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Opposition Alliance

Can the challengers rise to the occasion to halt the BJP juggernaut in 2024?

Print edition : Jun 14, 2022 T+T-

Can the challengers rise to the occasion to halt the BJP juggernaut in 2024?

Opposition leaders at a mega rally called Brigade Samavesh organised by Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata in January 2019.

Opposition leaders at a mega rally called Brigade Samavesh organised by Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata in January 2019. | Photo Credit: PTI

Several powerful regional leaders have started talking in the same tongue about the Centre’s attacks on federalism and the strident communal agenda. Can they build a credible front in time to halt the BJP juggernaut in 2024?

With the announcement of the presidential election—to be held on July 18—and the conclusion of elections to the Rajya Sabha seats from a number of States in the second week of June, the bugle has been sounded for the 2024 general election for all practical purposes. Developments and manoeuvres in different parts of the country and in constitutional and other institutions, on issues not directly linked to larger politics, are also part of the initiatives in the run-up to 2024.

Cumulatively, these developments once again underscore the three broad trends that have manifested themselves in the political and electoral processes in India since the 2014 Lok Sabha election, during what a number of political analysts call the “Narendra Modi era”.

The first trend, of course, is the domination of the Modi-led ruling BJP. The second is the resistance put up by a clutch of regional political forces in various parts of the country, employing several strategies, to challenge the BJP juggernaut that has made its way through all segments of the political, social, administrative, and institutional systems.

The third trend, again a recurring phenomenon over the last eight years, is the free fall of the Congress.

Rajya Sabha elections

The latest development to showcase these trends was the Rajya Sabha elections in different States. While 41 Rajya Sabha members from 11 States, including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Bihar, were elected unopposed, there were keen contests in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Haryana, and Karnataka, where the Congress was one of the challengers. In all States barring Rajasthan, the BJP scored over the Congress and regional forces such as the Shiv Sena and the Janata Dal (Secular) by effectively combining political manoeuvres and money power.

In Rajasthan, the Congress led by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot held on to its MLAs and made sure that none of them succumbed to the blandishments of the BJP and its corporate allies.

The BJP fielded media baron Subhash Chandra as an independent, with an open challenge to the Congress to prevent cross-voting of its MLAs. However, this did not happen and all the Congress candidates sailed through. Despite this, the overall performance of the Congress was below par and there is little doubt that it suffered the biggest losses.

For instance, it even failed to ensure the victory of Ajay Maken, one of its senior national level leaders, in Haryana. The embarrassment was all the more stark because the party had initially tweeted, even as counting carried on past midnight, that Maken had won. It was compelled to delete the tweet when BJP-backed media baron Kartikeya Sharma emerged the winner during recounting. However, regional forces that are the ruling in certain States, such as the DMK) in Tamil Nadu and the TRS in Telangana, played their cards well to ensure that there was no reduction in the number of members they could send to the Rajya Sabha. Similarly, the principal opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the SP and the RJD respectively, also made sure that they did not lose out on the number of seats they could get from their States.

SP sails through

In Uttar Pradesh, the SP neutralised all predictions about the collapse of its alliance with the RLD by fielding RLD chief Jayant Choudhary as one of the candidates of its alliance, and went beyond to break new political ground by fielding former Congress veteran Kapil Sibal as an independent.

Sibal sailed through unopposed and announced that free from the organisational restrictions of the Congress, he would strive to work for the unity of all political and social forces opposed to the BJP, the RSS, and the broader Sangh Parivar.

Diverse sources close to the leadership of the SP and a number of other parties said that Sibal’s incorporation into the Rajya Sabha panel from Uttar Pradesh was not accidental. They were of the view that his elevation could develop into a larger plan to form a national opposition platform dominated by regional forces.

All the sources stressed that although a concrete action plan was yet to be finalised, several regional forces had held a series of talks under the leadership of Sharad Pawar, the NCP veteran.

Larger plan

Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK leader M.K. Stalin, and Telangana’s Chief Minister and TRS leader K. Chandrashekar Rao were reportedly part of these talks.

Besides, leaders of principal opposition parties such as the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav and the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav are party to these dialogues. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena and the NCP are already part of the ruling alliance in the State. Pawar has also initiated talks with the Left, bringing on board Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and his CPI counterpart D. Raja.

By all indications, the dialogues are not aimed at evolving a unified national-level opposition with a singular strategy and plan but at building strong anti-BJP social and political movements at the regional level taking the unique characteristics of each region and State into consideration.

A senior NCP activist privy to the content and context of the dialogues told Frontline that while the DMK is comfortable with an alliance comprising both the Congress and the Left parties, the SP may not be amenable to be part of a coalition with the Congress in it. Similarly, the Left parties and the Congress cannot come together in Kerala as they are the principal rivals in that State.

Still, the NCP leader said, the dialogues had broadly identified several thematic points that the parties involved collectively and individually at different levels would raise. Of course, the central theme will revolve around the fight against Hindutva communalism and the state of the economy, with a special focus on rising prices and rampant unemployment.

