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Sushma Swaraj's Rajya Sabha speech exposes Opposition as a sorry alliance of inept leaders

To understand the reasons behind BJP's ascendancy and Opposition's predicament, we don't need to look beyond Thursday's proceedings at the Rajya Sabha. The Opposition launched a combined attack on the government's foreign policy but ended up scoring countless own goals. The gaps in their arguments and leaps of logic were easily picked by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who turned in one more bravura oratorical performance.

It isn't as if there are no valid grounds to criticise the government but in their current state of stupefied cluelessness, Opposition leaders are tilting at the windmills, resembling soldiers flailing at a battle tank with wooden broadswords. That their role is not limited to reactive agendas and blind criticisms of the government and also involves floating a counter-narrative seems a task beyond the capabilities of the current bunch.

File image of Sushma Swaraj. PTI

File image of Sushma Swaraj. PTI

Through their myopia and strange propensity to always appear on the wrong side of the nationalism debate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rivals are shrinking the Opposition space further and doing a great disservice to India's democratic set-up. If the BJP, led by Modi and his trusted general Amit Shah is presiding over a period of extraordinary hegemony and a fearsome concentration of power, it has as much to do with the duo's political acumen and hunger as the Opposition's rank ineptitude.

It takes an extraordinary amount of daftness to suggest that India should have attended the Chinese jamboree in Beijing to launch the One Belt One Road (OBOR, also BRI) project when it trespasses over a territory claimed by India and is thus an issue of sovereignty. This is a stand no Indian government can take and yet the Congress went ahead to criticise the government's move to boycott the BRI conclave, inviting a stinging response from the external affairs minister.

"Do you know through where the OBOR passes? And you are asking these questions? It is a matter of national sentiment (for India). You are the main Opposition party, you should speak with responsibility," Swaraj said, according to a PTI report. She was promptly rebutted by Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad who claimed that the remarks made by his party colleague Rajeev Shukla regarding OBOR were in his "individual" capacity and it wasn't the party's line.

This led to Swaraj asking sarcastically whether Congress's inner-party democracy involves each member speaking independently of the party line. The short exchange exemplifies Congress's pickle.

Even if there was no friction with China, attending the meeting would have been bad optics for India who claims territorial rights over Gilgit-Baltistan. It's not a question of benefiting economically from the project but tacitly legitimising Pakistan's claim over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. It is inconceivable that Congress didn't see it through and allowed itself to be ambushed by BJP.

Which brings us to Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president and president-in-waiting. After denying initially that Gandhi had met Chinese envoy Luo Zhaohui and calling it "fake news", Congress later admitted that such a meeting did take place and called it a "courtesy call." Gandhi sent a series of tweets justifying his move, one of which was:

The Gandhi dynast was correct in his argument that it is his job to stay "informed on critical issues" and that he did nothing wrong in meeting the Chinese envoy — a common protocol. But where he lost the debate was that he chose to meet Luo first to ostensibly discuss a sensitive issue that holds grave implications for India's sovereignty and security. Expectedly, Swaraj let it rip. She wasn't going to miss this full toss.

Speaking in Rajya Sabha on Thursday, while responding to Congress leader Anand Sharma's jibe about Jawaharlal Nehru calling a Parliament session in 1962, acting on a written request from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Swaraj said: "It saddens me to say that leader of the largest Opposition party chose to meet the Chinese envoy to get information about the standoff rather than approach the Indian leadership", adding, "How I wish the Opposition had done the same (request a session) now!"

This is not semantic puritanism or nitpicking but a treatise on how inch by inch the Congress, torchbearers of Indian nationalism with such an illustrious legacy to boast, is vacating its political space and letting BJP own it. These issues shape national consciousness and mould public opinion. It says little of Congress leadership that it does not recognise the adverse electoral effects of these repeated blunders.

Congress isn't alone at fault though. It is easy to blame Nitish Kumar and pile on derogatory adjectives for his "somersault". It is much harder to acknowledge the lacunae in Opposition strategy which the Bihar chief minister had been at pains to point out, repeatedly, before he decided to join the NDA camp.

"It's the duty of the Opposition to oppose the government... We should have alternative narratives (agendas) for the benefit of the country, more than relying only on reactive narratives," he had said shortly before joining cause with Modi.

The lack of a narrative has been compounded by an odd complacency. The BJP is in power in 18 states and soon we may have the prime minister, president and vice-president from the same party but it still appears insatiable in hunger to innovate, expand and dominate.

Conversely, the Opposition is afflicted with a strange ennui and appears trapped in the vicious cycle of reactivity. For instance, BJP faces strong anti-incumbency headwinds in Gujarat but it's the Congress which has found its leaders cross-voting in NDA's favour, lost its top state leader and has been forced to pack off remaining MLAs to a resort in Karnataka. It may cry "vendetta" but it's equally true that its actions reflect a lack of self-confidence. A message goes out to voters that Congress doesn't trust its own MLAs. It is also facing similar revolts in Goa and Bihar.

Some axiomatic truths define the power principle. Nothing is permanent. Ahmed Patel, once perhaps the most powerful figures in Congress ecosystem, is finding it out the hard way. Perhaps that is why instead of a pro-active policy to tap the massive discontent among farmers and jobless youths, Congress ministers are busy penning eloquent op-eds in English language newspapers and hoping for providence. But it's wise not to bet on it.

Updated Date: Aug 04, 2017 17:25 PM

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