IN the past week, an issue that stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has become a test case for the Opposition in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. At the macro level, the problem that threatened to blow up in Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s face has become virtually every non-BJP party’s concern because it impinges on the rights and interests of a state government and looms as a threat to federalism.
The trigger was an ordinance promulgated by the Union government to nullify a ruling by a Supreme Court Constitutional Bench that handed over the reins of “services” to the Delhi government. The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Ordinance, 2023, created a National Capital Civil Services Authority, vested with the power to recommend the posting and transfer of all Group A officers and officers of the DANICS (Delhi, Andaman & Nicobar, Lakshadweep, Daman & Diu and Dadra & Nagar Haveli Civil Services) serving in Delhi. It gave more teeth to Delhi’s Lieutenant-Governor not only to arbitrate in the posting and transfer of officials and vigilance matters, but also bestowed sweeping powers on the Secretary of the Department to the Council of Ministers. In effect, the ordinance’s aim was to reduce the Delhi CM to a titular head by depriving him of control over the bureaucracy.
Kejriwal stated that he would challenge the ordinance in the apex court as well as rally the Opposition’s support to block the passage of the Bill to replace the ordinance in the Rajya Sabha, where the non-BJP entities have some kind of a level playing field to take on the ruling BJP/NDA.
Grouping the Opposition together before a General Election is an onerous task at the best of times, even if each entity is up against a powerful ruling party or coalition. There are turfs to be protected, egos to be nurtured and leadership claims to be contested. The swearing-in of Siddaramaiah in Karnataka last Saturday, just when the Centre had pushed Kejriwal into a corner, was billed as an occasion to demonstrate Opposition unity.
Doubtless, it brought the Congress’ allies and erstwhile partners together, but it did not achieve its intended purpose. The Congress pointedly excluded parties such as the AAP, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Bharat Rashtra Samithi, Bahujan Samaj Party and YSR Congress Party from the list of invitees, though the Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Lok Dal and Trinamool Congress (TMC) were invited. The Congress’s equation with the SP and TMC has been patchy. Expectedly, the SP and its partner, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, stayed away, while TMC president Mamata Banerjee did not depute even an A-lister in her place.
At that stage, it was not clear if Kejriwal’s plight would resonate with the polity.
However, a day after the Bengaluru show, Nitish Kumar, JD(U) leader and Bihar CM, reached out to Kejriwal, promising solidarity in his fight against the Centre along with Tejashwi Yadav, Deputy CM and RLD leader who is also chairperson of Bihar’s Mahagathbandhan.
Nitish’s gesture began churning the waters in the Opposition. After all, almost every regional party, not in consonance with the BJP, has perceptibly been at the receiving end of the Centre’s pressure tactics exerted on CMs and leaders through the office of the Governor or Central investigative agencies.
Nitish possibly glimpsed an opportunity to get these parties to rally around Kejriwal and take forward the endeavour of building a larger non-BJP coalition.
Where did the Congress fit into this exercise? To the Congress, Kejriwal was as much of an adversary as the BJP because he has dislodged the party from Delhi. After the Centre brought in the ordinance, a Delhi Congress leader issued a statement recalling how a former CM, the late Sheila Dikshit, had ‘learnt’ to work in unison with the L-G and the bureaucracy. This was not exactly music to Kejriwal’s ears.
Clearly, it won’t be easy for the Congress to reconcile its own advocacy of a strong Central government with the threat to federalism that is staring the non-BJP spectrum in the face. Amid speculation that it would eventually align with the AAP came a late-evening tweet from KC Venugopal, Congress general secretary, clarifying the party’s position. Venugopal stated that the Congress had not taken a decision and would consult its state units and “like-minded” parties before arriving at one.
The Congress is ruling a handful of states. Although the Karnataka victory was of an unanticipated scale, there are bridges to be crossed before the Congress can appropriate the position of an equal challenger to the BJP, which still views the defeat in Bengaluru as an ‘aberration’ and not a trendsetter. The Congress-ruled states are as vulnerable to the Centre’s pulls and pressures as those governed by regional parties. Karnataka will be high on the Centre’s radar and it will not pass up an opportunity to disconcert the Siddaramaiah government.
Notwithstanding Nitish’s backing, it would be a long haul before the Opposition regroups even in the Upper House to defeat the BJP’s proposed Bill. The Congress is ambivalent and two major regional forces, the BJD and the YSR Congress, which together have 18 MPs, have tilted towards the BJP in crunch situations in the past. The BJP is comfortably positioned as the single largest party with 93 MPs, with the assured support of Independents and nominated members, the AIADMK and the Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar) as well as a clutch of single-member parties from the North-East whose governments it supports in their respective states.
Besides, Nitish’s proactivism might raise the hackles of his competitors, notably Sharad Pawar, the Maharashtra veteran. While Kejriwal will have to hope against hope for help from the Opposition, the non-BJP forces themselves will have to sort out fundamental issues before getting their act together.
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