Shikha Mukerjee | Time and tide will not wait for the Opposition to unite
Deccan Chronicle.| Shikha Mukerjee
Opposition MPs walk out from the Rajya Sabha during the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament, in New Delhi. (PTI / File Photo)
Opposition unity is a work in progress. The process of forging a unified platform of stable partners is underway and the final list of who will be in and who will stay out remains a guessing game. Time, however, like the tide, may be running out for the multiplicity of initiatives and their corresponding variables.
The initiative by Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav to visit Bihar and then West Bengal is yet another exercise in consolidating an anti-BJP core of political leaders, not all of whom are as rabidly anti-Congress as Trinamul Congress founder and leader Mamata Banerjee. In Kolkata, Mr Yadav declared that his party was rethinking its earlier decision not to contest in Lok Sabha constituencies where the Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were the star contestants.
This is a shift in Mr Yadav’s position from his earlier hostility to the BJP and an arms’ length distance from the Congress. Even if he did not publicly endorse Mamata Banerjee’s frontal attack on Rahul Gandhi, that as a Congress leader he pushes up Mr Modi’s "TRP" and is therefore the best insurance instrument for the return of the BJP to power for a third term in 2024, he made his disapproval clear of the Congress projection of Rahul Gandhi as the star of an Opposition alternative.
Akhilesh Yadav’s role as an intermediary is perhaps not entirely his own invention; it clearly has the blessings of Didi, who met the Samajwadi Party chief and graciously accepted the move to position her as a front-runner and superstar of the current effort at Opposition consolidation. His Kolkata visit and Mamata Banerjee’s announcement that she would meet Biju Janata Dal boss and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik is about the only unexpected and intriguing move that emerged from what is one more iteration of the old formula of regional and smaller parties pooling together to fight against the BJP and the Congress.
If Mamata Banerjee can persuade Naveen Patnaik to ditch his strategy of maintaining an equal distance from the BJP and the Congress, even if he does not jump off the fence and join the regional-smaller parties consolidation effort, it will be a significant change. It will mean one more regional party lining up in the fight against the BJP, because the BJD has been helpful in bailing out the Narendra Modi government in the Rajya Sabha on several occasions and certainly in the election last year of President Droupadi Murmu.
The narrative of Opposition unity as a never-ending board game is as boring as it is infructuous.
There are a limited number of regional and smaller parties that together constitute the core of an anti-BJP platform. The common factor is that none of these parties will ever be competitors in any election. The Trinamul Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and the DMK and perhaps even the Bharat Rashtra Samithi are not going to step on each other’s toes for very obvious reasons.
Where this narrative is an uninspired retelling of the same old story is the other common factor; all of them in some measure are rivals of the Congress even as they fight against the BJP, which is their principal opponent in their respective states. The exception is the DMK in Tamil Nadu, where the BJP is haemorrhaging and the DMK’s main challenger is the now weaker and splintered AIADMK. So long as the exercise in regrouping, and there are several such initiatives, continues to focus on how one party or the other can strengthen its position at the cost of the Congress and so become a bigger party that then fights the BJP, the prospects of a real Opposition consolidation are dim.
For Opposition consolidation to be an effective fighting force against the BJP, which is what the 2024 general election is all about as the Modi government prepares to win its third term in office, it needs to find ways of breaking up the National Democratic Alliance and its Northeast extension. That this is possible was proved by Akhilesh Yadav in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh election when he succeeded in splitting a tiny party, the Apna Dal, into an even tinier bits, and so dividing one segment of Schedule Caste voters.
Wasting time on what distance it will maintain from the Congress is an obsession of the regional-smaller parties Opposition unity platform, to which has been added the aversion of many of these parties to the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. If Ms Banerjee has been characteristically outspoken that Rahul Gandhi is a liability, because he is by default the perfect foil to Narendra Modi and the BJP’s favourite punching bag, she has added nothing of value to the effort at strengthening the anti-BJP Opposition. It is a self-evident truth that Rahul Gandhi carries a lot of baggage because of who he is and his record of not proving to be a success in winning elections.
If the Opposition consolidation exercise, into which Akhilesh Yadav has inserted himself as the honest broker, has expectations that the Congress will bow to its pressure on the role of Rahul Gandhi, it is being disingenuous. Parties working for Opposition consolidation, including the Hindi-speaking and therefore important leader Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, know that the Congress cannot be left out. The Congress, like it or not, is the BJP’s biggest challenger; in 2024, the Congress will in all probability remain the biggest Opposition party in Parliament, unless there is a tectonic political shift and Narendra Modi loses, because the people don’t like him anymore.
It is a fallacy that the Opposition of regional and smaller parties are or can be in control of the membership and leadership of a potential alternative. The time, what some describe as the "core" spends of playing with the variables, is a gift to the BJP, as it barrels forward to reach its goal of winning in the 2024 election. For if an alternative platform is to succeed as a challenger, then the campaign to sell itself to voters across India needs to have started yesterday. Fussing about who is in and on what terms is a loser’s strategy.