The Illusion of Unity

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Despite desperate moves, national opposition lineup against the BJP remains elusive

ON A DRIZZLY MORNING OF A PROLONGED winter in the capital, five jeans-clad youngsters carrying backpacks filled with pages on the rights of forest dwellers huddle around a senior Congress leader in his living room. The activists zealously reel out figures, laws and discrepancies to argue against the rejection of the claims of hundreds of thousands of forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act. The Supreme Court, which on February 13th ordered eviction of these forest dwellers in over 20 states, had stayed its own order a fortnight later following protests. In the party’s assessment, the issue could impact 63 Lok Sabha seats.

The politician hears out the youngsters patiently. This was just one among the 170-odd meetings (120 public ones, and the rest, private) on issues with various groups that the Congress has had as part of an exercise to draft a common agenda for governance for the opposition. The draft is expected to be ready in a couple of weeks.

The common agenda was to be discussed at a meeting of opposition parties, posing as a front against the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), scheduled for February 27th. The Left parties declined to be part of such an effort in a pre- poll scenario where constituents of the opposition were fighting for the same political space in several states—the Left Front itself is pitted against the Congress in Kerala and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal; the Congress and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have failed to arrive at an electoral understanding in Delhi; the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) have kept the Congress out of their alliance in Uttar Pradesh; N Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is taking on the Congress in Andhra Pradesh.

By the time opposition parties met in Parliament House on the afternoon of February 27th, the agenda on their table had altered. A day before, India had retaliated to the terror attack in Pulwama in which at least 40 CRPF jawans were killed, firing at a Jaish-e- Mohammad training camp in Balakot, Pakistan. The Left Front joined the meeting and together 21 opposition parties deliberated for three hours on taking a unanimous and cautious approach on the issue, at a time when ‘nationalism’ appears to have a sway over the masses. This was an issue that had the potential to lend political muscle to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, overshadowing the policy and economic matrix of the Government that the opposition was planning to target in the run-up to elections.

UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who had invited leaders of the parties for the meeting, set the tone, calling for a minute’s silence for the Pulwama martyrs. The seating at the long oval table was strategic. On one side of Gandhi was Congress President Rahul Gandhi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Chief Sharad Pawar, CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, while on the other was Loktantrik Janata Dal’s (LJD) Sharad Yadav, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress Chief Mamata Banerjee and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu. Other attendees included T Shiva (DMK), Satish Chandra Misra (BSP), Manoj Jha (RJD), Sanjay Singh (AAP), Sudhakar Reddy (CPI), Danish Ali (JD-S), Shibu Soren (JMM), Upendra Kushwaha (RLSP), Ashok Kumar Singh (JVM), Jitan Ram Manjhi (HAM), Prof Kodandaram (TJS), KG Kanye (NPF), K Jose Mani (KC-M), PK Kunhalikutty (IUML) and Raju Shetti (Swabhimani Paksha).

The desire to oust BJP has brought discordant voices together, but opposition leaders admit that electoral calculations will depend on state-level arithmetic

Each of them spoke—some guardedly, some aggressively. A resolution was drafted, precariously balancing politics and the sentiments of the moment. While expressing solidarity with the armed forces in crushing terrorism, the resolution castigated the BJP. ‘National security must transcend narrow political considerations,’ it said, ruing that the Prime Minister had not convened an all-party meeting as has been the practice. Even as they deliberated, reports of Pakistan’s retaliation and Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman being taken captive by the enemy started trickling in. A line was added to the final draft expressing concern for Varthaman.

While the desire to oust the BJP might have brought discordant voices on a common platform, opposition leaders admit that electoral calculations will depend on state-level arithmetic. A national-level projection of a grand anti-NDA front eludes them, given state dynamics. The BJP, meanwhile, is counting on the absence of a formidable challenger to the Prime Minister. In effect, Modi is pitted against a baffling question mark. Moreover, the several prime-ministerial aspirants among opposition leaders, compulsions of state politics and ideological differences have left the lineaments, or even a silhouette, of an anti-Modi front hazy.

“Modi has every incentive to presidentialise the election and to make it a choice of him versus a leaderless, fragmented opposition. This doesn’t play to the opposition’s strengths. Their ideal path is to decentralise this election and make it about 29 state- level verdicts,” says Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In his view, the opposition is likely to be more successful if it can stitch together a series of state-wise coalitions rather than a grand national alliance.

BARRING MAHARASHTRA, KARNATAKA, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand, a grand alliance of anti-BJP parties has evaded the opposition. In UP, the SP, which had aligned with the Congress in the 2017 Assembly polls has entered a mahagathbandhan with Mayawati’s BSP. Political analysts say the entry of Priyanka Gandhi as general secretary in eastern UP could marginally boost the Congress’ prospects, making it a multi-cornered contest, to the advantage of the BJP. A Congress leader says the party is banking on anti-BJP votes from outside the SP-BSP share, particularly from among the upper castes. “Regional parties, whose aspirations to be in power at the Centre have remained unfulfilled, are giving an aggressive push by showing their political strength in states. They are hoping to be in power or at least become kingmakers,” says Mumbai-based political analyst Surendra Jondhale. At the same time, he says, in a state like UP, Rahul Gandhi’s primary concern would be reviving his party’s political relevance and credibility.

