history of independent thinking and behavior.

On the surface, Mamata, who is warmly referred to as “didi” (or “elder sister” in Bengali) by her many supporters, would make an unlikely ally for Modi and the BJP, given her frequent attacks on the right-wing party. She has, for example, condemned Modi for his practice of "communal politics," that is, allegedly inflaming ethnic and religious passions to further deepen the divide between India's Hindu majority and Muslim minority. (Mamata has long catered to West Bengal's Muslim community, which accounts for about one-fourth of the state's population). Modi remains a pariah to most Indian Muslims, arising from his controversial actions in 2002, when rioting in his native Gujarat state led to the deaths of more than 1,200 people, mostly Muslims.

But Mamata has long carved her own independent and meandering destiny, frequently outraging former allies along the way. For instance, in 1998, after two decades of loyal membership in the Congress Party, she broke away to create the All India Trinamool Congress party, which is now the ruling party of West Bengal and also boasts a significant presence in the New Delhi Parliament. If Trinamool’s own predictions prove correct, it will hold between 25 and 30 seats, perhaps a few more, in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) after the election, granting it the third-largest bloc after BJP and Congress.

Earlier this week, the Times News Network news agency reported that the BJP is indeed mulling the idea of providing a “financial package” to West Bengal to ease the state’s debt crisis in exchange for Mamata’s support of a Modi government. An unnamed source informed TNN that there was a “strong possibility” that Mamata would agree to the offer. "For her, 2016 is the big election [to the state assembly]. She needs a blockbuster [financial] package to help revive Bengal's economy. Congress strung her along for years; it didn't deliver," the source told the paper. But TNN added that it remains unclear if Trinamool and Mamata would formally join a BJP-led government. "She's not in any hurry to install ministers in Delhi. More importantly, she has to keep Modi at arm's length distance because of the … Muslim vote in Bengal. It's a constituency she has assiduously courted; she cannot afford to lose its support by signing a formal agreement," a “political operative” explained to TNN.

A spokesman for Trinamool, Derek O’Brien, categorically denied that the party was seeking some kind of pact with the BJP in exchange for financial considerations. "This is absolute nonsense,” he told TNN. “Trinamool is fighting BJP, Congress, and the Left [Communist Party of India-Marxist] on the ground with equal vigor. There's no question of a deal."

But Mamata’s is under enormous pressure to alleviate West Bengal’s crushing debt burden (totaling at least $40 billion) -- and she desperately needs to entice investments and businesses into the state ahead of her own 2016 re-election hopes. Trinamool has already criticized the Congress-led federal government in New Delhi for failing to assist the state financially. Last November, the West Bengal government asked New Delhi for 2.55 lakh crore rupees (or about $42.5 billion) for 2015-2020 to make improvements in the state’s infrastructure and to fund various development works. The request was rejected.

The Press Trust of India reported that Mamata and her cohorts have accused Congress of exercising a “political vendetta” after Finance Minister P. Chidambaram also refused Trinamool’s demand for a moratorium on the interest of its debts, even characterizing the denial as tantamount to an “economic blockade.” Trinamool alleges that it is dealing with the wreckage of financial mismanagement committed by three decades of Communist rule in West Bengal – a party that was generally allied with Congress over much of that duration. "The Congress is still carrying out its political vendetta and an unprecedented indirect economic blockade has been put against the people of Bengal," O'Brien said.

Aside from economic concerns, Mamata must consider the political realities of her state, where she needs the support of the sizable Muslim minority. A Trinamool district activist from the city of Malda in North Bengal (an area that remains a Congress stronghold) told the Hindustan Times that any overtures to the BJP and Modi on Mamata’s part would be “political suicide.” "Muslims will en masse move to Congress and [the Communists], who are waiting precisely for Mamata to make such a mistake,” he told the Times. “All our efforts till now will get wasted. Our real aim is winning the 2016 assembly polls, and we cannot afford to lose Muslims before that."

More to the point, despite her venom against the hardline Hindu supremacist rhetoric of the BJP, Mamata has flirted with the right-wing party before. In both 1999 and 2004, Mamata extended her support to the BJP administrations of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and even served as a federal Cabinet minister under him from 1999-2001. (BJP won in 1999 and lost in 2004). By 2009, she again rejoined with Congress, which won the election. But a few years later, in September 2012, she pulled Trinamool out of a coalition with the Congress-led government to protest plans to open up Indian markets to foreign retailing giants.

Prakash Karat, the general-secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), quipped that it was now Mamata’s turn to jump into the BJP’s arms again. Indeed, West Bengal’s once-powerful Marxists suspect that political expediency will seal Mamata’s fate – that is, she will form an alliance which whoever wins the general election. "Mamata is playing a … game with both Congress and BJP to rejoin an alliance led by either of them,” West Bengal Communist Party leader Surjya Kanta Mishra Mishra, leader of the opposition in West Bengal Assembly, told a Bengali TV station. “The two major powers [BJP and Congress] are also keeping their doors open to her. … Her dream to become a third alternative will never be a reality.”

For his part, Narendra Modi has thus far refrained from directly criticizing Mamata or Trinamool. Jonah Blank, Ph.D., senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. in Washington, cautioned in an interview that this time around, joining BJP and its NDA coalition will be much more difficult than during the Vajpayee years. “Banerjee's political base is heavily dependent on Muslim voters, who might be more alienated by Modi than by Vajpayee,” he said. “She could, however, support the NDA from the outside, without joining the coalition."

And what would Mamata want in return (aside from debt relief in West Bengal)? Dr. Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asian affairs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, commented that if Mamata again joins forces with the BJP, she will likely demand a Cabinet ministry in exchange, “which the BJP would probably be willing to give her -- so long as it's not the prime ministry itself, which she could well ask for.”

Indeed, Kugelman indicated that a BJP victory in the general election does not automatically guarantee that Modi will even become prime minister. “If the BJP needs to cobble together a coalition, it can expect some tough demands by some of the regional parties, and the BJP may face a situation where it would need to let a state minister (belonging to one of these regional parties like Trinamool) become prime minister if it wants to successfully form a government,” he said. “It's not a completely unrealistic scenario.”

Mamata is now 59 years old and remains an enigma, even to her fervent admirers in West Bengal. Never married and childless, she lives in a simple flat in a Kolkata slum and dresses very modestly in public, with inexpensive cotton saris and rubber slippers. Seemingly intolerant of any criticism, she once ordered the arrest of a cartoonist who she claimed defamed her, while demanding that public libraries reduce their inventory of pro-Communist book and periodicals. The mercurial Mamata has also made no secret of her ambition to become India’s prime minister.