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Posted at: May 26, 2018, 12:36 AM; last updated: May 26, 2018, 12:36 AM (IST)

The Bengaluru get-together

A rainbow of parties back in the game as combined opposition
The Bengaluru get-together
United they stand: It was easy to stitch up a united front, but can they keep it?

KV Prasad

This Wednesday’s show at Bengaluru created a great flutter in the Opposition camp, and understandably so. Mostly out-of-office netas from across the political spectrum clasped hands to indicate that the resetting of battle lines has begun against the BJP ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections.

Regional satrap Chandrababu Naidu, a past master in managing contradictions of coalition of the United Front variety, as well as national leader Sonia Gandhi, who wove a durable, decade-long tapestry of national, regional and marginal parties into a coalition, rubbed shoulders with colts like Akhilesh Yadav, Tejashwi Yadav and Rahul Gandhi. Together they conveyed an unambiguous message to the voters — a rainbow of parties is back in the game as a combined opposition.

Between today and Monday, the battleground for the new-found bonhomie will be on a minor test during bypolls in a few States — Maharashtra, Nagaland, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The BJP had held all the four Lok Sabha constituencies except in Nagaland, where its ally, Nagaland People’s Front, had a representative. Similarly, there are 10 bypolls to Assemblies of Bihar, Jharkhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Punjab, Uttarakhand, UP and West Bengal. There has been some adjustment/arrangement on a few seats raising hopes among the opposition ranks that they stand a chance to replicate the recent mid-March succcess of wresting seats from the BJP in Bihar and UP.

Irrespective of the outcome of the May 28 elections and the euphoria generated at Bengaluru, the situation on the ground is far more complex than it appears. In state after state, the regional parties will find it increasingly tough to find a common meeting ground with the Congress, both in terms of ideological compulsions as well as in terms of the dictates of realpolitik.

To begin with, in Andhra Pradesh the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is in power and after snapping ties with the BJP, is at a loose end. Many TDP supporters would have found images of Andhra CM Chandrababu Naidu cajoling Congress president Rahul Gandhi to come upfront on the stage in Bengaluru shocking and unsettling.

The TDP owes its rise to charismatic cinestar NT Rama Rao, who made political capital out of the slight to then AP Chief Minister T Anjaiah by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Since then, it has ingrained a pathological animosity with the Congress. It is unthinkable to the dyed-in-wool TDP fan that his party will even think of a tacit understanding/adjustment with the Congress. The thought militates them more so after the TDP painted the Congress under Sonia Gandhi as the villain in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections facilitating the division of Andhra Pradesh to create a separate state of Telangana.

In Karnataka, the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress surprised many and, in a way, emulated his grandmother Indira Gandhi by offering Charan Singh to form a government at the Centre in 1979, or his father Rajiv Gandhi who made overtures to Chandrasekhar to be the Prime Minister in 1990.

Rahul Gandhi and his team will find it extremely hard to concede ground in Karnataka to the JD (S) in the battle for the next Lok Sabha elections. Mayawati’s suggestion — a pre-poll alliance ahead of the May 12 elections would have effectively thwarted the BJP — was, at best, a statement with the benefit of hindsight. In neighbouring Kerala, the Congress and the CPI (M) are traditional opponents who lead respective fronts, while in Tamil Nadu, it is the regional Dravidian parties that matter and not the Congress.

In UP, Bihar and Jharkhand — the states with 134 seats in the Lok Sabha, slightly more than all southern states put together — political resistance to the BJP and allies will be mounted by the Samajwadi Party and the BSP (in UP), Rashtriya Janata Dal and JMM (in Bihar and Jharkhand). The Congress can, at best, hope to ride on their coattails.

In MP, the Congress papered over its internal factionalism to declare a concerted challenge to the three-term Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. However, its erstwhile partner in UP, Samajwadi Party has broadcast its intention to contest all the Assembly seats in elections later this year. In Rajasthan, the AAP and the CPI (M) may contest separately, a move that could split the anti-incumbency votes that would have accrued entirely to the Congress.

Barring Maharashtra, where the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party have had a workable understanding since 2004, the contradictions are starkly apparent, a factor that does provide solace to the BJP leadership under PM Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah.

The Bengaluru get-together of formations opposed to the BJP can be characterised as the opening gambit in what can turn out to be a series of opposition conclaves. AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who rubbed shoulders with other leaders in Bengaluru, offered to host a follow-up round in this series. There could be turmoil within Kejriwal’s party if Congress leaders, tarred as incorrigibly corrupt by AAP since its leaders spearheaded the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement, figure in the list of invitees.

Yet, it must be acknowledged that all leaders who shared the stage in Karnataka were, and are, acutely aware of each other’s contradictions, limitations and competing interests. The differences and divergence will remain huge and the prospect of a workable arrangement ahead of the 2019 elections remains a very tall order. But in politics, there are only permanent interests.

Veteran Marxist Harkishan Singh Surjeet was the alchemist of the 1996 coalition and now his successor and CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury is emerging as the pivot attempting to bring about a working arrangement of various parties that can pose a serious challenge to the BJP in the next general election. Yechury has his own set of problems within the party while outside he would have to work hard to nudge the Congress towards Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.

For the present, the sole, common interest of most of the leaders who assembled at Bengaluru is to stop PM Modi from winning a second term. That cannot be the sole criterion. Contours of an alternative narrative appear hazy while inherent contradictions of the parties opposed to the BJP are accentuated. The best-case scenario for the present appears to be the sage words of Comrade Surjeet who told Sonia Gandhi in early 2004 when she reached out for an understanding that the idea was unworkable. Instead, his formula was let each party contest wherever it is strong and maximise seats in the Lok Sabha. The rest can be decided later. The echo of it was heard from Comrade Yechury now. 

prasad@tribunemail.com

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