It’s no longer ‘unity in struggle’ but ‘struggle for unity’. The first has the feel of a lapsed slogan from a long-gone age, the second represents the new upper ceiling of ambition for India’s opposition. At a time when the BJP army’s hoof marks are tracing an ever-larger map, evoking the kind of awe a Mongol horde may have done once, what is a dispirited opposition to do? Well, with the inevitability of defeat almost cast in stone, they have opted to use the occasion as a mock exam, a laboratory from which something useful for the future may perchance emerge. From their scattered pockets of resistance, they are talking to each other, negotiating, working on a prototype for a united alternative front.
It’s a daunting bit of political engineering, entangled as many of them are in webs of mutual rivalries. Political logic dictates that getting all hands on the deck can at best be for a one-off performance, not an enduring relationship. Still, a marathon exercise is going on to overcome the layers of inter- and intra-party antipathy. It’s a bigger goal, or a convergence of interests, that drives them. The Opposition sees the presidential poll as a trial run—to forge a common front even if it is only a symbolic contest. The NDA clearly has an upper hand in the electoral college that will vote in India’s new President (and vice-president) between July 17-20.
The usual suspects are in the game—old hands at realignment politics. Congress leaders Ahmed Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad have been on the hotline with Sharad Pawar. Quite the senior maestro at such things, Pawar has been urged by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to micromanage the unity efforts. Azad, Patel and Digvijay Singh have also been in touch with JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav. The delicacy of the situation is that neither Pawar nor Sharad have been above imagining themselves ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
They still are potential candidates. But to minimise any instability right at the outset, a tactical line was set before Sonia hosted the first big event: a luncheon attended by leaders of 17 parties on May 26 (where Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, intriguingly, made his absence felt.) The opposition, it was decided, would not put the cart before the horse by naming a candidate. It would, instead, throw the ball tauntingly in the government’s court. The idea was to let the BJP shoot its bolt first, then strategise around that.
A little game is being played here, because the BJP too is still juggling its options. It has virtually closed the little gap in numbers: Jagan Reddy, the two AIADMK factions and the TRS have come over. And by keeping the name of Draupadi Murmu afloat, it has kept the BJD aloof from the evolving opposition front—no way can Naveen Patnaik afford to go against an Oriya adivasi candidate. Despite playing from this tactical advantage, the BJP is willing to discuss a consensus candidate. An uncontested transition will look smoother—a prospect that looks unlikely, given the opposition mood.
Consensus has been elusive in the past too. In 1977, there was consensus on Sanjeeva Reddy. But in 2002, the Left demurred on A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and fielded Capt Lakshmi Sahgal. In 2007, the NDA fielded Bhairon Singh Shekhawat against Pratibha Patil; the Shiv Sena defied it by supporting Patil, a Marathi. In 2012, the NDA fielded P.A. Sangma against Pranab Mukherjee. And Nitish supported Pranab despite being in the NDA then.
Among the names floating in the opposition camp this time, Pawar’s had a buzz, as a wily veteran with good rapport across party lines. There was also the thought that the Sena might again back a Maratha. A source close to him rejects the idea that he’s upset at not being named. Pawar has never lost an election in his career, he points out. “Why should he contest when the NDA has an upper hand?” he asks.
Others on the roster include Gopal Gandhi and Meira Kumar. What’s tricky is the whole roulette of responses. The Left has been ambivalent. And Nitish is rumoured to be upset with the Congress for the lukewarm reception he got during a recent meeting with its high command, but the latter name might put him in a spot. Meira Kumar is Dalit, a woman, and more importantly, she is from Bihar. On top of that, there are undercurrents within the JD(U). Nitish has replaced Sharad Yadav as party chief—and the strains are plain to see. Nitish had earlier backed a second term for Pranab instead of proposing Sharad, who is keen to contest for the post. The latter is working the lines with other parties, while Nitish is holding out a subtle threat by keeping up a public show of warmth with the prime minister.
Nobody is yet ready to call this undercooked coalition a mahagathbandhan. Yet there’s some pep talk. Says D.P. Tripathi of the NCP, “It’s an emerging front in which all democratic, secular parties are coming together. Its effect will manifest in the Gujarat polls and future polls. This effort has injected a realisation among parties that they can’t survive in the Modi era unless they get their act together. This itself is a significant development.”
It has to be a flexible mix of alliances in bipolar states and informal pacts elsewhere, says Raghuvansh Prasad. And it also needs a leader.
Indeed, who could imagine arch-rivals Samajwadi Party and BSP could sup together, or for that matter the Left and Trinamool? Definitely, the Nitish-Laloo alliance that held off the BJP in Bihar in 2015 set the logic. Akhilesh Yadav was part of the May 26 luncheon; both he and Mayawati will attend the August 27 rally called by Laloo Prasad Yadav. Both have said they have no issues sharing a platform in the interests of opposition unity.
NC leader Omar Abdullah believes beginnings such as the luncheon, the photo-op at DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi’s 94th birthday, and Laloo’s August 27 rally are all good “start-ups”. He feels it’s “too premature” to call it a “grand alliance”, and adds, “whether this momentum will gain as we come closer to the 2019 polls, only time will tell. But if we remain divided, it’s only the BJP which will benefit.”
Among the gaps, the BJD is the big one—it has yet to reveal its cards. The BJP’s national executive was recently held in Orissa where the slogan of ‘vipaksh mukt Bharat’ was heard. An India without an opposition—for a state-specific party like the BJD, the thought must give cause for an existential scare. Orissa goes to the polls in 2019 and opposing the BJP will be vital. Still, whether the BJD will support the opposition name for president will depend on the candidate, “but there will be no truck with the BJP,” says a senior BJD leader.
If the presidential poll has come as a “blessing in disguise” for the opposition to join hands, even if symbolically, there seems to be unanimity among big and small parties that the Congress will have to show maturity during this phase. “The imperialistic, feudal attitude won’t work; they have to change their style of functioning if they have to take everyone together,” says a senior opposition leader.
Senior opposition leaders are also concerned about overcoming future hiccups. RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh points at two factors: firstly, “it will have to be a mixed bag of outright alliances and informal understanding; there can only be an understanding in states where regional parties are directly in contest with the Congress; alliances can happen only in states where the two principal national parties are directly in contest”. Secondly, there is a need to identify a “capable leader” who can lead the front. Still, the logic of unity has again come up as an imperative. Just like when Pawar formed the NCP in protest against Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin but, within three months, fought the Maharashtra election together with his alma mater because the situation demanded so.