Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao is among the more active opposition leaders at the national level who are trying to form an alliance against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Sonia Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar are the others. But they appear to work in fits and starts and not in a sustained manner. Sonia Gandhi, for instance, has hosted a dinner for the opposition leaders, Mamata Banerjee has met Rao and had a telephonic conversation with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) M K Stalin while Pawar organised a “save the Constitution” rally in Mumbai. But there is little to indicate that they have got their acts together in the sense of preparing an agenda or formulating a plan of action with public meetings and use of the social media, the latest tool in the war of ideas. Rao has been somewhat more energetic, having taken the trouble to fly down to Kolkata to talk to the West Bengal Chief Minister, travelling to Chennai to meet M Karunanidhi and Stalin and meeting Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav in Hyderabad. But none of these informal contacts is likely to give the BJP sleepless nights.
Lack of leadership
There has, however, been a slight forward movement with Rao dropping his earlier reservations about the Congress, arguing that no one is untouchable. When he met Mamata Banerjee, he was firm about keeping out the Congress from the so-called federal front, but Mamata was not so sure. Later, she said that the Congress could be a part of an anti-BJP front but not as a leader. It may well be that much of the talk about the constituents of the front is aimed at presenting an inflated picture by the regional parties of their importance in order to play an assertive role when the time comes for getting down to serious business. At the same time, it is obvious that neither Rao nor Mamata Banerjee has the stature to play a leading role at the national level. The latter has also undermined her own capacity for fair governance by failing to control – willingly or inadvertently – the rowdy party cadres during the ongoing panchayat elections in West Bengal. It is also clear that the reservations which the two chief ministers have voiced about the Congress stem from their earlier close and not always happy association with the party, which probably makes them believe that they will again be sidelined if the Congress becomes a part of the front.
Yet, it is impractical to think in terms of a non-BJP, non-Congress group, as the regional parties do not have nationwide relevance although they may be politically strong in their respective states. It is imperative, therefore, for them to concede that a party like the Congress, with a pan-Indian image, if not presence, will be in a better position along with the others to present an alternative to the BJP, which, too, is perceived as a “national” party despite its weaknesses south of the Vindhyas. It is absurd to claim, therefore, as Rao and Asaduddin Owaisi of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen have done, that since both the Congress and the BJP have “failed,” the time has come for the regional parties to offer a “qualitative” change in the style of governance. Any such move will be tantamount to handing over success to the BJP on a platter.
Fate of Cong
Much will depend on how the Congress fares in the forthcoming elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. There is little doubt that if its strike rate is high, the party can reclaim its position as the natural leader of an anti-BJP formation. Otherwise, it will have to resign itself to taking a back seat. For the present, the Congress is trying to bring its former ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), to its side. The long conversation which Rahul Gandhi recently had with Pawar points to such a move. It is also known that the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is with the Congress. Furthermore, the Congress has a potential ally in Akhilesh Yadav, although Mulayam Singh is not a friend. Neither is Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) Mayawati, as her decision to align with the Janata Dal-Secular in Karnataka and the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana shows.
One fear of the regional parties about the Congress is its arrogant tendency to dominate once there is a tie-up. It is a habit born of more than a century of prominence in Indian politics which the party has not been able to shed even in its present weakened condition. As Pawar once said, the Congress is like a zamindar (land owner), who has lost much of his land, but still regards the surrounding terrain as his own. The party’s dependence on the Nehru-Gandhi family is another negative factor because few of the other parties are willing to kowtow to the dynasty as the Congressmen habitually do. The Congress will also probably be unwilling to play a secondary role under the leadership of another party. Clearly, opposition unity will not be easy to achieve.