Opposition meet today, but clashing priorities, national ambitions, inherent distrust cripple mahagathbandhan

In yet another attempt to forge an anti-BJP alliance and put up a united front against the BJP-led Centre, leaders of a number of Opposition parties are set to meet on Monday to discuss modalities of a 'Mahagathbandhan' and their strategy for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Several such attempts have been made by the likes of Mamata Banerjee and the Congress in the past, but finding a common ground has always been out of reach for Opposition leaders for a myriad of reasons.

This time, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) supremo and Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu has taken charge of bringing Opposition leaders together, inviting members of all non-BJP parties to the meeting in Delhi.

Significantly, the meeting comes a day before the results of the five state Assembly elections are scheduled to be declared and also when the Winter Session of Parliament is slated to begin. Earlier scheduled for 22 November, the Opposition meeting was postponed in view of the Assembly elections, the last of which was held on 7 December.

Chandrababu Naidu with Rahul Gandhi. Image Courtesy: INCIndia/Twitter

Chandrababu Naidu with Rahul Gandhi. Image Courtesy: INCIndia/Twitter

Mamata, Congress attempted what Naidu is trying now

Since breaking away from the BJP-lead NDA government at the Centre in March over the issue of special category status to Andhra Pradesh, Naidu has been pushing for an anti-BJP "Grand Alliance". He has been meeting Opposition leaders for months, saying non-BJP parties must unite to save democracy.

At present, Naidu may seem well-suited to play the uniter's role, given his experience with both the BJP-led NDA as well as the Congress, when he brought together the 13-party United Front in 1996-1998. But he is not the first to take up such a campaign to bring together a "Grand Alliance".

Before the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, the most recent attempt was by West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. In August, she had met a number of Opposition leaders in Delhi and invited them to a "federal front" rally in Kolkata on 19 January. Confident of bringing Opposition parties together to form the 'secular front', Mamata had spoken widely about forging an anti-BJP front being the need of the hour in the country, but her evident national ambitions have political leaders sceptical of her intentions to form a mahagathbandhan.

The Congress has tried a number of times to forge an Opposition alliance, but these attempts failed as parties have had their own reservations and political interests. A lot of this failure had to do with the regional parties' issues accepting the Congress' leadership as the force uniting them.

Even after party president Rahul Gandhi has said that he doesn't have any intention of becoming the prime minister, the Congress leadership does not install a lot of confidence in the hearts of the smaller parties to rally behind the Gandhi family. The party had also said that Rahul was willing to step aside for a candidate from a regional party as he was "comfortable seeing any prime minister other than an RSS-backed one".

In March, Telangana caretaker chief minister and Telangana Rashtra Samithi chief K Chandrashekar Rao, too, had tried to stitch together an Opposition alliance. Although KCR had tried to project the opinion that he was trying to build an anti-BJP and anti-Congress third front, his move to approach mostly Congress allies had attracted suspicion and further cemented the opinion that KCR was working in cahoots with the BJP and trying to sabotage the Grand Old Party. While his actions had pushed him into the national limelight, they did little to successfully form a Grand Alliance.

Attempts were many, results none

On most occasions, leaders had political compulsions and national sentiments as reasons to oppose the BJP, and attempts to form a Grand Alliance even saw mixed results — some that worked out well, trouncing the BJP in a number of bypolls. However, varying demands of parties, a checklist of opposing priorities, national ambitions and an inherent distrust in one another mostly ensured a floundering mahagathbandhan.

A demand that breaks apart even the strongest of alliances is the one for higher number of seats. So far, the Aam Aadmi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party skipped all Opposition meetings reportedly because they were unhappy with the seat-sharing talks with the Congress for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which spilled over into their meetings to form a Grand Alliance for the 2019 polls.

Significant among the leaders Naidu has met so far is Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar. At a press conference with National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah, Naidu and Pawar had said they were coming together "to protect the future of the country" and "defend democracy". However, weeks earlier, Pawar had said it was unlikely that a national-level Opposition alliance would be formed before the 2019 General Elections as the "political situation on the ground varies from state to state". He had asserted that he was :trying to bring non-BJP parties together on a common platform".

Such a remark by one of the most prominent faces in the Opposition is enough to put a big question mark on the fate of the proposed third front and negates the weight his joint statement with Abdullah and Naidu calling for a united Opposition.

Earlier this year, there was already speculation that parties that were primarily regional but with national faces were attempting to form an alliance against not just the BJP but the Congress, as well. This was soon after the Karnataka elections. "Senior Opposition leaders" were of the opinion that instead of joining hands with the Congress, they should seek the party's support for their alliance. If these politicians still harbour the same feelings, it could spell trouble for Naidu's latest attempt at bringing a Grand Alliance together as the Congress is one of the prime faces in this pre-2019 Mahagathbandhan.

File photo of Mayawati, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. PTI

File photo of Mayawati, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. PTI

"The alliance must not be to contain the Congress, the alliance must be aimed at removing the BJP, and we are willing for anything," senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid said in October, almost as though he anticipated this very sentiment.

However, as Naidu himself said on 29 November: "Without the Congress party, it is not possible to have any front at the national level. They are the anchor... Today we don't have democratic compulsions. The democratic institutions are under threat. All the parties have to decide where they stand."

BJP unfazed or overconfident?

Besides the fact that the BJP currently rules 19 states in India — either solo or in alliance — it is these failed attempts at forming an anti-BJP front that has the saffron party confident of thwarting Naidu's renewed attempt at forming a third front ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

"Whatever may be Naidu's political compulsions for his desperate actions, there is no credible alternative leader or party to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the BJP in national politics today," the BJP had said. "Naidu is making futile attempts at building an alliance."

But is the saffron party right to dismiss this fresh attempt?

So far, the most prominent faces in the Opposition have put up a more united front than is usual for politicians, all sharing the common goal of removing the BJP from power. As far as power play is concerned, the Congress president has already said he was willing to hand over the reins of the Opposition leader's seat to any other better-suited candidate. And in November, Mamata had said everyone would be the face of the Mahagathbandhan, as opposed to a single leader. She, too, had asserted that they would fight together against the BJP to save the nation and would chalk out a programme to take their initiative further.

This apart, the growing discontent with the BJP on the ground, with the parties unfilfilled promises and benefits of its welfare schemes not reaching the intended beneficiaries, could all work against the ruling party and do more to ensure success for the third front.

Key players of mahagathbandhan

Besides Naidu, Rahul, Pawar and Mamata, other important names expected at the Opposition meeting in Delhi are; UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI general secretary S Sudhakar Reddy, DMK president MK Stalin, AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav and Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD) leader Sharad Yadav. Mayawati and Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav may not attend the meeting, but their representatives will attend the meeting, reports have said.

Opposition leaders aim to chalk out a common minimum programme, which has eluded earlier such alliances, and amp up their anti-Modi crusade in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. These parties have seemed plenty united in the past few months and are exceedingly confident of dethroning the saffron front together, but ultimately, it will all come down to whether they can shed their differences — the "coalition of rivals" tag as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley dubbed it — and really put the country's interests over their own.

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2018 13:48:04 IST

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