Last December, just when opposition parties were joining forces to corner the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government in Parliament, the Congress made a misstep. Much to the BJP’s glee, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi took a delegation of party leaders to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking loan waiver for farmers. The meeting happened at a time when Gandhi had been threatening to reveal information that, he said, would prove his corruption allegations against Modi. It not only blunted his attack on Modi, but also angered opposition leaders, who decided to withdraw from the protest march the Congress had organised against demonetisation.
Achieving unity among opposition parties has been an arduous exercise, as past political experiments have shown. The presidential election on July 17 would be the first test of unity among non-NDA parties, which are still a long way from forging a grand alliance ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
“We are still not talking about any grand alliance. It will be jumping the gun. A lot would depend upon the situation in the country, and the people’s mood,” CPI leader D. Raja told THE WEEK.
An aggressive BJP has been extending its reach by scoring thumping electoral victories, while opposition parties are still trying to find an effective plan to counter Modi.
On June 3, Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United), Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M) and Omar Abdullah of the National Conference gathered at the YMCA ground in Royapettah, Chennai, to greet DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi on his 94th birthday. Karunanidhi was indisposed to make it to the rally, where the leaders invoked Tamil pride to caution people against the BJP. The rally was also a coronation of sorts for 65-year-old M.K. Stalin, the DMK’s working president, who has been longing to step into his father Karunanidhi’s shoes.
After AIADMK chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s death, there is a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu—a state with 39 Lok Sabha seats that the BJP covets. The non-NDA parties seem to think that the DMK is best poised to fill it. Two days after the Chennai rally, the Congress held a rally in Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, where it had won 33 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, but managed only two in 2014.
At the rally, Gandhi talked about supporting the demand for special status for Andhra Pradesh. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, the former Uttar Pradesh chief minister, backed him.
The opposition’s game plan is to invoke regional pride and cultural diversity to counter the BJP, as the ruling dispensation is seen to be pushing its agenda of nationalism.
“Each Indian state has its own culture, its own way of thinking, its own way of expressing itself, its own food. This is India’s strength.... The BJP and the RSS are trying to impose one idea,” Gandhi said at Guntur.
This is an idea that seems to unite all the non-BJP parties.
CPI leader Raja, who was present at the rally in Chennai, said, “The issues can be different in different states, so parties can respond. We are coming together to fight against the BJP’s communal agenda. Their aggressive stance in hindutva is violative of the Constitution.”
Raja said his party was pushing for unity among all parties. “The current moves for unity are geared towards the presidential elections, so that we have one strong candidate who safeguards the Constitution.... We will see what happens in 2019,” he added.
The BJP will formally begin talks on presidential elections only after June 15, after the third anniversary celebrations of the Modi government are over.
The Congress, meanwhile, is playing the pivotal role in forging unity among opposition parties. Its president Sonia Gandhi’s luncheon on May 26 had representation from 17 parties.
The next show of strength would be after the presidential poll, at Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav’s rally in Patna on August 27.
JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav said opposition parties represented 70 per cent of voters (according to the vote share in the 2014 elections).
Some strong remarks against the government also emerged from the Congress Working Committee, which met on June 6.
Sonia said at the CWC: “The Modi government has completed three years in office. Where there was harmony, there is discord. Where there was tolerance, there is provocation. Where there was relative calm, as in Kashmir, there is growing confrontation, tension, and fear.... Where there was rich diversity, there is a brazen campaign to strait-jacket the whole country into a regressive and narrow-minded world-view.
We are not far from the 2019 elections. We must be ready to protect the essence and idea of India, which this government is seeking to extinguish.”
Sonia also announced a sub-committee of senior leaders to decide on the strategy for the presidential election and to strengthen opposition unity. Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, whose name was also doing the rounds as a presidential candidate, will coordinate the group.
“It is heartening to see the Left parties and the Trinamool sharing the same stage.... It is the need of the hour to save this parliamentary democracy, as an individual is growing and threatening to be a dictator of this country,” NCP leader and MP Majeed Memon told THE WEEK.
“Particularly after the UP mandate, it was necessary that all opposition parties come together to fight the BJP. The presidential election is a good test for this unity. It will be a rehearsal to what else is required to shore up the unity for 2019.”
While most of the non-NDA political parties were in favour of pushing for an ideological contest in the presidential election, they were treading cautiously on forming a grand alliance in 2019. Opponents like the Left and the Trinamool do not want to be on the same side when they contest elections. Similarly, BSP leader Mayawati and Akhilesh contesting together, rather than against each other, is still a distant dream.
Lalu Prasad has been persuading the two to come together, but his own relations with his ally Nitish Kumar, the Bihar chief minister, show signs of strains. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who nurtures prime ministerial ambitions, appears to be at odds with Kumar, who also is looking for a national role.
Kumar has been moving strategically. He missed Sonia’s luncheon, and went to meet the PM the next day on his invitation. He played down the lunch with Modi, but his moves perplexed opposition parties. After he praised demonetisation and the government’s actions against black money, the BJP returned the favour by lauding him while they targeted Lalu Prasad.
This posturing ensured Kumar was safe from the attack mounted by the BJP on its rivals, but others have been facing the heat from investigating agencies like the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate.
Curiously, the Aam Aadmi Party, which has been consistent in its attack on Modi and the BJP, has been missing from these grand shows of opposition unity. The AAP did not receive invitation to Sonia’s lunch or Karunanidhi’s birthday. Only those who had known the Dravidian patriarch personally were invited to Chennai.
The AAP is also not likely to get an invitation to Lalu Prasad’s rally in August, as it had opposed him earlier over corruption charges.
Meanwhile, the Biju Janata Dal, led by Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, has been maintaining equal distance from both the BJP and the Congress.
WITH LAKSHMI SUBRAMANIAN