Can hearts meet and hands hold in Indian opposition alliance?

The two biggest talking points about the mega rally of anti-Bharatiya Janata Parties organised by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata on January 19 were the overwhelming presence of top leaders of key regional parties and an unprecedented candid stocktaking of the hurdles they face in a joint fight against Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led party in the coming parliamentary elections. The rally was a high-point of Mamata's more than a year-long efforts to put together an anti-BJP front.

There are four other reasons why the rally of what has come to be called as mahagatbandhan (grand alliance) of opposition parties was significant: 1. it provided the outlines of the rainbow coalition; 2. it charted a roadmap for firming up a long-term unity; 3. it indicated the template of a campaign narrative; and 4. for forming state-specific alliances to ensure common candidates against the BJP instead of a pan-India tie-up. The leaders who spoke at the rally agreed to set up a committee to formulate a joint policy document keeping in mind the post-poll scenario.

The most noticeable feature of the rally was the presence of 23 regional parties and just one national party, the Congress. The influential regional parties which were not part of the rally are Biju Janata Dal, Telangana Rashtra Samiti, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham and YSR Congress which have never been part of this opposition alliance in the making. But the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was conspicuous by its absence despite its strident anti-BJP posture, reflecting the inherent difficulties between the party and Mamata-led Trinamool Congress in sharing a common platform. The CPI(M) is involved in a turf battle not only with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal but with the Congress in Kerala and Tripura states.

The numerical superiority of the regional parties at the rally was in sync with Mamata’s assessment and hope that these parties will play a decisive role in government-formation post poll. Many were reminded of the unstable coalition course of Indian politics in 1989-91 and then in 1996-98. On both the occasions, the coalition governments had collapsed much before their tenure. In fact, between 1989 and now, the successive coalition governments in India have been stable only when they were anchored and led by national parties: the Congress and the BJP.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi stayed away from the rally. That is not surprising given Mamata’s reservations about the leadership of an anti-BJP front by a leader much younger than her and with little experience as an administrator. That brings one to the question of the Congress party’s relations with the regional outfits most of which are political rivals of the Congress in the states. The Congress was kept out of the alliance firmed up by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party for Uttar Pradesh. SP chief Akhilesh Yadav and BSP supremo Mayawati chose to skip a dinner hosted by Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi in December last year. Mayawati and Mamata nurse national ambitions and are not comfortable with Rahul being projected as the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate.

However, Rahul was careful not to give any impression that the Congress was a hurdle to the anti-BJP front and so deputed senior party colleague Mallikarjun Kharge to Kolkata ignoring opposition from West Bengal unit of the Congress which is opposed to Mamata’s party in the state. The Congress is clearly working on a two-track strategy: working hard to emerge as the biggest party in the opposition space, especially after being buoyed by its recent victory in three Hindi heartland states and at the same time not foreclosing the options of securing the support of parties led by Mamata, Mayawati and Yadav in the event of a fractured electoral mandate. That is the reason the Congress shared the dais with the SP and the BSP leaders in Kolkata even after the snub by the two regional parties in Uttar Pradesh alliance.

It is in a way in the fitness of things that Kharge and the Congress’ ruling coalition leader in Karnataka and former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda highlighted some of the obstacles before the proposed anti-BJP front. The Kolkata rally skirted the issue of the anti-BJP coalition’s prime ministerial face knowing fully well it has the potential to wreck their unity given that Mamata and Mayawati reportedly have the ambitions for the post. That was why Mamata and some other regional leaders did not want the regional parties to be bogged down by the leadership issue at this juncture. But leaving the issue to be resolved later makes the anti-BJP front more vulnerable to the criticism of being a platform whose sole glue is opposition to Modi.

Toeing a line different from the regional parties leaders including Mamata, Deve Gowda stated that the opposition alliance should not give rise to perception of a rag-tag coalition united only by hatred for Modi. “People are ready to respond to our call for ousting the BJP from power. But people will ask who after Modi? We have to create a perception that we can provide a stable government. This is a task easier said than done,” Deve Gowda had told the rally. He knows it best for it was the coalition government headed by him as PM that had lasted just ten months before it fell after the Congress party pulled the rug. Kharge carried on from where Deve Gowda left. In fact, he was more blunt when he said “agar hamarey dill nahin milta hai to kam sey kam hum milakar chal saktey hain” (even if there is no meeting of hearts, we can at least walk hand in hand). This leaves the question unanswered: if hearts do not meet, can hands hold together?

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