TechnologyReality checks for the Opposition’s unity project

Reality checks for the Opposition’s unity project

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Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the 2019 Lok Sabha election for a second term in office, the nation has witnessed a great deal of churn in politics, both at the national and State levels. Many aspects concerning Indian politics have seen changes, and many previous concepts have been rendered obsolete, though leaders and parties still find it difficult to shake off their past attributes and beliefs. It is not that the nature of politics itself has changed, but mainstream parties — essentially those in the Opposition — are unable to decipher the nature of the changes taking place.
The ground reality

The Congress, for instance, is unable to shake off a belief that it is the obvious choice to lead any Opposition combination. While other parties might have accepted this in the past, increasingly, quite a few of them have made it clear that they do not any longer see the Congress as the lead player. However, to assume, therefore, that the party is in terminal decline would be a case of being unable to see the wood for the trees. For its part, the Congress still has a vote bank spread across different States in the country (totalling a little over 20). Excessive procrastination on future strategies is, however, sapping the vitals of the party. It has yet to produce an alternative model to reverse the current trend.

The unpleasant truth (for the Opposition) is that since 2014, when the BJP captured power, they have been divided, weak and ineffectual. Lack of a proper strategy, together with unwillingness on the part of individual Opposition parties to make a realistic estimate of their strengths and weaknesses, accept the current reality, and demonstrate a willingness to support other Opposition parties and groups which may have somewhat greater acceptability, are the main reasons why the Opposition is in dire straits today.

Of late, a measure of realism does seem to have crept into this debate, but not within the Opposition parties themselves. Individual parties are yet to make a realistic estimate of their strengths and weaknesses. What has also not been catered for is that many parties are little known outside their States. Consequently, despite all the current talk of Opposition unity, there is no common thread that binds them, other than a strong dislike of the policies and attitudes of the ruling party at the Centre.

Of all the Opposition parties, it is the Congress, which perhaps, still has some acceptance across the nation. It has not, however, been able to convince other Opposition parties that, even though its influence today is limited to certain segments and territories, it still has an intrinsic ability to emerge as a coordinator of Opposition unity. While smaller Opposition parties are, perhaps, willing to acknowledge this, the bigger parties are unwilling to ascribe a leadership role to the Congress.
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Congress leader and MP Rahul Gandhi, Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut, Mallikarjun Kharge and other Opposition parties members addressing the media after a protest march, in New Delhi on December 14, 2021

This situation has existed for some time, but latterly, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader, Mamata Banerjee, has been openly ventilating the opinion that the Congress has become a moribund organisation. In the aftermath of a spectacular victory in the Bengal Assembly elections earlier this year, Ms. Banerjee appears to have taken upon herself the role of rallying the Opposition against the BJP, without formally announcing herself as its leader. While, there has been a great deal of praise and encomiums for the manner in which Ms. Banerjee defeated the BJP in West Bengal, there is little evidence that the Opposition is willing to unite under her umbrella. More problematic is that rather than emphasising Opposition unity, her attempts seem to be more directed at marginalising the Congress. The Opposition, thus, only seems more divided than before.
The path for the UPA

Instead of putting forward a shared story which the country could endorse as a counter to the BJP’s single point rhetoric, the Opposition today only looks confused. Moreover, all their differences are on public display today. With the TMC targeting the Congress, the latter has retaliated, accusing Ms. Banerjee of having a ‘fascistic mindset’ and being a ‘political opportunist’. The TMC’s tactics of poaching legislators from other parties, mainly the Congress, is not helping matters. This display of disunity among the Opposition has put into the shade what might have been a promising opening for Opposition unity initiated by Congress President, Sonia Gandhi very recently (December 14, 2021) — at which the Nationalist Congress Party, the CPI(M), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Shiv Sena and the National Conference were present, but not the TMC. On display today for one and all, is, therefore, Opposition disunity rather than Opposition unity.
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Power move: NCP President Sharad Pawar with West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee after a meeting in Mumbai

Unless the Opposition has a death wish as far as unity is concerned, it is, hence, imperative that each and every constituent part recognises the criticality of Opposition unity. What has to be kept in mind is that each constituent party has certain inherent strengths which contribute to the overall capability and strength of any union.

Admittedly, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is much weaker than what it was previously. The UPA ‘core’ which previously comprised the Congress, the CPI and CPI(M) and some other secular democratic parties has lost much of its elan since the first decade of this Century, but it is far from a liability as Mamata Banerjee seems to believe. It remains relevant, provided each constituent recognises what needs to be done — something on the lines of a modern day Common Minimum Programme.

For a start, all Opposition parties included in this group must recognise that the balance of power has tilted very substantially in favour of the BJP, whatever be its shortcomings or the extent of unhappiness with some of its policies. It is possibly the only national level party which has an unchallenged leader. Its politics — which is a mixture of majoritarianism and hyper nationalism — has found ready acceptance among sizable sections of the populace, irrespective of whether this is best suited to today’s circumstances. In effect, the BJP has no peer competitor. This state of affairs may not be truly visible in the rear view mirror of politics to many of the Opposition parties, but it should induce a degree of sobriety when reflecting on how Opposition unity is to be achieved.
To achieve the desired level of unity, and hope for success, the combined Opposition must not only admit to this reality but also to the fact that contemporary policies is not a zero-sum-game. The Congress, perhaps more than any other party in the Opposition, needs to avoid clinging to images of an earlier period and should ensure that the chasm between it and potential allies does not widen any further. This may need casting aside many past perceptions, as also clinging to impressions of a world that has since vanished. Other Opposition parties such as the TMC, must not overestimate their strength, merely because of achieving success in one or two States. Instead, they should work hard to assemble and strengthen alliance partnerships with a view to creating a strong phalanx against the BJP
Towards a construct

Conquering the BJP will not be an easy task. Any anti-BJP coalition will need the right set of partners — partners who can bring in additional votes and do not constitute a risk to Opposition unity. It would entail a liquidation of wrong beliefs and assumptions — an alliance that can stand up to any kind of ‘stress test’ that the ruling BJP can be expected to employ to undermine Opposition unity.
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Mamata Banerjee

In the prevailing circumstances, viable Opposition unity is possible only if there is honest recognition of what may be termed as ‘areas of influence’ of each party — the TMC in Bengal, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Left in Kerala, the Congress in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, etc. Any hope of Opposition unity will rest on acceptance of this principle of ‘areas of influence’. Within this construct, each party will have a certain pre-eminence. Merely beating the drum of Opposition unity against the ruling BJP is not enough, and is unlikely to produce results. In short, for Opposition unity to succeed there has to be ‘the rhetoric of transformation but [also] the reality of accommodation’ as Fareed Zakaria had once opined in a totally different context.

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