Anand K. Sahay | What Congress must do if it is to lead Opp. front

The Asian Age.  | Anand K Sahay

Opinion, Columnists

It is not so much the unity of parties as the unity of various forces in society that will eventually matter

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Chhattisgarh state President Mohan Markam and other party leaders during the 85th plenary session, in Raipur, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023. (Photo: PTI)

The tumultuous welcome the Bharat Jodo Yatra received right through its five months sprang from its needle-sharp focus on the issues of opposing communal politics and the need to deal effectively with the crisis caused by unemployment and high prices in ordinary people’s lives. And yet, generally speaking, the non-Congress parties, mostly caste-based regional outfits, were left cold by BJY, even if some gain by keeping the BJP at bay.

These parties mostly seem in a hurry to go back to business as usual. Their leaders seem to regard the BJY as an unremarkable event and look to get back soonest into the rhythm of “jod-tod ki rajniti” -- the politics of alliances and alignments against the BJP, state-wise. This is done in the name of “Opposition unity”, which is elevated to the level of high democratic principle, supposedly to ward off the aggressive advance of the communal agenda.

However, life has shown that the Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) in elections that psephologists exalt doesn’t hold as a theorem in a country like India, as behind each voter lurks a sociological factor, such as caste. In a Uttar Pradesh Assembly election not long ago the Congress and Samajwadi Party both suffered when they struck a deal, and each fared worse than in the previous election when they had not joined forces. This is because the social bases of the two parties remained incompatible, and dashed the hopes of their leaders.

In India, the IOU principle works well only in exceptional circumstances, like the time after the Emergency when the non-communist Opposition parties merged to form the Janata Party. In one stroke, the many parties of the Opposition gave up their personalities and programmes, so that in every constituency, especially in northern and western India, there was a single Opposition candidate to challenge the Congress, and there was no splitting of the Opposition vote.

This is the much-talked-about “one against one” principle. The Congress was routed in the 1977 election as a result, and the Janata Party was grandly victorious. But the JP government collapsed in no time. The many deep contradictions among JP’s several constituents couldn’t remain hidden for long. Switch back to today. It is amply clear that the “one against one” principle just can’t be worked. In fact, in various states the regional parties have mostly grown at the Congress’ expense, not the BJP’s. Until three decades ago the Congress was a hegemonic presence across India, and the regional parties combined happily with the BJP and its earlier Jan Sangh to oust the Congress from its perch, despite the saffron party’s Hindutva credo.

Basically, this means if the Congress does well in states where the local parties are entrenched, it will be at the expense of the regional party. The regional parties are likely to be as wary of the Congress as of the BJP, no matter what they say. The DMK in Tamil Nadu is somewhat of an exception, and it’s no surprise it had given the BJY and Rahul Gandhi an enthusiastic response.

The current outlook of the “secular” Opposition parties, whose influence is largely confined to their respective states, is perhaps best exemplified by the recent remarks of Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, though many regional leaders have also lately amplified on the charms of Opposition unity in one form or another.

Mr Kumar noted the BJY had been “quite successful” but it was time for the Congress to take “appropriate decisions”, and if these were taken the BJP’s tally in the 2024 Lok Sabha election could be driven down to less than 100.

The Congress’ 85th plenary session in Raipur under its new president Mallikarjun Kharge was just days away when the Bihar CM spoke. We now have the Congress’ response from Raipur: that the party will work for the unity of secular forces just as it had done to bring about the Congress-led UPA secular government in 2004-14 (that had important positive contributions to its name, which have almost wholly been lost now, including the average rate of growth of around seven per cent per annum in a 10-year period -- a record for a country with a democratic form of government).

The meaning is clear enough. The Congress is in no mood to cede the leadership of any anti-BJP government to a regional party, though that may well be the aspiration of leaders of several “secular” parties, not excluding Mr Kumar. It’s also reasonably certain that no leader of a regional party can be Prime Minister without the backing of either the BJP or the Congress.

All this is on paper, of course. It has to be clearly understood that it is irrelevant for any party to declare that it will be the leader of one or another front. Leadership has to be earned. That is the lesson to be taken from the experience of parties in the inter-war period in Europe when the fight was fiercest against fascism, with fascism winning. The anti-fascist parties bickered.

It was not understood that only that party can be leader which works the hardest in shaping a popular front or a united front. The situation at present is indeed dire, and the following quotation from George Orwell’s famous book 1984 serves to illuminate the situation: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute….”

Some regional parties are fighting the BJP politically. The Congress’ combat is ideological and simultaneously political. That is the difference, and the BJP understands this only too well and will fashion strategies accordingly to win over the less sturdy on the secular side.

For the Congress to signal seriousness of enterprise, it must prepare a concrete blueprint of action on the ideological, political, social and economic fronts. It is not enough to make declaratory statements or emotive appeals, as during the BJY or at the Raipur plenary. It can work wonders to lead by example.

If the Congress can actually implement some ideas of its action blueprint in the three states that it governs, the results will carry conviction with ordinary Indians. If the key Opposition party can announce that it will endeavour to have a dalit Prime Minister, the hopes of many sections of the hard-working but deprived people can be ignited. It is not so much the unity of parties as the unity of various forces in society that will eventually matter. Hard campaigns and struggles to keep hopes alive will be the key.