As Narendra Modi readies for 2024 Lok Sabha election, Opposition's disunity lays bare
Throughout 2019 to 2022, Mamata Banerjee and Pawar tried becoming UPA convenors but these moves were stonewalled by Sonia Gandhi who is UPA chairperson even if in purely figurative terms
As if it is as per design or a desire, the index of opposition unity has hit rock bottom when the 18th Lok Sabha polls are barely 14 months away.
The seemingly bizarre display of a fragmented opposition is in full display following the arrest of Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia. When leaders of eight political parties wrote a letter to the prime minister alleging political vendetta, the Congress, DMK and the Janata Dal [U] did not sign it. Apparently, Delhi chief minister and Aam Admi Party convener Arvind Kejriwal had not reached out to the Congress.
Internally, the Congress is a divided house on the Sisodia issue. Former Delhi unit chief Ajay Makan smells foul in the alleged liquor scam claiming that ill-gotten money was used against the grand old party in the state Assembly polls of Goa and Punjab. On the other hand, Congress’ in-house legal eagle, Abhishek Manu Singhvi has been asking for a legal umbrella of sorts or unity among the opposition each time an opposition leader is targeted by the CBI, ED, income tax and other Central agencies.
This posture is in sharp contrast to the 16 February 2019 scene at 6, Janpath, Sharad Pawar’s residence when some attempts were on to carve a pre-poll alliance among non-NDA constituents. At Sharad Pawar’s residence then, Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu, Farooq Abdullah and Arvind Kejriwal were deliberating when NCP’s Praful Patel suggested that Rahul Gandhi should be called to join the discussion. Naidu dialled Rahul, who was the Congress president then, and arrived within half an hour!
By 2023, insecurity, one-upmanship among the opposition ranks has reached its zenith. Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao’s Bharat Rashtriya Samiti is eyeing north India to expand. KCR’s presence has edged out veteran Naidu as a common link among many opposition leaders ranging from Mallikarjun Kharge, Akhilesh Yadav, Farooq Abdullah to Kejriwal. Naidu’s moment of glory was in 1996 when a United Front was formed. The chief minister of united Andhra Pradesh then, Naidu was instrumental in installing HD Deve Gowda as prime minister shuttling between PV Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesri, Laloo Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, GK Moopanar, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, K Karunanidhi and a dozen others. Significantly, Naidu, at the very onset of jockeying for prime ministerial post, had ruled himself out of the race.
In contrast, today, most non-NDA protagonists harbour a secret and not-so-secret desire to be the prime minister. Rahul Gandhi is aware of his limitations and a simple fact that the Congress at present does not appear to be winning even the ‘half of half’ i.e. 138 Lok Sabha seats in 2024. But his advisors are forcing him not to make any unilateral declaration fearing that it would further demoralise the party rank and file. Weird as it may sound, there is no dearth of party leaders, other than the Gandhis, who fancy their chances in Manmohan Singh mould. The notables hoping to become pradhan mantri from the Congress stable include not just Kharge or P Chidambaram but includes some ‘rootless wonders’ and young faces.
Strangely enough, the Congress leadership is in no mood or hurry to revive, UPA which has been dormant since 2014. The UPA or the United Progressive Alliance [UPA] had come into existence when a Congress lead alliance was forged in 2004. This rainbow coalition continued till anmohan Singh got voted out in May 2014. The enormity of defeat was such that the UPA, as it had existed during 2004-2014, was not revived. Nor did it hold periodic deliberations. The non-NDA parties however, did come together often in the state Assembly polls of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Bengal etc.
Incidentally, on 20 May, 2019, three days before the 2019 Lok Sabha verdict, DMK leader MK Stalin had denied media reports that Sonia Gandhi had convened a meeting of the UPA on 23 May the day votes in the Lok Sabha elections were to be counted. “Who said there is an opposition parties’ meeting on the 23rd? The meeting will be useful only for election results,” Stalin had told reporters reinforcing a thought that UPA’s logic and mandate has been to form a government rather than to act as an umbrella of opposition parties.
Throughout 2019 to 2022, Mamata Banerjee and Pawar tried becoming UPA convenors but these moves were stonewalled by Sonia Gandhi who is UPA chairperson even if in purely figurative terms.
Clearly, the idea of an umbrella of opposition parties is not being revived by the Congress. Now, it is for KCR, Sharad Pawar, Farooq Abdullah or Kapil Sibal [he is out of the Congress but has requisite goodwill and heft cutting across the party lines] to take the lead. Both the Congress and Aam Admi Party would be difficult customers to come around.
The writer is a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. A well-known political analyst, he has written several books, including ‘24 Akbar Road’ and ‘Sonia: A Biography’. Views expressed are personal.
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