Mission 2024: Opposition’s concrete plans for federal front as Congress, AAP bend

Leaders agree on consensus candidate for up to 75% of all Lok Sabha seats, 3-day joint planning camp later this year

Kharge, Rahul and Nitish
Opposition leaders (from left) Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi of Congress and Nitish Kumar of JD(U) met in New Delhi on April 12.

Though it is extremely premature to predict how this would eventually pan out, the leadership of the Congress party, the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and even the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is drawing up an ambitious plan for Opposition unity against the BJP for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

Leaders from these parties that The Federal spoke to said discussions initiated by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his deputy, RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, with Congress’s Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi, AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal and the CPM’s Sitaram Yechury earlier this week as well as the recent meeting between NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and the Congress leadership collectively resulted in some “concrete suggestions on the way forward” to building a federal front against the BJP.

Among the key ideas that were been agreed upon, in principle, by these leaders is to “ensure that the combined Opposition is able to field one consensus candidate each against the BJP nominee in at least 370 to 400 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats” in the 2024 general elections.

3-day Opposition ‘shivir’ planned

Given that this plan will first need to be tested against the bigger challenge of navigating fragile egos of the chiefs of different Opposition outfits and the trust deficit many of them harbour against each other, a proposal has also been mooted by Rahul Gandhi to organise a “two or three-day shivir (camp) later this year” where leaders from “all like-minded Opposition parties can gather to discuss the political, social and economic challenges facing the country and the need for a united electoral front against the BJP,” a leader privy to the ongoing discussions told The Federal.

Significantly, the Congress leadership seems to have indicated to Nitish, Tejashwi and Pawar that it will “cooperate with any effort to defeat the BJP even if it has to at times compromise on the Congress’s own electoral space”. This, a Congress leader present at the meeting, said was a “huge departure” from the party’s position of the past and was “evidently meant to address the concern many Opposition parties have against the Big Brother attitude of the Congress during alliance talks”.

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Rahul, in fact, seems to have told Nitish that some state Congress units “will not be comfortable with an alliance with certain parties; we may face some rebellion” but assured the Bihar CM that “we are willing to overlook all that if there is a real possibility of such an alliance defeating the BJP”. Though the former Congress chief did not name the parties that his colleagues were averse to having an alliance with, sources said he meant outfits like the Trinamool Congress and the AAP, which has decimated the Congress entirely in Delhi and has recently usurped its space in Punjab and pockets of Gujarat.

Kejriwal, who is currently in the crosshairs of central investigating agencies and has been summoned for questioning by the CBI in the Delhi excise policy case – his closest aides, Manish Sisodia and Satyender Jain are already in jail – also struck an uncharacteristically conciliatory note when he met Nitish and Tejashwi. Despite his focus on expanding the AAP in states where the Congress is the BJP’s direct opponent, Kejriwal is learnt to have told the duo from Bihar that he would be amenable to an alliance with the Congress in Delhi and Punjab.

Kejriwal keen, too

Interestingly, sources said Kejriwal even suggested that he would agree to give the Grand Old Party “a larger share in seat sharing than the AAP in Delhi, perhaps four of seven seats” since the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha results proved that despite the Congress’s inability to win a single seat in the Delhi assembly, it still polls substantially higher votes that the AAP in the national elections. In the 2014 elections, the Congress had finished second behind the BJP on all seven Lok Sabha seats of Delhi while in the 2019 polls, it finished behind the BJP on five seats while the AAP came second on the other two.

Nitish and Tejashwi, along with JD (U) national president Rajeev Ranjan Singh ‘Lalan’ and RJD MP Manoj Jha had met Congress’s Kharge, Rahul, Salman Khurshid and Mukul Wasnik on April 12 to discuss ways of uniting a fragmented, and often mutually acrimonious, Opposition against the BJP. The JD (U) and RJD leaders later had a separate meeting with the Delhi CM and AAP’s Rajya Sabha MPs Sanjay Singh and Raghav Chaddha. The following day, Nitish also met Yechury while Pawar had a meeting with Kharge and Rahul.

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Kharge and Rahul had hailed their meeting with Nitish and Tejashwi as “historic” while the Bihar CM had said that concerted attempts would be made to try and bring together as many Opposition parties as possible for a front against the BJP. Rahul had said that such an exercise would also entail drafting the Opposition’s “vision” for the country as opposed to the BJP’s continuing “attacks against India” and her institutions.

Similar assertions were made by Kejriwal, whose AAP had till a month ago shunned all proposals of a united anti-BJP front that had the Congress as a constituent. Pawar, who stunned everyone last week by slamming allegations made against industrialist Gautam Adani in the Hindenburg Report and stating that he did not agree with the Opposition’s insistence for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) enquiry into the Adani issue, also spoke of Opposition unity after his meeting with Kharge and Rahul.

