The air in Patna was thick with pre-monsoon moisture and a buzz about a meeting that could heavily impact next year’s Lok Sabha elections. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who played host at his 1 Anne Marg residence, had posters of several opposition party leaders put up throughout the city. The party units themselves put up banners welcoming their leaders; the BJP had posters deriding the alliance effort.
One such banner outside the Janata Dal (United) headquarters said, “Aagaaz hua hai, badlaav hoga (A beginning has been made; there will be change).” It aptly captured the message the participants wanted to convey.
With less than a year to go for the national elections, top leaders of 15 political parties got into a huddle on June 23. It was the first such meeting of the anti-BJP bloc to work out a joint strategy against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It lasted nearly four hours.
Chief ministers, former chief ministers and regional stalwarts were among the 32 leaders at the meeting. The predominant sentiment was bonhomie and regard, even though there was a brief altercation between the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party over a Central ordinance. The aim of the meeting, as Nitish said right at the outset, was not to discuss a joint programme, but to assert that the parties were ready to come together for the big fight.
Patna was chosen as the venue because some parties were uneasy attending a meeting that the Congress, their political rival, would convene. It also gave the parties reason to recall that Patna was where earlier jan andolans had started. The reference was to Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in the 1970s against the Indira Gandhi government; it had brought disparate parties together under a common Janata Party banner.
“There is consensus on fighting the election together,” Nitish said after the meeting. “Who will fight where will be decided in a meeting that will be held soon. But we have all agreed to be together.”
Nitish had criss-crossed the country in the past few months, meeting leaders of various parties in an effort to build a common platform. Going by the optics, he has been successful―top leaders of the Trinamool Congress and the left, and the Congress and the AAP, staunch rivals otherwise, united in the same room.
Freed from the need to get into issues such as seat sharing, the leaders went out of their way to come across as accommodating. After hosts Nitish and Rashtriya Janata Dal president Lalu Prasad spoke, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge was called upon to speak. The Congress was, after all, the largest party in the bloc. Kharge, however, reportedly said that his party would like to listen and speak at the end. The others appreciated this gesture. Sources said that Kharge and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal got into an argument over the ordinance, with the latter insisting that the Congress publicly state its stand on the issue the same day. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stepped in as referee, suggesting that the two leaders discuss the matter separately over a cup of tea. She reportedly said Kharge had already promised that his party would not support anything unconstitutional. The Patna gathering, she said, was to look at issues of greater national importance. Rahul Gandhi, it is said, appreciated her intervention.
There was apparently no discussion on who the convener of the grouping would be; there had been speculation that the role would go to Nitish.
Rahul, reportedly, said he had come to Patna with a clean slate and was not hanging on to past likes or dislikes. He also spoke of the need to be flexible in the face of inherent differences.
Kejriwal also stressed on the need for a united fight. He apparently said that there should be a one-on-one fight, and that the nation came first and party second.
Communist Party of India general secretary D. Raja said the focus in Patna was on the larger perspective―the Constitution and democracy were in danger. “In a situation like this, it is important for all secular and likeminded parties to come together for the Lok Sabha elections,” he said.
However, there were also indications of the difficulties that could come up as discussions progress. Lalu, Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav and some others reportedly spoke of the need for the Congress to be largehearted. Mamata stressed that the strongest party in a state be supported by the others. Implied in the statements was the expectation that the Congress would allow the regional parties, like the Trinamool in Bengal, to have a one-on-one fight against the BJP.
In states such as Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, the parties already have an alliance; national elections-related talks could take off from the arrangement already in place.
However, the intent to come together would be tested in states like Delhi and Punjab, where the local Congress units are in no mood to concede space to the AAP. The Congress has not made its stance clear on the Delhi ordinance because it has to keep its local leadership content.
In West Bengal, the divide between the Trinamool, the Congress and the left is all too visible. After the Patna meeting, Mamata accused the Congress and the left of working with the BJP for the panchayat elections. In reply, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury accused the Trinamool of throttling democracy and not allowing free and fair polling.
Kerala is another state where problems could arise―the Congress and the left, traditional rivals, are unlikely to come together. This became evident as, on the same day as the Patna meeting, the state Congress president K. Sudhakaran was arrested for his alleged links with a fake antiques dealer Monson Mavunkal.
If the proposed alliance is to succeed, the parties would have to be more open. “Only those parties in favour of a one-on-one contest in the Lok Sabha elections were invited to the meeting,” said JD(U) spokesperson K.C. Tyagi. “A good beginning has been made. Seat sharing will be fine-tuned in further meetings.”
In 2003, Shimla had hosted the Congress’s Chintan Shivir where the party decided to form an alliance for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. The capital of Congress-ruled Himachal Pradesh will, in the second week of July, host the next meeting of the opposition parties. The talks then would move beyond niceties and involve hard-nosed negotiations.