The Parliament Budget session, which concluded on April 6 with a near washout, saw the most spirited display of Opposition unity (particularly during its second leg) against the BJP-led Centre in recent years.
By the time Parliament was adjourned sine die, 20 Opposition parties had joined forces against the government, primarily over two issues — their demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into allegations against industrialist Gautam Adani and over the disqualification of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from Lok Sabha following his conviction in a criminal defamation case.
Though previous sessions of Parliament witnessed Opposition outfits coordinating their floor strategy against the Treasury Benches, such efforts normally saw 14 to 16 parties, including the principal Opposition party — the Congress — coming together. The Trinamool Congress, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, the Aam Aadmi Party, and the Samajwadi Party would choose to chart their own course.
Understandably then, the strident show of strength by a uniting, if not united, Opposition during the just-concluded session piqued the interest of political commentators who saw in it the makings of a formidable electoral challenge building up for the BJP ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. And then, not 24 hours since the end of the rancorous Budget session came a rude reality check for those optimistic of a pan-India unity accord among the BJP’s political rivals.
Pawar goes against the tide
Sharad Pawar, the wily NCP chief whose counsel is often sought by key Opposition figures, including former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, for building an anti-BJP front, came out in defence of the one man Opposition parties had targeted throughout the budget session — Gautam Adani. In an interview to the Adani-owned NDTV, Pawar said the controversial industrialist had been “targeted” by US-based short-seller Hindenburg Research. Pawar also made it known that he differed with other Opposition parties on their JPC demand and felt that once the Supreme Court ordered a probe against the Adani Group under the guidance of one of its former judges, demands for a JPC inquiry should have ceased.
The Congress, which has been leading the Opposition onslaught against the Narendra Modi government on the Adani issue, was left red-faced. Jairam Ramesh, the Congress’s communication chief who has posed 100 questions to Modi on Adani, issued a statement saying while “the NCP may have its view, 19 like-minded Opposition parties are convinced that the PM-linked Adani Group issue is real and very serious”.
To be fair to Pawar, who, like the Prime Minister, is known to share a good personal rapport with Adani and has, through his nearly six-decade-long political innings, always been favourably disposed to Big Business, his stand on Adani wasn’t different from the stand his NCP took during the Budget session. The NCP stayed clear of all joint protests and press conferences that Opposition parties addressed on the Adani issue through the course of the Budget session.
Ominous sign for Opposition
However, Pawar’s public endorsement of Adani, even if on a channel owned by the businessman and to questions that were evidently scripted for a pre-decided response, embarrassed the 19 Opposition parties that have been steadfastly demanding the JPC probe. The public, at large, may not be aware that Pawar was airing views that his party colleagues in Parliament had already shared with other Opposition outfits, nor would it remember that the NCP stayed away from the protests on the Adani issue during the Budget session. Pawar’s statement, though, would make headlines and give the BJP yet another means to scorch the Opposition, particularly the Congress.
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But there is a bigger, more ominous sign that the Pawar interview brings for the combined Opposition, as well as for those hopeful about these parties burying their ego tussles and competing aspirations to take on the BJP. In the same interview, the NCP chief made it clear that a united Opposition would remain a pipedream until its likely constituents shared a common political vision and actionable programme.
Past Parliament sessions have repeatedly proved that it’s easy for Opposition parties to come together on the floor of the House for a coordinated strategy. However, continuing this display of unity on an electoral turf, when Parliament is not in session, is an entirely different ballgame.
The Machiavellian Pawar’s latest move shows once again how fickle Opposition unity is, particularly where it matters the most in the current political situation — outside Parliament. Leaders across the Opposition spectrum that The Federal spoke to conceded that though the recently concluded Parliament session saw the “most cohesive joint Opposition campaign” against the Modi government in years, the “real challenge” for these outfits now is to work together outside Parliament too.
Onus on Congress
The primary responsibility to ensure such an outcome, these Opposition leaders maintained, was of the Congress — which Pawar, too, has repeatedly said “can’t be ignored” in any attempt to build a federal front against the BJP. It is no secret that parties such as the TMC, AAP, and the BRS view the Congress as the biggest stumbling block for any winnable Opposition coalition against the BJP. That is not to say that any of these parties have the chops for delivering such a goal but their lack of faith in the Congress, primarily stemming from the Grand Old Party’s dismal electoral record of the past decade and its projection of Rahul Gandhi as the alternative to Modi, has emboldened the chiefs of these outfits to lay claim on being the fulcrum of any future Opposition alliance.
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“Of the three pillars of democracy, it is only the Executive and the Judiciary that are of any relevance today because the Legislature (Parliament) has been rendered largely irrelevant over the years. Even during the latter half of UPA-II, the Legislature hardly had any contribution because disruptions and washouts became the order of the day. Of the Executive and the Judiciary, the latter is being undermined daily now. You have an unfortunate situation where it is only the Executive that matters and so, what is important is not what Opposition parties do in Parliament but what they do to replace the Executive,” a senior Lok Sabha MP of the Congress told The Federal.
