A united opposition

Stunning blowback

Print edition : June 08, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah during the BJP’s election committee meeting at the party headquarters in New Delhi on April 4. Photo: PTI

Congress president Rahul Gandhi addressing a news conference on May 19 after B.S. Yeddyurappa’s resignation, in New Delhi. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Members of Parliament (from left) Ashok Gehlot and Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress and H.N. Ananth Kumar and D.V. Sadananda Gowda of the BJP were present during the Assembly session in Karnataka on May 19. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

The BJP’s fiasco in Karnataka has not only diminished some of the aura around Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, but also shown up the opposition to be capable of standing together to resist subversion of democracy.

Right from early March, discussions within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associate organisations within the larger Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) have been marked by awkward admissions that the party’s political and electoral fortunes are increasingly resembling a roller-coaster ride marked by extreme highs and lows. The victory in Tripura and the party’s ability to form governments in the north-eastern States contrasted with the dramatic defeats in the byelections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh and in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. However, a significant number of Sangh Parivar insiders aver that there is now no doubt about the lowest point in the downward spiral of the party’s electoral fortunes: the moment B.S. Yeddyurappa announced his resignation in the Karnataka Assembly on May 19 instead of facing a floor test.

Not a Vajpayee moment

A senior RSS activist based at Lucknow was angry and sarcastic as he spoke of it. The moment of resignation, he said, was a pathetic and ludicrous spectacle and a feeble attempt to inject a semblance of respectability to an abject political failure. “Ardent supporters of Yeddyurappa and BJP president Amit Shah, who was evidently the manager of the post-results operations aimed at garnering a majority in the Assembly, continue to depict the moment of Yeddyurappa’s resignation as a sort of replica of Vajpayee’s resignation in 1996, when the former Prime Minister stepped down after 13 days in office at the Centre. But Vajpayee ji carried the day with much more dignity and political finesse. He lost but lost straight without exposing the party leadership and the entire organisation as political apparatuses that can stoop to any level to remain in power. There can be no comparison with that moment of resignation 22 years ago. Yeddyurappa’s resignation highlights an all-round failure encompassing every single segment of political activity, including the much-touted organisational dynamism and realpolitik, Chanakya Neeti, under Amit Shah’s leadership. Make no mistake, this reversal is not just about trying to win back Karnataka after making all kinds of compromises, including with people we had thrown out for corruption, but one that signifies a massive damage to organisational leadership at the national level as well the political and moral authority that the leadership should command.”

This activist and many other Sangh Parivar insiders are of the view that this collapse of authority in the BJP leadership is in direct contrast to the vibrancy, dynamism, and sense of unity and purpose that the Karnataka developments have injected into the opposition leadership, especially the Congress, which was hitherto perceived as pursuing a not-so-clear line on opposition unity. The manner in which former Congress president Sonia Gandhi interpreted the Karnataka mandate and reached out to the Janata Dal (Secular) and offered the Chief Minister’s position to H.D. Kumaraswamy turned out to be a master stroke and was able to strengthen opposition unity and widen its scope.

The manner in which events turned out, leading to Yeddyurappa’s resignation, has the makings of a further cementing of opposition forces against the BJP. There were widespread consultations among opposition leaders—especially Sonia Gandhi, H.D. Deve Gowda , Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) president N. Chandrababu Naidu—in planning and executing the various moves in the days following the BJP’s staking of its claim to power. These moves included the symbolic act of demanding that Governors in Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya and Bihar should now consider inviting the single largest party (the Congress in the first three States and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar) to form the government, going by what was done in Karnataka. The opposition also got its act together in moving the petitions in the judiciary at critical junctures.

Ripple effect

Expounding on this growing opposition unity, Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmad pointed out that there would be a ripple effect once the message went out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not invincible. According to him, the electronic media, which are completely blind to any other reality at the moment because their owners, mostly big business houses, are afraid of the government, will eventually be forced to show how the Modi magic is nothing but a big bubble which is now bursting. The Karnataka election fallout is also perceived to have produced a political effect favourable to the opposition. Senior Congress leaders said that the BJP’s blooper in Karnataka had exposed the party to be lusting for power without any regard for constitutional propriety and political morality, something that they could not earlier persuade the people to believe, no matter how hard they tried. “What Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya could not achieve together, Karnataka has done in a single stroke,” said one of them. These leaders were also happy that the drama in Karnataka had galvanised Congress workers across India. “The way people are coming out in the open is good for us. It has been one of our big headaches that our workers are not combative enough, are not often out in the streets and are not very vocal. But all that has changed, thanks to Karnataka,” one of them said.

