A day before Valentine’s Day, a rather curious love story was taking shape in Parliament. Congress lawmaker Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury went hammer and tongs at the Trinamool Congress over its alleged involvement in the Saradha chit fund scam and the comments left Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who was also present in Parliament House that day, furious. “I won’t forget it,” Mamata was quoted as saying when she met former Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Gandhi was quick to pacify the mercurial Trinamool supremo. “We may accuse each other but we are still friends,” Sonia told the chief minister.
Hours later, Mamata joined Congress leaders among others in a rally, ‘Save the Constitution’, and declared that her party was ready to be part of a united Opposition to take on the Narendra Mod-led BJP in the Lok Sabha polls. The same day, Mamata attended another Opposition meeting along with Congress president Rahul Gandhi at the house of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar. The agenda was the same: opposition unity to defeat the BJP.
The mega rally on February 13 in Delhi, attended by leaders from more than a dozen parties, was the third time in a month when opposition leaders had shared a common stage. The rally came three weeks after Mamata’s meeting at Calcutta’s Brigade Parade ground on January 19. These are indicative of the growing bonhomie among opposition leaders ahead of the crucial parliamentary polls. But there is still no guarantee that it will be a love story with a happy ending. Political alliances are invariably messy. More so when they involve parties and leaders divided by ideology and regional equations. At the Delhi rally, minutes before Mamata’s arrival, Left leaders—Sitaram Yechury and D. Raja—had exited the stage. Despite their announcement that they will work together for a common minimum programme to fight against the BJP-led NDA, many questions remain on the contradictions within the Opposition.
What makes ‘Opposition unity’ such a big deal is their experience from 2014, when the BJP won a brute majority with just 31% of the popular vote. Pollsters point out that while the BJP managed to consolidate its vote share, the split in the non-BJP votes decimated the Opposition. But putting together a winning combination is a different ball game.
The signs of fissures within the national allies are visible with a standoff between the Aam Admi Party (AAP) and Congress, both fierce rivals in Delhi. Though Mamata urged both parties to stitch an alliance for the seven LS seats, political compulsions on the ground seem to be an impediment for Congress to concede any ground to the AAP. A senior Congress leader said that the party’s Delhi leadership is not too willing for an alliance with AAP owing to pressure from local workers. Former chief minister Sheila Dixit, who faced a drubbing at the hands of Kejriwal, is back as the Delhi Congress chief. Though Kejrwal has expressed his party’s eagerness for a tie-up, party leaders say that they are yet to get any positive feedback from Congress. “Though we have differences, we are willing for a tie-up with Congress in the interest of the nation. Now it’s up to Congress to decide whether they want to defeat BJP in Delhi or not,” says AAP leader Gopal Rai, who is also the state’s labour minister.
Most of the opposition leaders Outlook spoke to admit that they prefer state-wise alliances rather than a national alliance to strengthen their cadre base. Post-poll strategies could be worked out depending on the numbers, they say. “In every state, we have conditions on the ground that we have to deal with. When you enter into an alliance, there’s a give and take. Ground level contradictions are a matter of fact. Everyone is trying very hard to overcome it,” says senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid. The leaders, however, hope that even when parties contest each other in states, they will join a national alliance after the elections. According to DMK leader Kanimozhi, the constituents of the alliance are bound by the basic principles of secularism and protecting the Constitution. “There’s a clear understanding between parties in the states. There’s no conflict in this,” says Kanimozhi. However, the ground scene looks shaky.
The fragility is most apparent in West Bengal where the Congress and the Left parties are likely to reach an understanding against the Mamata-led Trinamool and BJP. Ruling out any alliance at the national level, CPM MP from Bengal Mohammed Salim says the political arrangement shouldn’t be termed grand alliance. “At the state level, some kind of arrangement can be made depending on the prevalent situation. The Left parties are in talks with Congress,” he says. Responding to Banerjee’s proposal of teaming up with the Left at the national level, he retorts, “Who will take Mamata seriously?” TMC leader Sugata Bose, who agrees with the party chief’s proposal, says that what Mamata meant was that the “unity” can happen even after the election.
Analysts feel that by opting to fight the BJP state-wise, the opposition parties can limit the saffron party’s gains and that a national-level alliance will be a logical conclusion if they succeed in the respective states. “There are contradictions. But ultimately things will work out and I think it’s a developing situation. In UP, the equation between Congress and the other two parties (SP and BSP) are still not clear to anyone. There could be understanding, which they are not talking about,” says Prof Sudha Pai of JNU.
With Priyanka Gandhi’s entry creating a flutter in UP politics, speculation is rife about the SP-BSP-RLD combine reconsidering its decision to leave out the Congress from their alliance. However, Ghanshyam Tiwari of Samajwadi Party (SP) dismisses such talks. “When we outlined the alliance, we left two seats for Congress in view of the political situation here. We welcomed Priyanka in UP and there is total clarity about our partners.”
Another embarrassment for the allies came when BSP chief Mayawati said the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh and UP’s BJP government act in the same vein, after they invoked the National Security Act (NSA) against people accused of cow slaughter. SP founder Mulayam Singh’s praise for Prime Minister Modi also struck a jarring note in UP, the most politically crucial state with 80 LS seats. “The comment was made in good spirit. In 2014 also, he made similar remarks. The BJP chose to overamplify it,” says Tiwari.
Andhra Pradesh presents another contradictory picture. While Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief Chandrababu Naidu is taking the initiative for bringing disparate political forces together, his party and Congress are fighting separately in the state. TDP leader Lanka Dinakaran says the decision was taken in view of certain political compulsions.
With regional heavyweights Sharad Pawar and Naidu marshalling support for the coalition, political analyst Narendra Pani believes they can be the driving forces of the coalition. “Pawar has been around in national politics for a long time. He got a stature”. As talks on the formal structure of the unity gather steam, CPI leader D. Raja says parties should form a coalition and work on a common minimum programme after the elections.
A question persistently posed by the NDA is about the “instability” of a coalition government. However, Pani says a diverse country like India needs to have diverse interests.
“Already, we are too centralised and too much power is with the government,” says Pani, who works with National Institute of Advanced Studies. “If you take the last five years, there was stability of the government, but there was no stability on the ground. Demonetisation and GST caused lot of disturbance. A coalition government wouldn’t have gone for note ban,” he says.
- Kejrwal has expressed eagerness for a tie-up with the Congress but the grand old party is yet to respond to the overtures.
- What makes ‘opposition unity’ such a big deal is their 2014 experience when the BJP won a brute majority with just 31% votes.
- The fragility is apparent in Bengal where the Congress and Left are likely to reach an understanding against Trinamool and BJP.