The swearing-in ceremony of Hemant Soren as Jharkhand’s eleventh chief minister in Ranchi on Sunday witnessed a galaxy of leaders from various Opposition parties, ranging from Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, DMK chief MK Stalin and CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury to name a few. But this show of unity and strength amid ongoing nationwide protest against National Register of Citizens (NRC), Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Population Register (NPR) doesn’t necessarily mean a strong and united Opposition.
Had it been so, Banerjee’s Opposition Unity rally at historical Brigade Ground in Kolkata on 19 January this year would have led to the formation of a non-BJP government at the Centre, which ultimately didn’t happen.
The January rally that had aimed at upstaging the Narendra Modi government after the general election, was attended by a galaxy of leaders from more than a dozen Opposition parties, barring Mamata’s arch-rival, the Left parties. In terms of attendance, it was super impressive, but it failed to cut ice. Instead, the BJP not only gained a landslide majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha election but also increased its tally in West Bengal from two in 2014 to 18 in 2019. Despite receiving massive national coverage, the event ended up being only a great photo-op.
Even HD Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony as Karnataka chief minister in May 2018 was loaded with symbolism. Multiple photo-ops displaying leaders from Opposition parties like Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Sharad Pawar, Akhilesh Yadav, Yechury and many others holding hands together gave a message of political camaraderie, unity and strength. But ultimately, Kumaraswamy failed to save his own government.
Given the examples one has before them, it would be too premature to say that the gathering of leaders in Ranchi reflected a united Opposition.
The resurgence of a strong and united Opposition needs a rallying point — a focussed pan-India issue and a strong leader, who can be identified as a figure who can pose a challenge to Modi and on whom people can repose trust.
Coherent narrative, strong leadership
The problem with the Kolkata rally, which was organised just three months ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, was the absence of a coherent narrative to bind the 23 Opposition parties — barring the Left — together.
Even today, the Opposition parties who are in power in some of the states, like Trinamool Congress in West Bengal or the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha are more concerned about their own states. At present, the biggest challenge before Mamata is to safeguard West Bengal from the BJP in the forthcoming Assembly election.
For the resurgence of a strong Opposition, the regional parties including the national party Congress, have to build momentum on two major issues bothering the country at present — economic recession and the NRC-CAA-NPR. In fact, more than the political parties, it’s the people at large and students in the campuses, who have aggressively taken up the issue of NRC, CAA and NPR in public domain.
The question is whether the Opposition parties, who gather time and again for swearing-in ceremonies with fanfare, would be able to mobilise these two issues into a strong movement and to their advantage to protect the Constitution and redeem themselves.
Second is the leadership issue. Even the worst critic of Modi would agree to the fact that there isn’t any strong leader in the Opposition block on whom a consensus could be built upon and simultaneously could be a real challenger to Modi.
Role of Congress
As a national party, the Congress has to play the leadership role, at least as the rallying point for the Opposition. But as the regional powers have reclaimed their position in many of the states, they will be a big factor in deciding what kind of role they would allow to Congress. There are four more years to go for the next Lok Sabha election and the Congress party might manoeuvre its way to the leadership position. Whether Rahul may end up as the consensus choice or there will be agreement on someone else — only time will tell. It might also happen that Rahul chooses to stay away from the race.
However, the Congress right now is mending fences with all regional parties, even with its bitter rivals like the Shiv Sena. Rahul, who stepped down from the post of Congress president after the Lok Sabha electoral debacle, has been focussing on party’s outreach and campaigning.
Rise of regional satraps
One of the most interesting aspects of this anti-BJP, anti-Modi struggle of the non-BJP parties is that the regional powers have reclaimed their position in most states, including Congress.
While on the one hand, the BJP grew stronger at the Centre, the smaller, regional parties, even some of the new ones, have emerged stronger at the state level. Contrary to the assumption that the regional parties would be decimated under the BJP wave and the Modi juggernaut, the regional parties have become a decisive factor in government formation.
Besides Jharkhand, where Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal alliance has formed government, the most recent example of this was the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, which ultimately formed the government by joining hands with the NCP and Congress. In Haryana, the BJP succeeded in forming the government only after Dushyant Chautala’s regional Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), the new kid on the block, lent its support.
Even in instances where there have been no alliances, Odisha for example, the BJP lost to its main rival the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), another regional powerhouse. But for these regional satraps to play a role in the united Opposition, they will have to align themselves with the national issue and narrative, rather than restricting themselves to local ones and their own turf. Mere ceremonial appearance on a dais by joining hands with other ‘like-minded parties’ to express solidarity won’t bear fruits, except for some catchy photo-ops.
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Updated Date: Dec 31, 2019 10:51:12 IST