Sonia’s presence at Bengaluru meet could be the magic mantra for Opposition unity

Sonia’s presence at Bengaluru meet could be the magic mantra for Opposition unity

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Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi appears to have finally decided to step in and speed up the process of forging Opposition unity before the 2024 general elections. She is expected to take part in the July 17-18 Bengaluru meeting of Opposition leaders despite concerns about her failing health. This has been indicated by Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar.

Shivakumar is also the Karnataka Congress president and will play host to the two-day gathering of leaders who look to close ranks to take on the BJP and its National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Also read: Why Karnataka Cabinet’s swearing-in exposed the fragility of Opposition unity

So far, Opposition parties have taken only what seem to be baby steps towards setting up a largely single platform to challenge the veritable electoral and political heft of the BJP-steered NDA.

NCP shocker

Soon after the June 23 meeting of these leaders in Patna, at the initiative of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, one of the constituents of the Opposition alliance in Maharashtra suffered a big blow.

Also read: Patna conclave done, Nitish now faces mega challenge of keeping Opposition together

Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar walked over to join the rival BJP-Shiv Sena (Shinde) alliance that rules Maharashtra. Ajit Pawar was sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister and his NCP colleagues who followed suit became state ministers.

Before this, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena had undergone a similar split, reducing the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance with NCP and Congress as its two other constituents to a minority in the Assembly. This is how the Sena faction led by the current Chief Minister Eknath Shinde wrested power from Uddhav, together with the BJP. 

The turn of events in Maharashtra had a dampening effect on moves to unite the Opposition at the national level. Sharad Pawar as a senior opposition leader was sent scurrying for support as the party founded by him was left in shambles. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi called on Pawar when he visited Delhi after the NCP’s vertical split, courtesy the 82-year-old leader’s own nephew.

Obviously, Sharad Pawar and Rahul weighed not only the enormity of BJP’s Maharashtra onslaught but also the need for saving the Opposition leaders’ bid to close ranks and arrive at some broad and yet meaningful understanding to challenge the BJP’s might. This looks to be clearly so because of the heat turned on by the BJP against generally the entire Opposition in Maharashtra and beyond.

Apprehensions about similar ‘Operation Lotus’ in other opposition-ruled states to upstage them also became palpable.

Sonia’s role

So, it is in this backdrop that Shivakumar disclosed on Monday that Sonia will take part in the Opposition leaders’ meet. The Karnataka Congress chief was quoted by a news agency as saying: “A meeting of leaders of all Opposition parties (in the country) will be held on July 17 and 18, as already announced. All the leaders are going to come. Mallikarjun Kharge (AICC president) has requested Sonia Gandhi to participate in this meeting. We have got a message that she will be participating in this meeting.”

Watch: Why BJP is going for ‘lateral transplant’ to beef up for 2024 election

At 76, Sonia is virtually the lone grand dame from not only the grand old party but also the Opposition as such. She successfully put the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the helm not once but twice in the past and yet categorically rejected the post of prime minister.

Instead, her choice for the high office was made out by Congress to be based on sheer merit and talent. Though self-effacing, now nonagenarian Manmohan Singh had an illustrious track record. He left his mark in academics, economy and banking and last but not the least via the post offered and held by him for a decade, courtesy Sonia.

Her choice that made Manmohan Singh the prime minister has set a precedent whereby the question of leader or candidate for the top government post from the opposition ranks remains rather muted. It is also because Congress president Kharge has clarified that the party will not impose its leader upon any future Opposition alliance, indicating the leader could be decided post-poll based on numbers and the nature of people’s verdict.

Leadership issue

The leadership issue has further been pushed back from the point of view of Congress due to Rahul Gandhi’s continuing conviction in a defamation case by courts in Gujarat and consequent disqualification from Parliament.

Watch | NCP break-up: Is the real Pawar twist yet to happen?

The entry of Sonia amid this to help diverse parties to regroup before taking on the BJP indicates that the parties or leaders who gather in Bengaluru may well come up with some significant announcement that can catch the imagination of the electorate.

Sonia’s presence in Bengaluru is bound to be a reminder that her renunciation of the top party post is best suited to bring credibility to the unity moves. She has goodwill and commands respect across the political spectrum. Yet, it remains to be seen how many parties participate in the show in the Karnataka capital.

Bengaluru as a venue was Sharad Pawar’s choice, though, after the Patna conclave, the mid-July rendezvous was billed for Shimla.

Though both Himachal and Karnataka have Congress governments, its victory in the latter has been more emphatic. The Congress can easily make the participants feel at home in Bengaluru. The outcome in the state gives hope for Congress’ revival as also that of the others in the Opposition in their respective spheres.

Karnataka show

Among the reasons behind the Karnataka win are the five guarantees the Congress offered to voters. As the party vows to replicate this through similar campaigns elsewhere, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to brush it off, saying that those whose fate was far from having any guarantee are offering sundry guarantees to woo and entice the people.

Also read: Monsoon session may hit roadblock with Manipur violence, UCC

The Opposition leaders, Sonia included, are making last-ditch efforts to come up with some guarantees to put a credible show at the hustings. As for Sonia, this will be her third visit to Karnataka in less than a year. She did not attend the swearing in of the Siddaramaiah government and instead sent a video message to be played after the swearing in.

But she campaigned at Hubballi in Karnataka. Before that, she briefly joined Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra at Pandavapura in Mandya district in October last year. Now she will be visiting Karnataka for the first time after the Congress came to power in the state.  

Significantly, the Opposition’s Karnataka jamboree is going to take place only days before the start of the Monsoon session of Parliament. The session may be crucial since the government is likely to bring in or broach the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) Bill. The event in Bengaluru could provide parties with an opportunity to reach a better understanding on UCC, which many fear is essentially meant to sharpen sectarian and communal divide ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.

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