Bengaluru meet: Opposition unlikely to name joint front, may iron out differences first
Nearly a month after they met in Patna to kick-start talks of uniting electorally against Narendra Modi’s BJP ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha polls, leaders of sundry Opposition parties will arrive in Bengaluru on Monday (July 17) for a two-day conclave to take their unity dialogue further.
The ranks of the still-evolving Opposition bloc have swollen since the Patna conclave that was hosted by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. While 15 parties had attended the unity meet in Patna, 24 are expected to attend the discussions that will begin informally in Bengaluru this evening ahead of a more formal and structured dialogue scheduled for July 18.
Increased strength, mended fences
However, much within the Opposition has changed for better and for worse between the meeting in Patna and the one commencing in Bengaluru later on Monday. On the bright side, the decision of the Congress party, which is hosting the Bengaluru dialogue, to oppose the Centre’s so-called Delhi Ordinance in the upcoming monsoon session of Parliament has ensured the attendance of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) at the second Opposition unity meet. Although Kejriwal attended the Patna meet, he had irked many in the Opposition by making his participation in the Bengaluru conclave conditional on the Congress’s support for its fight against the Delhi Ordinance.
The increased strength of parties – including small Tamil outfits such as the MDMK and KDMK which were allies of the BJP in 2014 – participating in the Bengaluru dialogue and the AAP’s assured presence at the meeting is expected to bolster the impression of a formidable pan-India anti-BJP front coalescing in earnest.
However, in the days gone by since Kumar successfully brought leaders of various Opposition parties together in Patna despite the visible rift and conflicting political interests between some of those in attendance, the challenges, both collective and party-specific, have increased manifold for this incipient grouping.
The NCP of Sharad Pawar, a key Opposition stalwart, has undergone a virtual split down with the party’s founder’s nephew Ajit Pawar and several senior leaders such as Chhagan Bhujbal, Dilip Walse-Patil, Sunil Tatkare and Praful Patel (who, incidentally, had accompanied the senior Pawar to the Patna meeting) joining hands with the BJP in Maharashtra.
The BJP’s success at hoodwinking a Machiavellian Sharad Pawar has also put other Opposition outfits such as Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), Lalu Yadav’s RJD, Hemant Soren’s JMM and, of course, the Congress on notice in the non-BJP ruled states of Bihar and Jharkhand. Leaders from these parties suspect similar attempts by the BJP at targeting their respective leaders with the threat of prosecution by various central probe agencies or through allurements could also force an NCP-like split in their ranks as the 2024 General Elections approach.
BJP invites more allies, gathers forces
The BJP, which like the Opposition has also been fishing for new allies lately, is scheduled to have its own meeting of constituents, old and newly-acquired, of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on July 18. The saffron party had already broken away former Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Majhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) from Bihar’s ruling Grand Alliance of the RJD, JD(U) and the Congress ahead of the Patna meet. Over the past few weeks, the BJP has also brought the ideologically atheistic OP Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), which had partnered with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party during the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, into the NDA while also rekindling its alliance with Chirag Paswan’s faction of the Lok Janshakti Party.
UCC, Cong-AAP rivalry set to divide Opposition
Meanwhile, fissures have only grown within the Opposition. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, another formidable player within the Opposition bloc, has been put in the dock by the Congress, the host of the Bengaluru conclave, and the Left parties for orchestrating a bloody mayhem during the recently concluded panchayat polls in rural Bengal, which, at last count, had left nearly 50 political workers from across party lines dead.
Then there is the blow hot-blow cold relationship between the Congress and the AAP. While the Congress has now extended an olive branch to the AAP by announcing unequivocally its decision to oppose the Delhi Ordinance, sources in the Grand Old Party told The Federal that there is “no scope of any electoral alliance with the AAP” and that not just Congress leaders but also the top leadership of some other Opposition parties agreed that inviting Kejriwal to the Bengaluru meet was “a compulsion to keep up the optics non-BJP outfits coming together”.
Additionally, Modi’s expression of intent over expediting the process of making the communally and socially divisive Uniform Civil Code a legislative reality has also caused a split in the Opposition. While the AAP and Uddhav Thackeray’s faction of the Shiv Sena have said they favour a UCC in-principle, most of the other Opposition parties are stridently opposed to such a law. Whether the gathering Bengaluru takes up the UCC question for threadbare discussion or chooses to wait for an actual draft of such a law to be put forth by the Centre remains to be seen.