Nitish calls a spade a spade

A second leader present at the meeting between the Congress, JD (U) and RJD leaders said that Nitish did not sugar-coat his submission and “right at the start of the meeting, even told Kharge that the Opposition had already lost seven months waiting for any concrete steps to be taken towards forging a united anti-BJP front because the Congress party was busy with its internal matters”.

It may be recalled that when Nitish had called on then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi in September following his return as the Bihar CM helming the JD (U)-RJD-Congress grand alliance government, he had expressed an urgent need for the Congress to initiate talks with like-minded parties for an anti-BJP poll alliance. Sonia had told Nitish to discuss the matter with the new Congress president. However, Nitish’s meeting with Kharge could not take place because the Congress leadership was occupied in quick succession with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the party’s presidential polls, its 85th Plenary Session and then the budget session of Parliament.

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The second leader quoted above told The Federal that when Nitish implored the Congress leadership on April 12 to begin a sustained dialogue with leaders of like-minded parties, Rahul wondered “what is the ultimate goal of such an alliance – is it merely to unseat Narendra Modi or is it to restore faith in democracy, lead a spirited fight for preserving constitutional values and the idea of India”. “Rahul’s initial interventions during the meeting were mostly philosophical but he was told that the foremost issue today is to defeat the BJP in the 2024 elections because it is under Modi that these threats to democracy, the Constitution and the idea of India have become grave… if we have to restore democracy, the first step has to be to defeat the BJP,” this leader said.

The Bihar CM, sources said, stressed on the need for the “broadest possible Opposition alliance”, which can ensure that a “single, consensus candidate should fight against the BJP candidate in at least 370 to 400 seats” in order to inflict the maximum electoral damage on the BJP. Nitish is learnt to have said that in the nearly 175 Lok Sabha seats spread across MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Himachal, Assam, Goa, Punjab, Haryana and Karnataka, where the Congress, on its own, is in a direct contest against the BJP, the party needs to strengthen itself electorally as the BJP had won over 90 percent of these seats in the past two general elections.

Sources said Nitish and Tejashwi also asserted that the Congress’s current alliances in Bihar, Jharkhand, Kerala and Tamil Nadu were “well placed to defeat the BJP” but cautioned the Grand Old Party against making statements that could upset these coalitions or the one in Maharashtra. A similar advice came from Pawar. The cautionary note seems to have been a veiled swipe at Rahul’s statements against VD Savarkar that ruffled Congress ally Shiv Sena (Uddhav faction) last month.

To talks on PM face

Sources told The Federal that contrary to what was reported across most media platforms, there was “no discussion at all on appointing Nitish or anyone else as convenor for the Opposition alliance”. “Till the time we have a broad idea of who all will be part of this effort, where is the question of appointing a convenor… these are matters to be decided once an alliance takes shape; how can leaders of four parties decide who will be the convenor when the goal is to bring together 15-20 parties,” one of the leaders present during the meeting at Kharge’s residence said.

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The impression that Nitish was tipped to be officially named convenor of the Opposition alliance – though he may still get the role – came from an “informal” understanding that the Congress leadership and the Bihar CM had at the meeting. Sources said Nitish offered to speak to “parties like AAP, BRS, Trinamool and Samajwadi Party, which may not be comfortable with talking directly to the Congress”.

A senior Congress leader who was not present during the April 12 meeting but has often acted as Sonia Gandhi’s emissary to allies told The Federal that Nitish is “eminently suited to hold talks with several Opposition parties” because of his vast political experience, personal rapport with other CMs who are also chiefs of various regional parties and the “added benefit of being a leader who came out of the erstwhile Janata Dal and can reach out to parties of the Janata parivar like Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal, HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and so on.”

Sources said there were inhibitions among some parties on allying with the Congress while the Congress too is not convinced about Nitish’s plan to involve the Trinamool, BRS, AAP and even the SP – given Akhilesh’s growing proximity to the Trinamool and his hint of fielding a candidate from Amethi unlike in 2014 and 2019.

However, a JD (U) source close to the Bihar CM said, “Nitish feels it is best to start with the broadest possible canvas… he thinks it would be counter-productive for Opposition unity to assume that any of these parties, particularly major ones like Trinamool, BRS, AAP and SP, which collectively have a strong presence in nearly 160 Lok Sabha seats, are untouchables… if you want a direct contest between the Opposition and the BJP on 400 seats, if they have concerns about the Congress then discussions can happen but for that everyone has to first agree to talk.”

This is where Rahul’s idea of a shivir for the Opposition may come handy. “The optics of a cross section of Opposition leaders coming together for a day or two to discuss an alternative to the BJP may send a positive message to the electorate. Rahul also suggested that just as the BJP creates an event out of everything, the Opposition needs to do the same to capture popular imagination and force the media to show what the Opposition is doing. There are also other proposals like Opposition rallies and more frequent joint Opposition press conferences against the government. A clearer blueprint of activities may emerge after the Karnataka elections,” another leader involved in the Opposition unity talks said.