Opposition in Snooze Mode

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Regain power? The saffron combine should quit dreaming

MUMBAI ~ The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Eknath Khadse and Vinod Tawde are seen as the two men whose job is to put Maharashtra’s government on the mat. The two BJP men are key opposition leaders: Khadse in the Legislative Assembly and Tawde in the Council. They cannot afford to miss when they aim their firepower at the state government—run by the Democratic Front, an alliance of the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

However, both men need lessons in target practice if they are to see the BJP-Shiv Sena combine emerge victorious at the next polls (due in 2014). Over a decade of occupying opposition benches seems to have deadened the instincts of the saffron combine. At a time when both the Congress and NCP are faced with corruption scandals, reportedly due to the dubious dealings of state cabinet ministers, the opposition is fumbling for a strategy to gain a political advantage.

The BJP all but seems a lost cause in the state. The Shiv Sena fares no better. An ailing Bal Thackeray has lost his bite, and the Sena mouthpiece Saamna, once a war bugle for his followers, has been drawing yawns even from the most excitable of Sainiks. In fact, the paper’s readership has declined sharply on the back of revelations that its editorials reflect the thoughts of its executive editor Sanjay Raut more than those of Thackeray himself.

While both the BJP and Shiv Sena are restless for a return to power, all these years out in the cold have created plenty of confusion within. Both have many leaders who have developed ambitions to head the state, and this has spelt a distinct lack of unity. As a result, instead of taking on the Congress and NCP head-on, the opposition often ends up acting as an ally of the ruling alliance.

Unlike the past, when every policy of the government was reviewed by a studied opposition, the saffron combine’s present-day leaders in the state are over-dependent on the anti-corruption campaign of Anna Hazare. Even here, they are proving inept at grabbing all the opportunities being thrown up.

Though Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan is bandied about as the ‘clean face’ of the state government, the reputations of those who form his governance team are anything but clean. Senior ministers such as Chhagan Bhujbal, Sunil Tatkare (both of the NCP) and Rajendra Darda are having it hard shrugging off allegations of corruption. There are others too, like former Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, who have been accused of misdeeds. What arouses curiosity, however, is how little support Dr Kirit Somaiyya—the BJP leader who has exposed a series of ‘shady deals’ involving Bhujbal, Tatkare, Darda and Pawar—has found within his own party. Somaiyya, say observers, is going all out because he is keen to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Mumbai Northeast, a constituency he lost back in 2009. But the rest of the BJP seems unwilling to take up the campaign and push for the ouster of the tainted politicians from the cabinet.

Pawar, of course, has resigned from Chavan’s team, but this was not an act occasioned by a moral dilemma, it was a move made in accordance with his own personal agenda. As for Bhujbal, a better part of his day is spent issuing clarifications against the allegations against him. But infighting within the BJP has meant that neither Tawde nor Khadse (the rift between whom is clear to all) has pressed the point hard enough.

The Shiv Sena has been no less wimpy. Since this party’s leaders never act without directives from their supremo, they have done little but twiddle thumbs. Perhaps the party’s trademark Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park (in central Mumbai), to be addressed by Thackeray as always, would put Sainiks in active campaigning mode. But this is not too likely, given that even this once fiery annual event has turned into a damp squib in recent years, with the ageing party patriarch failing to generate much zeal. Many Sainiks have quit paying the man attention, it seems. Also, the recent rapprochement between Sena Executive President Uddhav Thackeray and his estranged cousin and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena Chief Raj Thackeray has many saffron wavers befuddled. Are the two parties to work together or not?

What this means is that even other issues of popular disaffection—rising prices, increasing crime, poor civic amenities and so on—have gone unaddressed. This opposition failure raises several questions. What explains the timid behaviour of these parties? Do they fear a close scrutiny of their own dubious dealings? Are they ready to let those in power off the hook in exchange for a similar letoff for themselves? Is this a mutual back-scratching pact? Suspicions have duly been aroused.

All said, the opposition is set to leave a poor record of its performance over the last decade. Its performance in the Legislative Assembly and Council when the State Legislature is in session is hardly worth a mention. The opposition survives on walkouts and pandemonium. There has not been a single sustained debate of any quality that can be considered a high point for the opposition. The two parties seem content with the tokenism shown by the government on issues that ought to have the ruling alliance quaking. In other words, this opposition has proven itself incapable of making the government change course, let alone holding it accountable to the electorate or forcing the resignations of ministers it calls corrupt.

The sad part of this free rein given by the opposition to the government is that a bunch of non-performers—and even crooks—will go the hustings in 2014 without much to fear. It doesn’t take an indepth political analysis of voter inclinations to conclude that Khadse and Tawde cannot be expected to lead the opposition to success. New leaders will have to take up the task, and an entirely new aggression deployed. Or else, the two saffron partners will get another five years warming the opposition benches.