Opinion

Opposition Unity: Often Heard But Rarely Seen

Breakfast, dinner, virtual ­meeting, stalling Parliament…Opposition fixes up a unity show, but will it stick?

Opposition Unity: Often Heard But Rarely Seen
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On August 20, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi is set to chair a virtual meeting of leaders of Opposition parties. Expected to log in are Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, DMK’s M.K. Stalin, Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray, JMM’s Hemant ­Soren—all CMs—as well as NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and RJD’s Lalu Yadav, among others. The virtual meeting is part of efforts by various political stakeholders to unite like-minded ­Opposition parties and iron out differences among them well before the mammoth challenge of humbling Narendra Modi’s formidable BJP presents itself at the 2024 general elections.

But it’s hard to paper over the cracks in Opposition unity, although the parties presented enough optics, rhetoric and physical disruption of this monsoon session of Parliament to showcase a united stand against the Modi government on issues ranging from the Pegasus spyware row to farm laws. Par for the course were regular strategy sessions among floor leaders of Opposition parties, and the voluble interruption of parliamentary proceedings that forced the session to be curtailed by two days.

For most part of the monsoon session, the Opposition functioned like one coh­esive unit. The reticence among various party leaders to accept Congress’s Rahul Gandhi as a central figure among them, too, seemed to be waning as MPs across the Opposition spectrum honoured his invite for breakfast and, on more than one occasion, let him lead their charge during joint press briefings. And then, days ahead of the sine die adjournment of both Houses, chinks began to reappear when, at a dinner hosted by rebel Congress leader Kapil Sibal to mark his 73rd birthday, his party and its first family—the Gandhis—came in for a verbal assault by prominent Opposition figures who were among the invitees.

At Sibal’s dinner, Naresh Gujral, vete­ran MP from the BJP’s former ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, implored the Congress to free itself from the “clutches of the (Gandhi) family”, while the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah practically blamed a “weakened Congress” for being the biggest hurdle to a strong Opposition. When Gujral floated the idea of a united Opposition front minus the Gandhi family, none of the Congress leaders present—Ghulam Nabi Azad, Manish Tewari, Shashi Tharoor, Prithviraj Chavan (all part of the now famous G-23 brigade) and P. Chidambaram—countered. Even Lalu, Sonia’s staunchest and most vocal votary among non-Congress Opposition leaders, stayed quiet. Evidently, this wasn’t just another birthday bash thrown by a politician. It had an aura of Machiavellian political machinations.

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Rahul Gandhi at a meeting with Opposition leaders

If Sibal’s aim was to rattle the Gandhis and shake them into action, he seems to have achieved this to some extent. Sonia, who has largely remained absent from Lok Sabha proceedings during the past year, turned up in Parliament the day after Sibal’s dinner and began reaching out to leaders of like-minded parties shortly thereafter. The plans for a virtual meeting of chiefs and senior leaders of Opposition parties, now scheduled for August 20, was also firmed up, ostensibly as an immediate aftermath of Sibal’s dinner and its guest list. Then, on August 15, Sonia briskly walked across from her 10, Janpath residence to the adjoining Congress headquarters at 24, Akbar Road to unfurl the national flag on Independence Day—a tradition she had given the pass last year when party veteran A.K. Antony was nominated to do the honours.

“These are subtle but hard to miss indications that Sonia will not let detractors, whether within the Congress or among Opposition parties, gnaw at the centrality that her family and the Congress have always enjoyed in India’s politics, or certainly among the admittedly diminishing non-right political space,” says an aide of the ailing interim Congress chief. Congress insiders insist that the Gandhis—Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra—are now confronted with two immediate challenges and it is their response to these that will determine their electorally atrophying party’s ­future as well as their own status within a broader Opposition front.

“The party’s inability to win elections has directly dented the authority of the Gandhis as was evident in the letter by G-23 last year. Our allies in the Oppo­sition too view us as a liability bec­ause of these reasons. The only way the high command can now address these is by, first, carrying out a massive organisational surgery that has been put off for far too long and, secondly, by proactively engaging with chiefs of various Opposition parties to dispel any doubts that the Congress, and the Gandhis, rem­ain the fulcrum of any Opposition unity project,” says a senior Congress MP. Sibal, the Congress’s key in-house critic, while welcoming Sonia’s effort to bring Opposition parties together through her scheduled virtual meeting, insists that his “push for internal ­reforms will continue”.