Bengaluru meet may throw up tricky, uncomfortable matters
Against these odds, it is obvious to wonder what the Bengaluru conclave would achieve in real actionable terms towards the stated goal of building an electoral front against the BJP. Leaders from across the Opposition spectrum that The Federal spoke to conceded that the Bengaluru dialogue is not expected to throw up any immediate answers to the big question of whether these disparate outfits could actually bury their differences and agree on fielding a consensus candidate against the official BJP nominee on at least 350, if not 400, of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies in next year’s General Elections.
However, these leaders were optimistic that unlike the Patna meeting, which was “more of an ice-breaker” for several Opposition constituents and served purely as a “statement of intent for forging a pan-India anti-BJP front”, the gathering in Bengaluru will take up more substantive issues while discussing tricky and uncomfortable matters more candidly.
Some of the parties attending the two-day meet in Bengaluru want two key announcements to be made at the end of the discussions – first, a formal name for the Opposition’s grouping and, second, declaration of either a chairperson or a convenor or both for this group. Sources said neither of these may actually be made.
“There are a lot of issues that need to be discussed. This is only the second such meeting of Opposition parties and though we are in Bengaluru for two days, the actual discussions will only take place for about six to eight hours on July 18. It is unlikely that we will find an amicable resolution to all our issues in this short span of time. Announcing a formal name for the group or who is going to lead it may be counter-productive,” a senior Congress leader who has been involved in backchannel talks with some Opposition outfits told The Federal.
A veteran leader from a regional outfit who was present at the Patna meeting and will also be at the Bengaluru discussions said, “this is still an evolving alliance; some of those who are participating in the talks may decide to not be part of an electoral coalition and choose to only offer issue-based support, as they have done during Parliament sessions in the past. So, if we announce a formal coalition today and some weeks down the line one or more constituents decide to go their separate ways, it would give the impression that our unity is already under strain. We need to avoid such a situation as it would only help the BJP.”
Common minimum programme, seat-sharing on agenda
The Opposition parties, multiple leaders confirmed to The Federal, may have preliminary discussions on “issues that can bind us together; a common minimum programme of some kind” and also what formula these parties may adopt for a “potential seat sharing blueprint without going into the specifics” for the Lok Sabha elections. A plan for joint rallies and press conferences to be addressed by various Opposition leaders across the country over the months leading up to the Lok Sabha polls is also likely to be broached at the meeting.
Several Opposition leaders have also proffered the idea that instead of appointing one chairperson or convenor for the group, the parties may consider setting up an overarching core group, with representation from all constituent outfits, to act as an arbiter for the final unity roadmap. Additionally, they have proposed setting up multiple issue-specific working groups, which can continue to thrash out a consensus on issues of seat-sharing, common minimum programme, joint public outreach, vision documents and legislative promises that the Opposition can come up with on matters concerning electorally crucial topics such as unemployment, farmer welfare, social justice and caste census, etc.
Limelight on Sonia
The Congress, which will be steering the unity dialogue in Bengaluru, also hopes that its recent assembly poll victory in Karnataka and the prospects of similar triumphs against the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Mizoram in the state elections due at the end of this year, will pivot the party back to its pole position within the Opposition bloc.
The Grand Old Party, which has seen its centrality within the anti-BJP political space challenged by the TMC, AAP and K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi over the past few years, has ensured that its former chief and abiding matriarch, Sonia Gandhi, is present for the Bengaluru meeting. Under self-imposed semi-retirement ever since Mallikarjun Kharge assumed the Congress’s presidency last October, Sonia was not present at the Patna conclave. In Bengaluru, however, she is likely to engage directly with leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, who has, incidentally indicated to the Congress leadership that she may not attend the dinner being jointly hosted by Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah for the Opposition leaders on Monday night, MK Stalin, Sharad Pawar, Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar and others.
Sonia is known to share a good personal rapport with almost all top leaders of the Opposition parties that will be in attendance in Bengaluru. She had played a stellar role in stitching together the now defunct United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2004, albeit with huge help from the likes of the late Harkishan Singh Surjeet, when the victory of a Congress-led alliance against Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP-led NDA coalition was largely dismissed as a pipedream. The UPA not only defeated the NDA in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls but had also returned to power with a greater mandate in the 2009 General Elections but only to be comprehensively demolished in the next round of polls held five years later.
The political landscape of India and as well as the idiom of the country’s politics have transformed greatly since, as has the heft that the Congress and Sonia once carried. Can Sonia, abetted by Kharge and Rahul Gandhi, succeed again in making her Congress appear like a bankable pivot for Opposition unity to her allies, past and present, or at the very least as an inseparable part of such a formation. Nearly all Opposition leaders attending the unity talks concede, some privately and others publicly, that no electoral front against the BJP can be successful without the Congress. The problem, though, is that several of these outfits no longer wish to function under the aegis of an electorally diminished Grand Old Party.