Throwback to NTR movement

Speaking to Frontline, Sitaram Yechury pointed out that the “Karnataka saga” had brought about an assertion of the country’s democratic values and traditions. “The devious and mala fide game plan of the BJP, moved at the highest levels of its party organisation, had the hallmark of fascist machinations written all over it. The resistance to this was put up at different levels, not only among the people and in the political realm, but also at the level of the judiciary. All this evoked varying degrees of response that ultimately contributed to the final outcome. But at its core, the movement to assert the democratic rights of Karnataka as symbolised in the parliamentary supremacy of the anti-BJP alliance was one that had striking similarities to the ‘NTR dharma yuddham’ [war for justice] of 1984,” he said.

N.T. Rama Rao had gone abroad for treatment when his TDP government in the then undivided Andhra Pradesh was ousted through the machinations of the then Congress-led Union government, which engineered defections from the TDP. Just as in Yeddyurappa’s case, the Governor of Andhra Pradesh played ball and swore in Nadendla Bhaskara Rao, the leader of the TDP defectors, as Chief Minister. NTR began his “dharma yuddham” after returning to the country, and the movement for restoring democracy and safeguarding the Constitution soon created ripples across the country. A total of 17 opposition parties, including the Janata Dal, the CPI(M) and the CPI, came together in solidarity with NTR and the TDP. Even the BJP supported the TDP’s cause. These parties staged joint opposition protests in Delhi and across India. The mass agitation and the strength of the united opposition drove it home to the “defectors’ group” that they would not be able to rustle up a majority despite the Congress’ support. The Congress leadership sought to save face by snapping its support to the “TDP defectors”. The government was brought down, the Governor was called back and made to take the blame for the fiasco, and NTR was reinstated.

Yechury pointed out that the “dharma yuddham” had proved that the manipulations of an authoritarian political leadership seeking to undermine democratic institutions to fulfil a partisan and sectarian agenda could be resisted and defeated. “The Karnataka events were fast gaining these dimensions, and there was a readiness among opposition forces to launch similar nationwide movements,” Yechury said. Apparently, many opposition leaders, including Deve Gowda and Yechury himself, had started making preparations for a nationwide “save democracy” movement at different levels, but Yeddyurappa stepped down before this could happen.

Churning in the Parivar

This larger context apart, the political, ideological, ethical and organisational failures of the BJP in Karnataka are being debated avidly in all political organisations, including the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits. Four issues have been brought to the fore. First, the absolute collapse of the moral high ground that the BJP and its leaders, including Modi, have been trying repeatedly to take. Sangh Parivar insiders say that though the party had carried out questionable operations to seize power in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya, nowhere were these as blatant as in Karnataka, where the immoral nature of the operations was evident from the word go. Sangh Parivar insiders told Frontline that audio clips in which Yeddyurappa himself was heard bargaining with legislators had sunk the party to a despicable low. Second, the political sagacity of trying to assume power when the party clearly did not get a majority is also being questioned. It was too ambitious on the BJP’s part to imagine that it would be able to cover a gap of approximately 10 seats. There is a groundswell of opinion among Sangh Parivar outfits that such an ambitious goal was not worth pursuing. Third, the ideological compromises made in the process are being questioned by sections of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. All in all, many independent political observers point out that the sequence of events has completely exposed the BJP’s doublespeak. People can now see for themselves what the “party with a difference” is all about.

Ultimately, the so-called “organisational magic wand” of Amit Shah, which was touted as holding the solution to every problem, has been found wanting. “We have Amit Shah ji with us,” the BJP leader Ram Madhav had grandly declared while assuring legislators and the party rank and file in Karnataka that they need not worry about the formation of the government. That the project fell flat diminished some of the aura that Shah had apparently built up around himself.

A few Sangh Parivar insiders and a minuscule section of political observers feel that all this may result in some organisational tweaking by the RSS involving the clipping of the powers of the Amit Shah-led coterie which controls the BJP at present. In more concrete terms, pointed out the senior RSS activist from Lucknow, the Karnataka elections had brought down two more BJP seats in the Lok Sabha because both Yeddyurappa and B. Sriramulu had resigned as MPs to contest the Assembly elections. “This in turn has divested the BJP’s position of having a majority on its own, at least for the time being. More significantly, in the new political context, it is not clear whether we will be able win the two seats again,” he said. The senior leader sees possibilities of new political and organisational manoeuvres even within the BJP in this context. Indeed, as he says, May 2018 Karnataka has all the makings of a watershed space-time continuum in terms of the Indian polity.

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