When Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar met Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and former party chief Rahul Gandhi in Delhi on April 11 to discuss issues related to opposition unity, Rahul told Nitish about the challenges in joining hands with certain parties.
At the meeting―which was seen as the first major effort to unite the opposition parties before the Lok Sabha elections in 2024―Nitish proposed state-level alliances to minimise the splitting of anti-BJP votes. Rahul told him that while the Congress was, in principle, willing to make sacrifices for the sake of opposition unity, it might be difficult to convince certain state units.
Now, as senior leaders of around 20 opposition parties are about to meet in Patna on June 23, Rahul's apprehensions have been proved right. The Centre's ordinance that seeks to neutralise the Supreme Court's order giving control of services in Delhi to the state government has come up as the first big test of opposition unity. The Congress units in Delhi and Punjab are against offering support to the Aam Aadmi Party over the ordinance. The AAP has reached out to various opposition parties, including the Congress, for voting against the ordinance in the Rajya Sabha. But the stand of its Delhi and Punjab units has put the Congress high command in a tight spot and has cast a shadow on the idea of opposition unity.
After indicating that the Congress would oppose the ordinance in Parliament, there was a quick rethink and the central leadership clarified that the party would consult its state units. Whether Kharge and Rahul would accede to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's request to meet him to discuss the ordinance is also being keenly watched.
In their meetings with Kharge and Rahul, most Congress leaders from Delhi and Punjab opposed offering any support to the AAP, citing administrative and political issues. Their argument is that Kejriwal is on the back foot over corruption charges against the Delhi government and wants control of the vigilance department. They say it explains his keenness to block the ordinance. They argue that the Congress need not provide him with a lifeline, especially since he has been an adversary.
A few leaders though agree with the larger opposition view that the ordinance is reflective of the Modi government's authoritarian manner of functioning and its alleged disregard for federal values.
Senior Congress leader from Delhi Ajay Maken has been dead against any kind of an understanding with the AAP. He cited various instances when the AAP took a stance contrary to that of the Congress over issues of national importance. He recalled that the AAP had even passed a resolution in the Delhi assembly, requesting the Centre to withdraw the Bharat Ratna awarded to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
In Delhi, the party is aggrieved over the AAP having taken over its support base. “Kejriwal's support for the BJP in Gujarat, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Uttarakhand and in the recent Karnataka elections, where he fielded candidates against the Congress, also begs the question: Why does it happen only in states where the Congress is the primary opposition party or the ruling party,” asked Maken.
Delhi Congress leaders also feel that the Lok Sabha elections could be a different ball game altogether, in which the voters tend to support the national party more. The Congress in Punjab feels that the Lok Sabha elections will provide it with an opportunity to make a comeback, and as per its assessment, there is discontentment among the people about the Bhagwant Mann government.
“We have conveyed to the high command our views on the subject. We see the AAP as the BJP's 'B' team. It will only harm the Congress if we get into any understanding with the AAP. We must stay away from Kejriwal and his party,” said Partap Singh Bajwa, leader of opposition in the Punjab Assembly.
The Congress' central leadership finds itself in a dilemma, faced with the need to balance national priorities with the sentiments of local leaders. It is the biggest party in the Rajya Sabha after the BJP, making its support crucial for the AAP in order to block the ordinance in the upper house. If the Congress does not back the AAP on the ordinance, it would be isolated within the opposition bloc on the issue. All its prominent allies have offered support to the AAP on the issue, putting pressure on the Congress.
According to a senior Congress leader, the issue is still under discussion and there is no need for the party to rush into a decision since there is time left for the ordinance to come before Parliament. However, according to the leader, the Congress might in the end come around and oppose the ordinance in the Rajya Sabha even though the Centre is likely to get it passed. “The larger ramifications of the ordinance cannot be ignored. We have taken a stand all along that the Modi government has trampled over the domain of the states and the ordinance comes as a validation of that accusation,” said the leader.
The AAP, on the other hand, is using the issue to project Kejriwal as a leader of prominence in the opposition grouping. Kejriwal led the show at the AAP's 'maha rally' against the ordinance at Delhi's Ramlila Maidan on June 11, where he set the tone for his party's Lok Sabha campaign by declaring, "Today, we have gathered to oust a dictator." He has turned it into a rallying point for the opposition, thereby pitching himself as a key player in the anti-BJP bloc. It is apparent that he wants to be seen as a leader who is willing to reach out to all the parties, including the Congress, a big departure from the AAP's earlier stance of keeping its distance from other opposition parties so that it could safeguard its image of being a party with a difference.
“Kejriwal has met opposition leaders, and in every meeting, he has emphasised that if we want to safeguard our Constitution, our democracy and our federal structure, all opposition parties have to unite to prevent the ordinance from getting passed,” said AAP's Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh. “This is like the semi-final before 2024 and also a big test of opposition unity.”
Congress and the regional parties
DMK, RJD, NCP, JMM
JD(U), Shiv Sena (Uddhav)
NOT AVERSE TO CONGRESS
CPI(M), CPI, National Conference, Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party
NOT FRIENDS YET
Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Bharat Rashtra Samithi, Samajwadi Party