Facing the threat of oblivion, the Grand Old Party of India is desperately trying to shake off its deep-rooted torpor and remain relevant in the rapidly-shrinking political ground that it finds itself in. With the BJP on a roll and going about their avowed goal of occupying the entire political space “from Panchayat to Parliament” in an extremely systematic and clinical manner, the Congress—in its present disarrayed form—appears far removed from presenting any challenge.
After humiliating setbacks in successive state assembly elections—Punjab being the only exception—the Congress is hobbling around not only to set its own house in order, but also to forge Opposition unity to take on the might of PM Narendra Modi’s popularity and Amit Shah’s shrewdness. The upcoming elections for the president and vice-president of the country are being seen as a test case for the Opposition parties—whether they can come together and put up joint candidates for the two Constitutional posts.
The presidential election has to be held before July 24 when Pranab Mukherjee’s term comes to an end. Several leaders of Opposition parties feel this “experiment of unity” could very well go beyond the presidential election and be a precursor to an anti-NDA front ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Congress leaders are not very optimistic about the operation that is being spearheaded by Sonia Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi is also believed to be chipping in, and is expected to play a bigger role with Sonia keeping unwell. A senior leader says it looks like an exercise in futility. “There are 13 parties and as many leaders with big egos. It is not easy to bring them on a common platform,” he tells Outlook.
Another leader, who is closely involved in the process, gives details of the hurdles on the way to Opposition unity. The biggest problem, he says, is to get all the leaders together for a meeting. “Unless we all sit together and discuss things, it is not going to work out. There have been meetings with some individual leaders, including Omar Abdullah, Nitish Kumar, Sitaram Yechury, D. Raja, Sharad Pawar, Deve Gowda and Indian Union Muslim League leader P. Kunhalikutty. They have all agreed, in principle, to put up a common candidate, but nobody has any concrete ideas so far,” the leader explains.
Also, a meeting with Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati, for example, has not materialised yet. “There have been some talks over the telephone—including with Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mamata and Mayawati—but such things cannot be decided like this. Madam (Sonia) has not got any concrete commitment from either Mamata or Mayawati that they are willing to be on the same platform as their respective political rivals CPI(M) and Samajwadi Party. Or even with each other. They all have their individual ambitions,” the leader adds.
The Trinamool leader and West Bengal chief minister is believed to have questioned Sonia about her party’s alliance with the Left in the state. The Congress and the Left parties had seat adjustment for the 2016 assembly polls in Bengal. Mamata was unhappy that Congress had recently joined the Left parties in a protest against her government that is facing investigations on several counts. “Things are not as simple as they seem. There are wheels within wheels,” the cynical Congress leader says.
However, Trinamool Congress spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’ Brien told Outlook that discussions are on for a joint candidate (for the post of president). He said Mamata Banerjee will be in Delhi next week and hold discussions with Sonia.
Mulayam too is believed to have raked up complicated political equations when the Congress president spoke to him. “He expressed his displeasure at the way Congress treated him during the UP assembly election. He accused the Congress of causing problems in the Samajwadi Party. Later, Rahul spoke to Akhilesh Yadav and got him on board. However, with the rift within the SP, it is not likely to help the cause of Opposition unity,” says a former Union minister from the Congress.
Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik is yet to agree to the idea of a common Opposition candidate for president.
The Congress’ efforts have run into other complications too. According to sources, Gandhi had spoken to RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav on the phone and was apparently hopeful of him playing a key role in forging the unity against the BJP. The hopes were later dashed with Supreme Court reviving the fodder scam case against him.
However, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is on board. Confirming Nitish’s commitment, JD(U) leader K.C. Tyagi says it is imperative to forge an Opposition alliance. “Efforts are on to topple non-BJP governments in Bihar, Delhi, West Bengal and Orissa. We have to fight together,” he iterates, adding that Arvind Kejriwal has also expressed support for the Opposition’s presidential candidate.
While some Opposition leaders may have agreed to a consensus candidate, some like BJD chief and Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik are yet to give their nod. Sources say that even though Mamata Banerjee, Yechury and Nitish Kumar had spoken to him, he did not give any commitment. A senior BJD leader explains: “It is very difficult for Patnaik to say yes to a consensus candidate as of now. With the BJP floating the name of Jharkhand governor Draupadi Murmu as the possible presidential candidate, Patnaik will have to support her. She is a tribal from Orissa. Patnaik cannot be seen as opposing her.”
Moreover, Congress leader Digvijay Singh has managed to antagonise TRS leader and Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao by alleging that his state police had set up a bogus ISIS site to radicalise Muslim youth. “Though we are still engaging with TRS on the issue of Opposition unity, we have no hopes that they will support us. They seem to be leaning towards the BJP,” a Congress general secretary says.
CPI leader D. Raja says that whatever the outcome of the efforts, a contest for the president’s post must be there. Not just Sonia and Rahul, but all other leaders like him are also working on it. “I met Farooq Abdullah on May 10 and he agreed we have to put up a fight. The BJP has not announced its candidate, but there are names floating. The Opposition needs to field a common candidate who is committed to the Constitution, protects India’s democratic ethos, upholds values and has a good public image,” says Raja.
He says that though the name of the candidate has not been decided, there is a consensus on the need for a common strategy. “Maybe all of us will get the opportunity to sit together on June 3 at Karunanidhi’s 94th birthday celebrations in Chennai. All the Opposition leaders are likely to be there,” reveals the Left leader.
The BJP, though, is confident it has the numbers to elect a president of its choice. “We have done the maths and are in the clear. The Opposition fight will be symbolic at best and our victory emphatic. There is too much bitterness among the Opposition parties that even their collective antipathy towards the BJP will not help. Moreover, not many will be able to oppose our candidate. Just wait and watch,” says a senior BJP leader.