#MainBhiPM: The Opposition’s problem of plenty

Last Updated 16 April 2019, 11:51 IST

A problem of plenty ails India’s Opposition. Efforts to forge a grand national-level alliance have failed to take off despite there being all-round agreement about the primary goal: Foiling an aggressive Narendra Modi re-election bid.

A surfeit of claimants from Mamata Banerjee to Mayawati to Chandrababu Naidu, each reportedly nursing prime ministerial ambitions of their own, makes the question of leadership in the Opposition look undecided. It projects the front – if it can be called that – as weak and undecided, compared to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, with its ‘we have a strong leader in Modi’ pitch.

Therefore, when the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati tweeted on March 20, 2019 that she was not an MLA or MLC when she became chief minister for the first time in 1995 – explaining her decision not to contest the upcoming Lok Sabha polls – it once again spotlighted the biggest problem in the Opposition ranks.

Not surprisingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has repeatedly taken to asking who is the Opposition PM candidate – a question that seems to hang like the proverbial Damocles’ sword over the efforts to push Modi and the BJP back.

For example, when Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee organized a united Opposition rally in Kolkata in January 2019, the BJP had mocked the stellar gathering on the stage saying all of them had ambitions of becoming prime minister. “Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and some regional players, all have ambitions to become prime minister,” Union Law Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said. Many others have followed suit, not least of them the PM, who has dubbed the supposed ‘mahagathbandhan’ (grand alliance) a “mahamilavat” (grand confusion).

Interestingly, while the Congress has tried to evade a direct reply to the question of who will be PM if the Opposition wins, regional parties have unabashedly batted for their leaders. This implies regional parties are unwilling to accept Congress President, Rahul Gandhi, as the Opposition’s joint PM candidate.

Barring the Dravida Munntera Kazhagam (MK Stalin) and some supportive noises from the Janata Dal (Secular) (HD Deve Gowda), no other regional party has backed the idea of Gandhi as the PM candidate. This is so even though the Congress, which touched its lowest-ever tally of 44 seats in 2014, is still the single largest party in Parliament after the BJP.

However, it needs elbow room as it tries to forge alliances with regional parties in different states on the common plank of defeating Modi and can ill afford giving the impression that it is the natural contender for the PM’s post.

The regional parties are all well aware of this predilection. In 2018, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad’s son, Tejashwi Yadav, said Gandhi is not the only leader from the Opposition in the race for the PM’s post. He had named leaders like Banerjee, Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu, Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Sharad Pawar and Mayawati and made it clear that the RJD will support anyone named as the united Opposition’s PM candidate.

In January 2019, UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav gave a vague answer when queried about the PM issue: “As far as the leadership issue is concerned, it is actually the people who decide will see, in time to come, how many choices we have.”

In UP, slogans of ‘Akhilesh for PM’ by his supporters in the Samajwadi Party are not a new thing. In West Bengal, Banerjee is routinely projected by TMC leaders as the main challenger to Modi, and BJP's “divisive politics”. Banerjee, whose party could emerge as the third largest after the Congress and the BJP in 2019, may be said to have more reasons to nurse this ambition than others.

But, Mayawati has signalled she is not going to be left behind. “...(There) is provision at the Centre where a person have to be a LS/RS member within 6 months of holding office of minister/PM. Don't disheartened from my decision not to contest LS poll now,(sic)” Mayawati tweeted, seeking to lift the morale of her supporters, who, the party felt, did not like the announcement of her not contesting the Lok Sabha polls. In the press conference where she announced her decision not to contest, Mayawati explained she wanted to ensure a larger victory for BSP and SP through massive campaigning, which would be difficult if her party workers were focussed on her own victory in one seat.

Championing Mayawati are leaders such as Andhra Pradesh’s Pawan Kalyan (Jana Sena) who has announced a tie-up with the BSP for the southern state. In the past, Haryana’s Indian National Lok Dal and JD (S) have also hailed Mayawati as a future PM.

In August 2018, Pawar – who has decided not to fight the 2019 polls – had said that former Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, Gowda and he, himself, were the three senior leaders who could unite the Opposition. Incidentally, he had described all the three as “leaders with no ambition to become Prime Minister.”

However, this did not quell the buzz that Gowda could be a PM face for 2019. The clamour around the names and numbers of the Opposition’s PM aspirants is only expected to grow as the election approaches. Perhaps even Pawar may not have ruled himself out entirely, given that he has nursed the desire to be PM for decades.

It’s clearly every woman and man for herself or himself in the Opposition camp. And BJP is determined to milk it.

(Published 23 March 2019, 11:50 IST)

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