Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | Opposition needs a credible face to counter Modi in 2024

The Asian Age.  | Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Opinion, Columnists

The next meeting in Shimla, on July 10 or 12, becomes important on the way forward to Opposition unity

West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee greets Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar during a joint press conference after opposition parties' meeting, in Patna, Friday, June 23, 2023. RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge are also seen. (PTI)

It would be useful to remember that Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United)’s old warhorse Nitish Kumar had taken the initiative to arrange for the meeting of the major Opposition parties opposed to the BJP and its leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It can be called a motley crowd because as yet there is no articulated strategy in place to fight the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. There has been a statement of general intent that the parties and leaders gathered in Bihar’s state capital would like to join hands for a common purpose. Many things need to be sorted out. In many ways it has been a low-key meeting with no grandiose statements. That has been the virtue of this first meeting and it carries the signature of Mr Kumar’s unassuming character and style. There were no sparks at the Patna political gathering. The next meeting in Shimla, on July 10 or 12, becomes important on the way forward to Opposition unity.

Apart from the aggressive voice of Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal, everyone else was busy pondering the issues and options. Some of the observers might even say the need of the hour is the aggression of the AAP, which has defeated the BJP in the Delhi Assembly elections twice, made a small mark in the Gujarat Assembly elections and swept Punjab. Mr Kejriwal has the instinct of an agitator who can amplify small and big issues as matters of life and death. He wanted the issue of the Delhi government’s control over the Union territory’s bureaucracy, that had been affirmed by the Supreme Court and nullified by the Narendra Modi government’s ordinance, to be one of the burning issues. Other leaders, except the Congress, agreed with him on the issue of the rights of the states and the imperiousness of the Centre, but they were not willing to make it the big issue that can become central in the political campaign. The Congress cold-shouldered it for its own strategic reasons.

Mr Kejriwal is not yet the big leader in the Opposition ranks that he would like to be because the AAP is still a small party holding power in Delhi and Punjab, with 20 Lok Sabha seats, and as Prashant Kishor, the marketing maestro of political campaigns, had shrewdly observed, the AAP has just two per cent of the national vote share, compared to 20 per cent of the Congress. This is indeed the Achilles’ heel of the Opposition parties — their differences in size and quality. The differences are vital because each of the parties like the JD(U), Trinamul Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and the Communist parties, have their own bases and identities and they are not willing to let go of them.

The Opposition needs to find a clear voice of its own which is pitted against that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and unless this is done the battle between the Opposition combine and the BJP looks quite uneven. There is no dominant voice and no dominant party in the Opposition because the Congress, with its pathetic 53 seats in the Lok Sabha, has become a part of the crowd of small parties with their respective parliamentary strengths like the DMK, TMC, and NCP. There has to be a face and a voice of the Opposition ensemble if it is to be a well-fought political battle.

The Congress wants Rahul Gandhi to be that face and voice and there is enough justification for it because the Congress is the party with a pan-Indian footprint. But there is a problem. After his defeats in the 2014 and 2019 electoral battles with Mr Modi, Mr. Gandhi is at a disadvantage. He has to be seen as a powerful counter-voice to put the fear of God as it were in the hearts of Mr Modi, the BJP and its RSS network. This issue of an Opposition leader is not necessarily that of who will be the Prime Minister. A dominant Opposition leader to cross swords with Mr Modi is what is needed in the heat of the battle. It is not necessary that the same person should be the Prime Minister.

And the Opposition parties have to face up to the Congress’ dilemma. The dilemma is not that of the Congress alone, but that of the Opposition parties. They need a party which can win more than 100 seats because the others can win only as many Lok Sabha seats as are available in their respective states -- like the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the TMC in West Bengal. The NCP manages to a win a seat or two in states other than Maharashtra. So, it falls on the Congress to pick up seats, or at least the votes, across the country, so that it can take up the position of the dominant party. It is the dominant party with a larger number of seats that has to serve as the nucleus of an Opposition alliance in the election.

Apart from Mr Gandhi, and the aspirational Mr Kejriwal who has not yet proved himself as a good national-level campaigner, there is Bihar’s deputy chief minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav waiting in the wings, who is articulate and a forceful voice who could serve as the dominant voice and face of the Opposition. The Opposition leaders cannot say that they will be a chorus against the solo voice of Mr Modi. The Opposition needs to find its own sopranist to counter the Prime Minister.

What is also needed from the Opposition is a national vision and voice of its own which counters that of the BJP/RSS and Mr Modi because in the election the Opposition will be facing the triple combination of Mr Modi, the BJP and the RSS. The nitty-gritty of seat arrangements can be sorted out by the backroom teams. And they can fight over who would be the Prime Minister once the results are out. Mr Modi’s bombast was a key factor in 2014 and 2019. The Opposition needs to counter that bombast with gritty rhetoric. A hard-hitting frontline campaigner should convey the many failures and the modest achievements of the Modi government and deflate its grandiose self-image.

India needs a change after 10 years of Prime Minister Modi, but it needs a strong and credible contestant to do that.