India’s opposition unity a work in progress
Politics has a strange way of repeating itself in some ways. India's national capital New Delhi hosted a flurry of activities by the opposition parties from July 26-28 with an array of their leaders meeting each other, strategizing how to put up a united front against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party in the next general elections due less than three years down the line.
At the heart of the opposition show was undoubtedly West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who has positioned herself as the pivot for possible opposition unity. She met Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal among others in Delhi. In many ways, the events were a throw-back to the months in the run up to the last parliamentary polls in 2019 when the BJP returned to power for a second successive tenure despite hectic efforts by the opposition to come together. But three years is a long time in Indian politics.
Certain things have definitely changed now from what it was the last time around. The most striking change is that unlike in 2018 and 2019, the BJP today finds itself having to battle against an increasingly combative opposition on the issues of the Pegasus spyware controversy and handling of the Covid-19 situation. By contrast, the search for a concrete framework and basis of opposition unity still remains a work in progress.
Unlike 2018-19, Mamata has a higher national profile this time especially after her party Trinamool Congress' landslide victory in Bengal assembly elections in 2021. In a bid to amplify that profile this time, Mamata presaged her visit to Delhi with two key decisions: (1) she was chosen as the chairman of the party's parliamentary group, even though she is neither a member of parliament or the state assembly; (2) she was the first off the bloc to appoint a commission of inquiry into the Pegasus row even as the Indian government has maintained silence on the need for a probe. The Mamata government's setting up the inquiry commission is apparently aimed at forcing the hands of the Indian government in ordering a probe. So, there is an element of politics in her action. The BJP has been dismissive of Mamata becoming the TMC parliamentary party chairman and some have even accused her of resorting to political gimmick. Mamata had during the Left Front rule in Bengal complained of her phone being tapped. In fact, it has been pointed out that on assuming power in 2011, her government had set up a committee to probe phone-tapping but the report of that committee is still to be made public.
Coming back to the proposed opposition unity, Mamata, during her Delhi sojourn, made some important remarks that could be considered pointers to a roadmap: (1) such unity would happen "automatically"; (2) she invited some powerful regional parties like Biju Janata Dal and YSR Congress Party, which rule Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states, to join the proposed opposition front even as the two parties are known to be friendly to the BJP at the national level; and (3) six months are enough to firm up opposition unity. But she skirted the most ticklish issue: who would be the opposition's face against Modi? Her reply to the question by journalists in Delhi was "I am not a political astrologer."
Mamata also made it clear that the 2024 general elections would be a Modi-versus-the-rest affair. The opposition lacked a united face to take on Modi in 2019 and the result was there for all to see. Dislike for Modi or the BJP may not be a sufficient glue for anti-BJP forces to unite. A common minimum programme for the opposition is another major challenge as the anti-BJP regional parties do not have a common agenda and have different political compulsions in their respective states.
Many political commentators and opposition parties have hailed Mamata's victory in Bengal assembly poll as a big momentum builder towards opposition unity. But the rest of India is not Bengal. The TMC has no presence outside Bengal. Besides, people vote differently in Lok Sabha and state assembly elections, a message driven home to the opposition in 2019 general elections and to the BJP in this year's assembly poll in Bengal. The BJP may have won two consecutive Lok Sabha polls, but it has not yet threatened the turf of any regional party in state-level elections.
The TMC is not the first party to defeat the BJP in a state poll. The Congress had done it in 2018 in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in results that were then seen as a big boost to the party ahead of the 2019 parliamentary poll. But it did not work out that way. It was Modi who had helmed the BJP charge in those three states in 2018. The difference in Bengal in 2021 and the three states was that the BJP had put in all its might and Modi had campaigned more vigorously for the simple reason that it was aspiring for power in a state it never won before unlike in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh which the saffron party has ruled many times in the past and where it has an entrenched organisational apparatus. Secondly, the Bengal assembly poll results burst the unprecedented and false hype the BJP had created about its prospects, something which was evident to dispassionate political analysts.
However, the TMC's strategy in Bengal assembly elections this year has two important lessons which other regional parties can have a look at: one is to flag a state-specific sub-nationalism based on language like Bengali sub-nationalism and the second is to shun grandiose announcements of industrialisation and instead fill the election manifesto with promises of low-hanging fruits in sectors like health and education, state-level job and cash dole-outs that touch the day-to-day life of the masses.
One much talked-about fall-out of Mamata's presence in Delhi recently is that it appeared to have prodded Rahul Gandhi into an outreach exercise with other opposition parties, a job he has left to other leaders of the Congress till then. On the first two days when Mamata's meeting with other opposition parties in Delhi hogged the media focus, Rahul attended two separate gatherings of opposition outfits for coordination in parliament to corner the Modi government on the issues of Pegasus and contentious farm laws. Not wanting to be seen as lagging behind Mamata in uniting the opposition, the Congress made it a point to publicise to the media Rahul's two meetings with the opposition parties. A perception of one-upmanship between the TMC and the Congress was inescapable. Interestingly, the TMC did not attend the two meetings Rahul had with the opposition parties.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.