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Former MP Sushmita Dev, who was the Congress women’s wing chief, has joined TMC. Seen here with TMC’s Derek O’Brien.

Within the broader Opposition, the unease over the Congress high command’s inability to expeditiously set its house in order has been growing along with a sense that the Congress’s deepening rot may eventually snuff out any grand ambitions that the still-evolving federal front may have to elbow the BJP out of power in 2024. “There is no doubt that a strong Congress is crucial for a united Opposition that hopes to defeat the BJP in 2024. Now, it is for the Congress leadership to decide how it can best address its internal issues,” says RJD’s Manoj Jha. Senior DMK MP Tiruchi Siva says setting aside personal interests to stitch a formidable “state-wise anti-BJP coalition is a collective res­ponsibility of every Opposition party”, but “as the only national alternative to the BJP, the responsibility is greater on the Congress and the party must apply internal correctives with a sense of urgency”.

For the Congress, and the Gandhis, dim­inishing electoral returns have translated into a growing inability to ret­ain leaders. In recent years, the BJP had been the biggest beneficiary of attrition from the party. A significant chunk of saffron lawmakers—from Jyotiraditya Scindia to Rita Bahuguna Joshi—as also Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma are former Congress stalwarts. However, while the Gandhis dream of bringing together Opposition parties into a rainbow coalition led by the Congress, they now face the risk of losing colleagues to the very Opposition parties they wish to do business with.

The party lost its women’s wing chief and former MP, Sushmita Dev, to the Trinamool Congress this week. Dev was the second high-profile departure to the Trinamool in recent months, the first being Abhijit Mukherjee, former MP and son of Pranab Mukherjee. With Mamata Banerjee and her heir, Abhishek, keen on using the euphoria over their party’s Bengal victory to spread its electoral footprint beyond the state, sources say the TMC is looking to poach more leaders from other political parties and the Congress is fair game. “The Trinamool Congress will focus on states that have a substantial Bengali-speaking population and we are preparing for an aggressive campaign in Tripura that goes to the polls next year. Sushmita Dev’s family has a strong appeal in Tripura’s Bengali community (her father Santosh Mohan Dev was twice elected to the Lok Sabha from Tripura West) as also in Assam’s Barak Valley. If the Congress couldn’t ret­ain her, that isn’t our problem,” a Trinamool MP tells Outlook.

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Though Trinamool’s Derek O’Brien rej­ects the charge of his party poaching Congress leaders, saying “this is not our party’s style”, a senior Congress leader from Bengal rues that “our high command’s blind affection for Mamata has prevented them from seeing how she poaches leaders of our party to weaken the Congress”. The Bengal Congress leader says: “Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury had repeatedly cautioned the high command about Banerjee’s plans to wean away our leaders, but it had no impact. The TMC poached a big chunk of our MLAs who were elected in the 2016 ­assembly polls and now it is doing the same with people like Sushmita and Abhijit.” Sources say the TMC is also in touch with more Congress leaders from Bengal, Tripura and Assam.

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A Congress leader close to the high command says “poaching of our leaders by the Trinamool or any other Opposition party is an act of betrayal”, but grudgingly concedes that “we cannot let these setbacks come in the way of our plan for an Opposition coalition because such an alliance is the only way that the Congress can stay electorally relevant”.

As if these inherent contradictions in the unity project weren’t enough for Sonia to deal with, says a Congress ­veteran who is part of the G-23 brigade, she still has the “unenviable task of ­ensuring that Rahul is acceptable to leaders like Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee as a central pole of a united Opposition”. Sources say Sonia has told Rahul to actively court Opposition ­leaders, as was evident during the recent Parliament session. However, the G-23 leader cautions, “it is one thing to bring together the Opposition during a Parliament session and entirely another to form an electoral coalition where the demands are completely different.... Before we begin dreaming of leading a federal front, our so-called high command needs to show it can still lead the Congress.” 

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Wait Till The Glue Dries")

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