Opposition: One purpose, many differences

Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a road show in Lucknow. Rajeev Bhatt  

The Opposition parties that have banded together against the BJP need to go beyond State-level alliances. They must present not only a common pre-poll agenda with a storyline distinct from that of the ruling party, but also a united front, minimising competition among their members in key States.

Despite the Narendra Modi government losing some of its sheen, the BJP’s well-oiled machine presents a formidable challenge to the Opposition. But it is becoming apparent that the Congress, which is still riding high after its 2018 electoral victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, is doing all it can to strengthen itself even as it tries to rally the other secular Opposition parties to take on the BJP.

Some fraught relations

The resulting tension has manifest itself in the Congress’s equation with the smaller parties. Barring the States where the Congress is in a direct fight with the BJP, its interests clash with those of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal; the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in Uttar Pradesh; the Left parties in Kerala and Tripura; the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi; and even the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, where the two are currently sharing power. In some other States, the Congress’s relationship with its allies — whether the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, or the National Conference — is somewhat less strained. As things stand, it will fight against its “national allies” in at least three States — U.P., Kerala and Tripura — and is likely to have a seat-sharing agreement with the Left parties in West Bengal against the Trinamool.

The fraught relations between the Congress and some of its allies were visible in Parliament. On February 12, the SP and other Opposition parties were upset when the Congress did not join their protest in the Rajya Sabha after SP chief Akhilesh Yadav was prevented by the BJP government in U.P. from boarding a flight to Allahabad. A day later, Congress MP Adhir Chowdhury accused the Trinamool on the floor of the Lok Sabha of involvement in the chit fund scam; only NC leader Farooq Abdullah intervened. An incensed West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee confronted UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi in Parliament House, “I won’t forget it.” Taken aback, Ms. Gandhi sought to placate her: “We may accuse each other, but we are still friends.” Even as this was playing out in Parliament, the Congress declared it would fight the elections in U.P. “on the front foot”, rather than meekly accept the two seats left for it by the SP-BSP-RLD combine. A circumspect Mr. Yadav welcomed Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into full-time politics, but BSP supremo Mayawati fired her first salvo against the Congress last week: M.P.’s Congress administration and U.P.’s BJP government, she tweeted, were alike as both had used the draconian National Security Act against Muslims accused of cow slaughter.

This has upset the Opposition parties, as U.P.’s 80 Lok Sabha seats hold the key to forming the next government at the Centre. They are also concerned that this tension will adversely affect the momentum that the Opposition got after the swearing-in of the Congress-JD(S) government in Karnataka in 2018. At the Opposition protest at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on the closing day of Parliament, Mr. Abdullah advised his colleagues: “Defeat Modi first, then think of the Prime Minister’s chair. Big causes need sacrifices. The days are over when there was the flag of one party across the country.” Ms. Banerjee took the hint and responded that while she would not concede an inch in West Bengal, all the Opposition parties are willing to come together “nationally”.

In the Congress, however, leaders and party workers alike believe that as members of “the only national party with an inclusive agenda”, they must first strengthen their own organisation. They say that they cannot be “held hostage” by regional parties such as the SP, BSP and RLD in U.P.— or, for that matter, in any other State. They are optimistic that the ideology that binds the Opposition parties will ensure that even those who contest against each other in the elections — for tactical or other reasons — will come together after the results are in.

A common programme

In the absence of a substantive pre-poll alliance, Opposition leaders who met at NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s residence on February 13 discussed whether a common minimum programme could hold the constituents together in a “pre-poll alliance” to avoid “post-poll irritants”. These Opposition parties have realised that this is critical as it will not only ensure that voters take them more seriously after the elections if they forge ahead of the BJP-led NDA, but the President too will be compelled to call them first to form a government. In the absence of a pre-poll alliance with a common agenda, he is likely to call the single largest party, which may well be the BJP, despite predictions that its numbers will slump.

What is driving the Opposition today is the energy and combativeness of younger regional leaders, particularly Ms. Banerjee, the Telugu Desam Party’s N. Chandrababu Naidu, and the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal. Mr. Abdullah, Mr. Pawar and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda are playing the role of elder statesmen. There is also a grudging acceptance from some Opposition leaders that Mr. Gandhi’s steadfast attack of the BJP, and particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the Rafale deal has not just dented Mr. Modi’s seemingly immaculate image, but also provided a “political line” for the Opposition.

Today, the Pulwama terror attack poses a fresh challenge to the Opposition. It will require the combined political skills of leaders to ensure that the BJP and the RSS do not use this carnage to polarise voters on religious lines.

Smita Gupta is Senior Fellow, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 3:43:07 AM |

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