Another area of focus will be the steady targeting of constitutional institutions, including the judiciary, by BJP regimes at the Centre and in the States. The campaign themes will also include the Centre’s various attacks on the principles of federalism, including its deployment of Governors as political adversaries to opposition-led State governments.

The opposition governments in the southern, western and eastern parts of the country as well as other parties there will also take up the Union government’s attempts to impose the Hindi language across the country.

Already, opposition State governments in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, and Kerala, have raised several points related to attacks on the principles of federalism, including denial of rightful economic allocations to the States and inappropriate interventions by Governors.

Judicial intervention

One of the most striking interventions on the issue of federalism was made when the action of Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi was brought to the Supreme Court’s notice. The Court noted that his action in the Perarivalan case was constitutionally unviable. (Governor Ravi had unilaterally referred the State Cabinet’s advice to the President regarding remitting the sentence of A.G. Perarivalan, one of those sentenced in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.)

Giving its prima facie view, an apex court bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and B.R. Gavai said that the Tamil Nadu Governor’s decision to referPerarivalan's remission plea to the President, especially when the Tamil Nadu Cabinet had already sent in its recommendation, would set a bad precedent and strike at the heart of the federal structure envisaged by the Constitution.

“This sets out a bad precedent. This strikes at the federal structure of the country. You cannot just say that if he cannot decide he will send it to the President. Too far-fetched,” the court orally remarked during the hearing.

Perarivalan had submitted the plea to the Governor on September 6, 2018. The court said: “After keeping the application pending for more than three years, now it appears from the affidavit filed by the Ministry of Home Affairs that the Governor has referred the plea to the President on the ground that the latter is the competent authority to decide the remission application.”

The Supreme Court's critical remarks about the Governor’s conduct assumed greater relevance in the background of several issues that have come up between him and the State government. These include a Tamil Nadu government Bill seeking exemption from NEET for admission to undergraduate medical courses and the Governor’s steady opposition to such an enactment.

Uddhav Thackeray, Mamata Banerjee and K. Chandrashekar Rao have also taken up similar issues from time to time. Drawing a distinction between the Shiv Sena’s idea of Hindutva and the one propagated by the Sangh Parivar, Uddhav said on a public platform that the vision of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray was not one of imposing Hindi. K. Chandrashekar Rao has time and again highlighted the injustices and inadequacies ingrained in the overall policy framework and implementation mechanisms followed by the Union government, especially in relation to the farming communities. Mamata Banerjee too has repeatedly highlighted several actions of the Governor as administrative misdemeanours that grossly violate the Constitution and federal principles.

Political analysts in Delhi view this opposition collective as a grouping with promise. However, there is also the view that this grouping is yet to make a decisive strike at the BJP or the BJP-led NDA government, either at the policy framework level or in terms of political action.

Umesh Gupta, a Varanasi-based former corporate executive who is now a political analyst, told Frontline that this has been the general inability of opposition parties today, especially the principal opposition Congress.

He said: “It is said that the universally accepted role of the opposition in all parts of the world is to expose, unravel and overthrow the establishment. I am talking in terms of the need for the opposition to deliver the knockout blow whether in a given situation or in terms of the larger political picture. There have been junctures in which the BJP regime lost face and was forced to climb down from its high-handed and sectarian positions. But these junctures were created not by the opposition parties but by players, institutions, and organisations that are not exactly part of the political framework. A case in point is the year-long farmers’ agitation that forced the Modi government to withdraw the controversial farm laws. Barring the Left parties, who do not matter much in terms of electoral clout, the opposition as a whole did not play an active role in this agitation.”

He added: “The latest sucker punch has come from the Arab countries, who forced the BJP to take action against its spokespersons who insulted Prophet Muhammad. The fear of losing precious oil forced Modi to take action against spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, but was the opposition able to highlight this fear in the government and expose the hollowness of the government’s actions? Or, why it took more than a week for the government to take note of the spokespersons’ wrongdoings?”

Responding to Umesh Gupta’s observations, SP leader Akhilesh Yadav admitted that the opposition as a whole needs to chalk out more pointed and aggressive action plans against the government.

He said: “We are working on it. Barely 10 days before the BJP spokespersons’ utterances, Narendra Modi described his government’s eight years in power as a tenure that did not allow Indians to hang their heads in shame. But his own party’s spokespersons have forced all Indians to hang their heads in shame and offer a public apology.”

He added: “Equally important are the economic and political implications of such misadventures. The Arab countries not only bring in trade and employment worth $87 billion but also give the country a sort of political legitimacy through their steadfast friendship and goodwill. The jeopardisation of such goodwill too would be an area of focus for the opposition in the days to come.”

Evidently, the regional forces are working to develop a platform as well as a concrete action plan. But the big question, as always, is, how widely will it be implemented and how effective will it be on the ground?