It was a meeting called by Sonia Gandhi, but just a few minutes into the Opposition meeting on NEET-JEE, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was asked to take over and convene by the Congress supremo. Banerjee took over for a little while before handing the mantle back to Gandhi.
Since the morning of the meeting on 26 August, the Trinamool Congress social media machinery was running the hashtag #JEE_NEETcanWAIT, with leaders across the party asking for the exams to be deferred and hailing Mamata Banerjee for taking up the issue.
The meet was also televised live on Mamata Banerjee's official Facebook page and by extension on local and national TV. But with just over a lakh NEET-JEE aspirants in the state, why is the Trinamool going hammer and tongs on this issue? The upcoming elections could be a reason.
Bengali Premium on Education
The Trinamool’s push towards engaging the youth of the state, and to be seen as a youth-friendly party has been on for a few months now. Over the past many months, the party has launched a campaign to bring on board more youth volunteers, and has made young leaders the focus of its latest organisational rejig.
To take up an issue that is top-of-mind for youngsters across the country is another step in that direction.
When asked why this issue was taken up, in spite of it not having a massive local recall, a Trinamool insider said that the “premium placed on education” in states like Bengal, makes it imperative for a leader from the state to speak about the issue.
“In the east, where education is placed at much higher premium than many parts of North India, West Bengal is the last opposition state standing. It is therefore important for someone like Didi to raise this issue as a representative of the Bengali people who would do anything but never compromise on their children’s education,” said a Trinamool insider.
“She was also one of the senior-most politicians in that meet. Even though there were other big names like Captain Amarinder Singh, it is important to remember that educational issues like these will have more resonance in West Bengal,” said the leader.
“It is not about 1 lakh students or 5 lakh students. The point is that students must in the correct frame of mind to write an exam. We are not asking for it to be cancelled, but no mountain will fall if it is postponed,” said Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien.
“More over it is a ‘people-centric’ issue so of course Mamata Banerjee will talk about it. Just like Singur, Nandigram, this is right up her alley. It’s what she does,” he added.
Lone Voice Against the BJP
Trinamool insiders say that the decision to take ownership of the Opposition meet was also a way to put out the message that against the BJP, there’s only one opposition in Bengal. They say that it is an important step towards consolidating the “secular opposition vote” in the upcoming elections, which, if split between the Left and Congress in some areas, could mean disaster for the TMC like it did in Lok Sabha 2019.
Banerjee’s attendance at the meet was significant also because she was the only CM who wasn’t from the Congress or a Congress-alliance partner. Some say this could also be a way of preventing a possible Congress-Left understanding in West Bengal.
Sources also say that issues like the NEET are “safe” as opposed to those like Kashmir, Pakistan and China, Ram Mandir etc. which may affect the Hindu vote, if not handled right.
“A subject like NEET is something that will resonate with everyone in the state, across social and religious lines. It is safe and is a good issue to take on the BJP without offending many sections in the state,” said a Trinamool leader.
Mamata’s decision to join the Opposition meet also came after she’d written two back-to-back letters to the prime minister regarding the exams. At the meet, she also asked Opposition leaders to move to the Supreme Court for the same. Sources, however, say that there are no immediate plans of the Trinamool going to the SC solo.
Whether the party will be the main force co-ordinating Opposition unity on this issue remains to be seen.
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