The Lok Sabha MP added, “Naturally, as the only party that faces the BJP in a direct contest in nearly 200 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress’s responsibility within the Opposition space and in any effort to build an anti-BJP coalition is the highest but for us to be accepted on that pedestal, we have to first prove that we can defeat the BJP in direct contests.”
Congress drops Big Brother attitude
The Congress, sources in the Opposition said, has come to the belated realisation that it no longer has a default claim on being the central pole of an anti-BJP front because it remains stuck in a morass of impending electoral irrelevance. Its present allies and non-allied like-minded parties have time and again warned the Congress against adopting a Big Brother attitude towards them while negotiating electoral alliances or joint campaigns against the BJP. Some in the Opposition believe that this sustained pressure is finally yielding results.
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“There has been a visible change in the approach of the Congress vis-a-vis other Opposition parties. Earlier, the Congress would convene a meeting of Opposition parties with a pre-decided agenda and, often, also a pre-decided roadmap that it wanted all of us to endorse and follow blindly. Our views were sought as a mere formality. Of late, particularly after Mallikarjun Kharge took over as Congress president, this has changed,” a leader from one of the Left Front constituents told The Federal.
The Left leader explained that “Kharge urges all Opposition leaders to speak first and then he or one of his party colleagues puts forth the Congress’s view. If there is unanimity on an approach, very good, but if that doesn’t happen, Kharge tries to accommodate the divergent viewpoint. During our meetings on the Adani issue, most Opposition parties, including the Congress, wanted a JPC but some parties, like the Trinamool and NCP, wanted an SC-monitored probe. Ultimately, we decided we would demand both… It may not have been ideal but it averted a breakdown in Opposition unity during the Budget session.”
Next six months crucial for Congress
Having lost two consecutive general elections and nearly 50 Assembly elections since 2014, the Congress knows that it needs that one major poll victory to convince its like-minded parties that it can still bounce back. The next six months, beginning with the Karnataka polls due in May, will provide the Congress several such opportunities. The Congress, as Pawar asserted, is on a strong footing to defeat the BJP in poll-bound Karnataka, while it stands a fair chance at avenging the toppling of its government by the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, which goes to polls in November-December. Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, which will go to polls at the same time as MP and Telangana, are both Congress-ruled and the party is hopeful of retaining these states.
Thus, of the five big-ticket Assembly elections due this year, the Congress is not just directly pitted against the BJP in four but also has a clear shot at victory in these states. In BRS-ruled Telangana, its best chance is to improve its tally and upend BJP’s aggressive expansion plans.
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But then, each of these states also shows that the unity shown among Opposition parties in Parliament is no guarantee for unity on an electoral pitch. Much was made during the Budget session of the BRS and the AAP’s decision to vociferously condemn the BJP over Rahul’s disqualification. Unlike previous sessions, the AAP and BRS deputed their leaders to attend Opposition meetings called by Kharge and also join protests that were clearly steered by the Congress.
Yet, on the electoral pitch, AAP has made it clear that it would not stall its expansion plans for Rajasthan, MP, or Karnataka to enable a Congress victory, while the BRS, of course, remains the key rival of the Congress in Telangana. Similar hiccups in a grand Opposition alliance against the BJP are evident across most major states — be it West Bengal, Telangana, or Uttar Pradesh.
Key short-term challenges for Opposition
Alliances aside, there are other short-term but critical challenges that lie ahead for the Opposition. The Opposition’s furore on the Adani issue has pushed its previous blitzkrieg against the Modi regime on more people-centric issues unemployment, price rise, farmer distress, economic downslide, communal strife, and Chinese transgressions on Indian soil to the backburner. This potent combination of issues was more relatable for the common voter but it has now been taken over by the two person-centric issues – Adani and Rahul’s disqualification — which may not find the same resonance with a citizen in election season.
Moreover, an SC-appointed committee, as well as a SEBI panel, will be concluding their respective inquiries into the Adani issue within a few weeks from now. If the two inquiries end up suggesting no wrongdoing on part of the government, or Adani, the Opposition will cut a sorry figure even if it continues to cry foul while the BJP will have another reason to accuse its rivals of having “no faith in any democratic institution”.
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With just over a year left for the next general elections, the Opposition clearly doesn’t have the luxury of time to be stuck in a slanging match with the BJP on issues that may lose their relevance for the public long before the Lok Sabha bugle is sounded. The Opposition needs to stop patting itself on the back for a Parliament logjam for which the BJP was equally responsible and, instead, prepare for the bigger challenge that it has to face at the hustings in some 13 months from now. Pawar may have snuffed out the united Opposition’s Adani attack but his call to his co-travellers in the Opposition to unite on “real issues of the people” with a “common political vision”, is not without merit.