A string of Assembly election victories, most notably in Bengal recently, has shown that the formidable Modi-Shah election machine is fallible, and has given the Opposition wind beneath its wings. Add to this a fear of persecution by central agencies, defections to the cash-rich ruling party, and in some cases, existential worries, the rationale for Opposition unity ahead of presidential elections in 2022 and Lok Sabha polls two years later is clear.
The first steps appear to have been taken. But several questions swirl: What shape will it take? Who will bring it together? It may work in some key states, but how will it dislodge the still-popular Modi from Delhi? What role will poll strategist Prashant Kishor play? And where does Congress, an embarrassing underperformer but still the only truly national party in its ranks, fit into the scheme of things?
This week, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who, many believe, could be a magnet to bring different parties together, held a meeting of political leaders and eminent persons from different walks of life, who called for the need of an "alternate vision" in the country and hit out at the current NDA dispensation.
Read more: Opposition alliance at national level incomplete without Congress: Sanjay Raut
The meeting was called under the banner of Rashtra Manch headed by former finance minister Yashwant Sinha, a known detractor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Prashant Kishor, who had finalised the electoral strategy of several Opposition chief ministers, met Pawar thrice in a fortnight, including a day before and a day after this meeting, setting the circles abuzz.
Political analyst Rasheed Kidwai admits "No one expected a regional front with its leaders and plans emerging out of this meeting" but insists the talks make one sit up and take notice because Pawar is the face of Opposition unity and Sinha is the vice president of TMC, which halted the Modi juggernaut in Bengal. "This is laying the road or testing the ground for larger Opposition unity before 2024 elections, and also working out things before 2022 Uttar Pradesh polls. Expectedly, the noise has begun around it," Kidwai says.
The first sign was visible when regional parties like the NCP (Maharashtra), RJD (Bihar), SP (UP) and JMM (Jharkhand) rallied behind TMC's Mamata Banerjee in Bengal polls this year, which she won for the third consecutive term.
Also read: Rashtra Manch and the Opposition: Need to chew the cud
The unity continued, with leaders projecting her as a challenger to Modi. Months after Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal backed Mamata over the row over transfer of three Bengal IPS officers, which he condemned as “Centre’s blatant interference”, Mamata backed him by slamming the Centre’s NCT Bill on Delhi.
But the question is, whether this bonhomie of regional parties will help them come up with a unanimous alternative to Modi in 2024.
No doubt, Pawar’s meeting with eight leaders has kickstarted the long-drawn-out process of realignment of forces in the Opposition backyard.
While Shiv Sena, in its mouthpiece ‘Saamna’, urged Rahul Gandhi to join hands with Pawar to take on the BJP and underlined the need to go beyond debates and discussion, Congress Working Committee (CWC) member Dinesh Gundu Rao backed it, saying, “It is necessary and I am sure there is a conversation happening already. I welcome whatever the Shiv Sena has said. It’s a good suggestion.”
This was the first time a senior leader from the main Opposition party indicated something is indeed cooking. While the AICC has so far steered clear of questions regarding the possible formation of a third front, this time, none in the party attacked or mocked the idea — something they have done in the past.
On Saturday, Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut made a clear assertion that work is on to bring all Opposition parties together at the national level, where the Congress has a key role. “The Congress will play an important role in the alliance. It will be a strong alternative to the present dispensation,” he said.
While none of the five Congress leaders who were invited to the June 22 meeting showed up, senior party leader and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath met Pawar separately.
After losing two consecutive general elections, the Congress has not been able to hold its pack together while the resurgent BJP has not spared any chance to poach potential leaders after 2019, including Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jitin Prasada.
According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), 42% of MLAs who defected between 2016 and 2020 belonged to the Congress. Most of them joined the BJP, including in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The near-rebellion by ‘G-23’ leaders also points to a growing desperation in the Congress camp. A third shot at power to the BJP could sound the death knell for the oldest party.
With challenges upfront, realisation is dawning on the Congress that it can’t ignore regional forces, which did a good job of trampling the BJP in states — be it Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi or Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. The Congress also owes to regional parties like DMK and RJD for its existence in states like Tamil Nadu and Bihar.
On the other hand, regional parties are also aware that without an anchor, Opposition unity will be a short-lived affair in both pre- and post-poll scenarios.
Bringing them together
While Yashwant Sinha and Sharad Pawar did not speak much and instead chose to listen, leaders of eight Opposition parties, including SP, RLD (both players in poll-bound UP), the Left, and eminent citizens like former MP Javed Akhtar minced no words in criticising the current dispensation. Some views that reverberated were: “The Congress should be the fulcrum of any Opposition unity attempt” and such attempts need to involve people and “not remain confined to documentary-writing or television debates”.
And here comes the role of Kishor to bring regional satraps (not always supportive of each other) and Congress to the negotiating table.
Though Kishor denied any grandiose plan, his meetings with Pawar assume significance given his role in scripting the poll campaigns of a number of chief ministers from the Opposition camp — Mamata Banerjee, M K Stalin, Captain Amarinder Singh, Arvind Kejriwal and Jaganmohan Reddy. It makes him a suitable candidate to evolve consensus over a face by negotiating through competing ambitions, something he had done between Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in 2015 Bihar polls. His proximity to Priyanka Gandhi could also come in handy here.
Pawar and Kishor are also credited with the seemingly impossible task of bringing the Shiv Sena and Congress — two poles of Maharashtra politics — together to form a government.
A common grudge that could set parties against the BJP is that the Centre is using its investigating agencies selectively against Opposition leaders. The NCP, in fact, slammed the BJP for using probe agencies to target political rivals.
“The Centre is sparing no chance to corner the Opposition. It is this adversity which will bring them together,” said a senior Opposition leader, who preferred anonymity.