Waking up a sleepy Opposition

| | in Oped

The BJP juggernaut is almost unstoppable now. To stop this resurgence, the Opposition must put its house in order. For any viable united electoral plan, the Congress has to reinvent itself and recover its traditional strongholds

What is the main challenge before the Congress, which dreams of containing the resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? It is reinventing the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) before the next Lok Sabha election. The Opposition is not able to take on the Government on serious matters beyond demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax and the farmers’ issues. It is fractured, divided and directionless. It lacks a strong narrative. A classic example was the Presidential election last year, where there was cross-voting.

The only magic wand that can stop the Modi juggernaut is the anti-BJP unity. Going by the current political scenario, this unity is eluding the Opposition for various reasons, although in the 2014 general election, the BJP formed the Government with only 31 per cent of the votes, while 69 per cent voted for the Opposition.

With the Congress becoming weaker, ruling in just six States and several regional players getting stronger, unity is evading the Opposition. As matters stand today, no viable coalition or party is in a position to pose any serious challenge to the BJP, which is an advantage to the saffron party.

The first challenge before the Congress is to take the lead in uniting the Opposition and re-invent  the UPA. While in 2004, when the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi was able to gobble up a coalition to take on the Vajpayee Government, today, the scenario has changed.  She is not in good health and has handed over the affairs of the party to her son, Rahul Gandhi.

Most Opposition leaders, like Nationalist Congress Party  supremo Sharad Pawar, Trinamool Congress president Mamata Banerjee, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh or Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, would not like to work under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. That is why Sonia Gandhi has again taken the task of forging a strong anti-Modi front recently.

Though Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a powerful leader after the party’s spectacular performance in the recent Gujarat Assembly and Rajasthan by-elections, most UPA allies prefer Sonia Gandhi to her son and have no issues in uniting under her leadership again.

The second challenge is who will bell the cat to unite the Opposition? Regional parties are not willing to give the weakened Congress that primacy. Only last month, Pawar called for Opposition unity and held an impressive ‘Save the Constitution’ march in Maharashtra. Though the Congress also participated in it, party leaders were wary of playing second fiddle to the NCP which is only a regional party.

Within days, Sonia Gandhi came to the forefront and convened a meeting of the opposition parties in the Parliament. Even as this was going on, the Trinamool camp started talking about how Mamata Banerjee would be the best bet to unite the Opposition. Therefore,  the Congress has to sort out who could bring everyone under one umbrella. 

The third challenge is to agree upon a prime ministerial candidate. Though the Congress may be agreeable for a wider coalition with the regional parties, the issue of a prime ministerial candidate will pose problems. The grand old party will never support any candidate from any other party. On the other, many may not agree to Rahul Gandhi being the Opposition’s prime ministerial candidate.

Some regional chieftains, like Mamata Banerjee, are strong claimants.  Alternatively, they may form a front and leave the question of a prime ministerial face after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But a front without a prime ministerial candidate will be weak against the BJP-led NDA with Modi as their leader.

 The fourth challenge is to check the surge of the BJP in the North-East and the south. The Congress and the BJP are pitted against each other in only seven States. The party is already at its peak in 12 major States, including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, with 284 of the 336 NDA seats in its kitty. It has reached the peak in the north and that is why the BJP is looking to the south and the North-East for expansion.

 There are 25 seats to grab in the north-eastern region. There was a time when the Congress ruled almost all the States in the region but today, the scenario is different, with the BJP and its allies ruling in five of the seven States. 

The Congress needs to make efforts to check the BJP’s resurgence in the south and at the same time retain Karnataka in the next month’s Assembly poll. Karnataka and Punjab are the two big States ruled by the grand old party at present. South had been the stronghold of the Congress at one time but gradually, it has lost space to regional parties.

The Congress has been riding piggyback on the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) since 1967. In Kerala, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) has been alternating with the Left-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). United Andhra Pradesh had been a Congress stronghold but the emergence of the Telugu Desam Party and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, has weakened it further. Resultantly,  the Congress is nowhere in the bifurcated Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram put it succinctly at his book launch function recently that it was “very difficult” for the Congress to bring all opposition parties on one platform on every issue. “Some issues many will join. Many issues some will join. I think it is ambitious to expect that single-State parties which are almost seven or eight parties…. to come on to the Congress platform on every single issue.”  Reinventing the UPA can, perhaps, be the only way to unite a fractured Opposition.

(The writer is a senior political commentator and syndicated columnist)

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