Analysts are sceptical about opposition parties coalescing around any common minimum programme, much less a national leader or figurehead

In Maharashtra, the NCP and Congress have aligned and reached out to smaller parties like Raju Shetti’s Swabhimani Paksha, the political arm of the farmers’ body Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana, and Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, a coalition of 12 parties. “The Congress-NCP alliance pushed the BJP and Shiv Sena to come together. Apart from the two major alliances, there are also entities like the Left Front and Janata Dal. There is still time before the alliances take final shape,” says Jondhale.

The Left Front, which had a bitter parting with the Congress as an outside supporter of the United Progressive Alliance in the Manmohan Singh Government over the Indo-US nuclear deal, is in power only in Kerala, where its arch rival is the Congress. In West Bengal, where the BJP seems to have become the de facto opposition despite only three seats in the 295-member Assembly, the Congress and Left will consider a tactical alliance on six seats. “At the ground level things are still happening. The objective should be pooling of anti-BJP vote... It all depends on dynamics of ground reality,” says Sitaram Yechury.

In Bihar, the two main opposition forces—the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress—are finalising a seat-sharing formula. They have to accommodate other allies like Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), both former NDA partners, besides the Left parties. The BSP, influential in some seats along the UP border, has decided to contest alone. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have sealed an alliance against an alliance between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and BJP. Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) is part of the DMK-led combination, but A Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) has joined the rival alliance. Delhi, besides UP, West Bengal and Haryana, will also see a multi-cornered contest. As usual, states which will witness a direct Congress-BJP face-off are Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Assam, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

“In parties which have had a history of being antithetical, some born to fight each other, come together, it will not be smooth. But very soon it will be sorted out. I am not sure how many parties will join an anti-BJP pre-poll alliance at the national level. There will be some pre-poll, some post-poll and some tactical alliances,” says RJD MP Manoj Jha, a professor at Delhi University’s Social Work Department.

The Left Front has made it clear they would get on board a common minimum agenda only after the polls. The SP and BSP are unlikely to sign up to such an agenda ahead of the polls. Parties keen on projecting a united anti-BJP picture through a common agenda, an idea mooted by Naidu, have left the task of preparing the first draft to the Congress. The document will be vetted by other opposition parties and then fine-tuned. The Congress leaders say ‘listening to people’ to draft the agenda was Rahul Gandhi’s idea. “We have covered 24 states and managed to conduct an extensive consultation process. It’s heartening that lots of groups are engaging with us. It’s an inclusive process,” says Congress MP Rajeev Gowda, an academician who heads the party’s research department.

Opposition leaders admit that ‘nationalism’ could become the deafening focus of the General Election with Modi leading the campaign

The document is unlikely to be called a ‘Common Minimum Programme’. The Samruddha Bharat Foundation, an independent platform, has suggested a 50-point charter called ‘People’s Progressive Agenda’. The suggestions cover a range of issues— strengthening democratic institutions, job creation, urban job guarantee, health, education, individual rights, reservation in promotions, one-third reservation for women in Lok Sabha and state assemblies, concerns relating to Dalits and tribals, and safeguarding religious minorities. Another group of intellectuals and activists is giving its set of suggestions calling it ‘Reclaiming the Republic’. There are other activists giving sectoral manifestos. Jha says the draft is expected to commit the highest-ever expenditure on health and education. “If adopted, politics will change from being person-centric to issue-centric.”

For the Congress, getting all other parties to endorse the draft, given their divergent views and dispositions, is likely to pose a major challenge. The Women’s Reservation Bill, for one, was resisted by the RJD, as well as the SP and BSP.

Vaishnav is sceptical about opposition parties coalescing around any common minimum programme, much less a national leader or figurehead. “The recent emergence of national security as an election issue does not fair well for the opposition. This is an issue that inherently favours national leadership at the Centre,” he says.

The recent developments on the Indo-Pak front have eclipsed all other polemics in the country, that too around the General Election, casting a shadow on the opposition’s attempt to put forward an agenda addressing bread-and-butter issues. Off the record, opposition leaders admit concern over ‘nationalism’ becoming the defining focus of the election with Modi leading the campaign. They, however, counter the argument that uncertainty over a prime ministerial candidate gives the BJP an upper hand. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, a faceless Congress-led coalition was voted to power defeating incumbent Atal Bihari Vajpayee, despite the BJP’s campaign against Sonia Gandhi as an ‘Italian’ prime minister.

“At that time, the same logic was given. BJP then was relying on its ‘India Shining’ campaign and a potent slogan asking people if they wanted a foreigner as Prime Minister,” says Yechury. Besides, most coalitions were firmed up after elections, including the Janata Party Government in 1977, post the Emergency imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Governments of VP Singh (1989), United Front (1996), Vajpayee-led NDA (1999) and Congress-led UPA were also coalitions formed after elections.

As India’s strikes in Balakot hold sway, electoral battlelines may firm up once the political dust thrown up by the Indo-Pak tension settles, if it does, at all, before the elections.