CARRYING A BOUQUET of bright yellow lilies, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee walked into 10 Janpath on August 1, for a meeting with United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. When she came out, she quoted Rabindranath Tagore to explain who would be the face of the opposition alliance. Seen as a claimant to the post, Mamata quoted the Tagore song “Amra Sobai Raja (Everybody is king)”. “This is the spirit of democracy,” she said. “Everybody is king. Everybody is equal.”
Mamata has been positioning herself as a prime ministerial probable, refusing to accept the primacy of the Congress in an opposition alliance. But with the Congress making conciliatory noises, the West Bengal chief minister announced that there was no race for the top job.
The need for a coordinated approach to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi inside and outside Parliament is agreed upon by opposition parties. Shortly after Mamata’s Delhi trip, the opposition was unanimous in deciding to approach the Election Commission to demand a return to the ballot system of election.
According to a top Congress leader, a broad consensus has been reached that the issue of who will be the prime ministerial nominee will be taken up only after the elections. “Our primary job is to defeat the BJP and the RSS. What happens after the elections will depend on how different parties perform,” he said.
Trinamool MP Sukhendu Sekhar Roy said Mamata had been working to create a united force to take on the Modi government. “She is not hungry for power. She has said that if the need arises, she shall stand last in the queue,” he said.
However, just days after the show of solidarity, strains were quite visible in the tenuous opposition unity as the ruling National Democratic Alliance scored a comfortable victory in the election to the post of deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha. The NDA nominee Harivansh Narayan Singh of the JD(U) got 125 votes, while opposition candidate B.K. Hariprasad got only 101 votes.
“We were expecting around 120 votes, but some members could not reach Parliament. We sent a strong message to the government. This is one more step towards strengthening democracy,” said Hariprasad. His attempts to downplay the worse-than-expected show only helped highlight the opposition’s handicaps in managing numbers and the ability of the NDA to reach out to fence-sitters. The negotiations within the opposition camp on the election went on for weeks. The weakened position of the Congress was visible, with none of its nominees getting the support of other parties, especially the Trinamool. The name of Trinamool leader Roy was considered, but it was rejected as the left would not have supported him.
The opposition finally zeroed in on NCP’s Vandana Chavan. However, with the BJD, whose support could have swung the election either way, having pledged its support to the NDA nominee, and the Shiv Sena not having any issues with supporting Harivansh, the NCP backed out. With none of the other regional parties ready to take the field, it was left to the Congress to nominate a candidate.
The Trinamool, however, was uneasy with the Congress taking the lead, and it was not particularly averse to voting for the JD(U) candidate. The YSR Congress, a fence-sitter and a rival of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh, which had earlier declared that it would vote against the NDA candidate, had a change of heart when the Congress fielded Hariprasad. Jaganmohan Reddy’s party subsequently decided to abstain.
The Aam Aadmi Party wanted Rahul to call up party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal soliciting support. The Congress, which detests the AAP for having snatched away its vote bank in Delhi, has vehemently kept Kejriwal’s party out of the opposition bloc, and Rahul did not call Kejriwal. And, the AAP, too, abstained.
The conflict in the opposition camp also points to other issues that are likely to crop up while stitching together alliances in the states. Opposition leaders say the party which dominates in a particular state will lead the charge there. This will help regional leaders play on their popular appeal.
“Who the individual parties will project in their respective electoral contests is for them to decide,” said NCP leader D.P. Tripathi. “That should not pose a problem for opposition unity.” Going by this formula, in West Bengal, the Congress and the left ought to be aligning with the Trinamool. But, it seems unlikely. In Delhi, the AAP is the leading anti-Modi force. But, the Congress has decided against allying with it.
The BJD’s move to support the NDA candidate in the deputy speaker election shows that an alliance between the Congress and the Odisha party can be ruled out, and that Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik hopes to gain from a three-way contest that involves the BJP, splitting anti-incumbency votes. In Andhra Pradesh, the YSR Congress, which has taken over the Congress vote bank, is averse to being on the same page as the Congress, and is keeping its options open.
A top Congress leader said in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the basic architecture of the opposition alliance would work on the lines of the Kairana Lok Sabha byelection, where all anti-Modi parties got together. He said the Congress had an alliance with the NCP in Maharashtra and with the JD(S) in Karnataka. An alliance with the BSP in the upcoming assembly elections could lead to a nationwide tie-up for the Lok Sabha polls.
“Bihar showed that the BJP could be vanquished by a ‘mahagathbandhan’,” said RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav. His recent protest in Delhi against the Nitish Kumar government saw an impressive line up of opposition leaders. Said Tejashwi, “If we are together in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, there is no way Modi is coming back to power.” Notwithstanding the optimism, the opposition unity is still a work in progress.