Pavan Varma | Opp. needs a pivot, but Congress a spent force

The Asian Age.  | Pavan K Varma

Opinion, Columnists

Nitish Kumar and Sharad Pawar are right when they say that no Opposition front is possible without the Congress

Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge with BRS MP K. Keshava Rao, DMK MP TR Baalu, AAP MP Sanjay Singh, RJD MP Manoj Jha and fellow opposition MPs during a joint press conference following their 'Tiranga March', in New Delhi, Thursday, April 6, 2023. (Photo: PTI)

I am going to start this column with the immortal lines of Gopal Das Neeraj: “Neend bhi khuli na thi ke hai dhup dhal gai, paanv jab tak utthe ki zindagi phisal gai, aur ham khade khade bahaar dekhte rahe, kaarvan guzar gaya gubaar dekhte rah: Before we could awaken, alas, the sun had set, life had slipped away by the time we took the step, and we stood unmoving, hoping for the spring, the caravan passed away in the dust of our dreams.” Nothing better sums up the recent efforts by Nitish Kumar to unite the Opposition when only ten months are left for the next general elections.

Nitish Kumar, who has a good equation with all Opposition leaders, is well-intentioned and I wish him success. When I resigned from the foreign service in 2012 to join him, he was the undisputed and most popular leader in Bihar; his administrative acumen was lauded; his impeccable personal integrity praiseworthy. He certainly had the potential then to become the fulcrum of the Opposition, and even aim to be Prime Minister. Even when he was reduced to just two seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections, his political promise was not dented. But since then, much water has flown down the Ganga. Today, his belated efforts are likely to be less a matter of hope and more a saga of wasted opportunity.

What were he and other Opposition leaders doing for the last nine years since the BJP came to power with an absolute majority in 2014? The BJP came back with even a bigger mandate in 2019, but even then, none in the Opposition woke up to seriously come together on a pan-India basis in a credible and cohesive way. The word credible is important. There is little to be gained by periodic photo-ops where all the Opposition leaders gather and demonstrate their solidarity, and then go their unilateral ways. Occasional meetings between some Opposition leaders — such as those initiated by Nitish Kumar — also serve little purpose. Genuine Opposition unity must be organic, not arithmetical, which means a joint narrative or at least a Common Minimum Programme, a consensus leader, a pan-Indian outreach, organisational coordination, grassroots networking, the trimming of individual egos, and ultimately, the resolve to prevent division of votes by fielding one Opposition candidate in each constituency against the BJP. Is the Opposition anywhere near achieving this goal?

The second point is that all political fronts require a central fulcrum.  In the case of the NDA, it was the BJP, and in case of the UPA, it was the Congress. Nitish Kumar and Sharad Pawar are right when they say that no Opposition front is possible without the Congress. But is the Congress willing to play this role, and more importantly, does it have the strength to do so? 

The Congress is a shadow of what it used to be. Notwithstanding the Bharat Jodo Yatra, it has sorely neglected its organisational strength, and even in the three states — Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Himachal — where it is in power, is riven by internal dissensions or is precariously perched.   Moreover, the Congress is unwilling to accept its diminished capabilities and accept the primacy of stronger Opposition parties at the regional level. In West Bengal it opposes Mamata’s Trinamul Congress; in Telangana, it is fighting the BRS; in Delhi and Punjab, it attacks the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP); in UP, it considers Akhilesh Yadav a rival; and, in Kerala, it is ranged against the CPI(M). If the Congress is no more in a position to significantly add to the strength of Opposition parties, but is adamant on further dividing their support base, is it any wonder that Arvind Kejriwal or KCR have unilaterally announced their own “national” ambitions, Mamata Banerjee has publicly said that she prefers that each party should fight on its own in its specific area of strength, and Akhilesh Yadav considers Congress a liability even if the grand old party should want to become an ally.

The Congress also is in a bind. If the policy of one candidate against the BJP is actually implemented in favour of stronger parties at the regional level, the Congress will be largely limited to fighting elections only in 10 states, mostly in the north of India, and Karnataka. In these states, with a total of some 150 seats, it will be pitted directly against the BJP, whose previous strike rate against the Congress is 96 per cent.  In other words, the weakness of the Congress, is the strength of the BJP, so how can a depleted Congress become the pivot of Opposition unity? 

Furthermore, there is a fundamental difference between Assembly and parliamentary elections. In the former, voters vote largely on local issues; in the latter, they vote for the party that has the best chance of forming a stable government at the Centre. Times have changed since 1977 and 1989, when a transparently unstable coalition could come to power, and there is little purpose in citing these as precedents today. Now, as the last two elections have shown, in parliamentary elections, the voter is unlikely to choose a divided khichdi of parties against the BJP monolith, which has — whether you like them or not — a strong leader, a narrative (Hindutva, hyper-nationalism, and verifiable success in grassroot welfarism) and a motivated and organised cadre.

The tragedy is that, over nine years, instead of fighting amongst itself, Opposition parties could have, in spite of their internal differences, achieved a viable unity, building on the legitimate discontents of the people, such as inflation, unemployment, inequality, social disharmony and the curtailment of dissent and democracy.  But this was not done, and what is being attempted now is certainly too little too late.  Let me end then by the iconic lines of lyricist Prem Dhawan in the film Ek Saal:  “Sab kuch luta ke hosh mein aaye tau kya kiya, din me agar chirag jalaye tau kya kiya: Waking up after all is lost is to no avail, lighting a lamp when the day has already dawned is to no avail.”


The writer is an author, diplomat and former member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha)