One of the key thoughts behind the decision of the Congress leadership to organise a Bharat Bandh to protest against the ever rising fuel prices was to use the occasion to showcase Opposition unity. This was a potentially emotive issue and thus no Opposition party could have overtly decided against joining the Congress protest and the bandh. The sight of all non-National Democratic Alliance parties coming together would have been great optics for the Congress ahead of the Assembly elections in five states and next year's parliamentary election.
The move also had a subtext: Since the Congress was the prime sponsor of bandh call, and its chief Rahul Gandhi was to lead the protest by paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat and then hold a rally at Ramlila Maidan, the mere presence of top leaders from other parties would indicate an acceptance of the Congress president's leadership.
Rahul visiting Rajghat in the morning, removing a pebble from his pocket and sprinkling on it water he brought from Kailash Mansrovar and placing a few pebbles on Mahatma Gandhi's samadhi was good optics.
Walking from Rajghat to Ramlila Maidan for the public rally—a small distance—also contributed to the good optics but the absence of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, two allies of the UPA-I and UPA-II, and prospective allies of a hypothetical UPA-III, at both venues was not good optics for Rahul and the Congress.
The absence of leaders of these two Uttar Pradesh-based parties, around whom the very premise of Congress-led mahagathbandhan (grand coalition) of Opposition forces for 2019 was being built in the media and in political circles, was very embarrassing for the Congress president and his party.
Consider the following: The podium at Ramlila Maidan was very crowded. A host of senior Congress leaders and representatives of regional and smaller parties were visibly jostling for space, but besides Sharad Pawar and Sharad Yadav (initially seated on Rahul's left and right until Sonia and Manmohan Singh arrived), no other representatives present are recognisable to the public. In his speech, Rahul mentioned Yadav, Pawar and Manmohan. As for the rest, he stated that "all of the Opposition is sitting on this stage today". Ghulam Nabi Azad, who proposed the vote of thanks to conclude the rally, also didn't (or couldn't) name any other leaders. The thrust of Azad's speech: 21 parties supported the bandh call, and 16 sent their representatives to the venue.
However, the absence of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party on the dais was far more conspicuous than the presence of the representatives of 16 parties. Yadav—since the time he was forced out of the JD(U)—is a leader without a party and is attempting to make himself relevant by visiting various dharnas and demonstrations. Pawar is the chief of the NCP, the Congress' ally in Maharashtra. However, there was hardly any conversation between Pawar and Rahul on the dais. Arvind Kejriwal's AAP, a bitter rival of the Congress, sent a representative: Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh. But that is seen as a politically-astute move by Kejriwal to seek wider recognition in the ranks of the Opposition.
Though the Left parties participated in the Bharat Bandh, they kept a distance from Rahul’s rally. Perhaps they are trying to keep a distinct political identity because of compulsions in Kerala and West Bengal politics. These are not good signs for the health of the Congress. While Rahul's decision to return to New Delhi and take the lead in the Bharat Bandh—by completing his Kailash Mansarovar Yatra via a Chinese route at an unheard of speed—surprised all and provided a boost to Congress leaders in the morning, but Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav’s decision to not turn up (while extending support) came as a huge dampener.
Reports of a two-year-old dying in Jehanabad, Bihar because the bandh protestors didn’t allow her father to take her to hospital on time, an attack on a school bus in Pune, and violence in other parts of the country didn't really help the Congress and its prospective allies build a favorable public perception against government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A BSP leader, speaking to Firstpost on the condition of anonymity, said their party has been against bandh politics since the time of Kanshi Ram. "We hold dharnas and protest but we don’t approve of bandhs or play a supporting role on such calls." His next statement would cause a great deal of discomfort to the Congress: “Nobody in the Opposition is willing to work under Rahul. Things were different with Sonia, but things are different with Rahul.”
After his experience in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, Akhilesh is wary of Rahul and the Congress. He is not enthusiastic about an alliance with Congress and to be seen playing second fiddle. The public is being pinched hard by record high fuel prices. It could become an emotive issue against the Modi government, but any potential challenger in the Opposition needs credibility and imagination to galvanise the popular mood.
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Updated Date: Sep 10, 2018 22:17:45 IST