As Fresh Calls for Opposition Unity Emerge from Bihar, Will the Congress Join Forces?

The meeting convened by CPI (ML-Liberation) in Patna last week gave the elusive 'opposition unity' a new impetus. The key to building such a front to take on the BJP in the 2024 polls requires the Congress to make a climbdown.

New Delhi: “Opposition unity”, as elusive as it has been, received its latest impetus in Patna last week. Leaders from different political parties in the opposition, civil society activists and reputed individuals joined the call for a united opposition front ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, yet their comments made it pretty obvious that the possibility of such a front is on shaky ground. 

None of the leaders, including Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, his deputy Tejashwi Yadav, or Congress leader Salman Khurshid, differed in their take on the Narendra Modi government’s functioning that, according to them, has been authoritarian and veering towards fascism. The convention named “Save Constitution, Save Democracy, Save India” organised by the Communist Party of India (ML-Liberation) reflected such an understanding between the leaders. 

Also read: Opposition Unites on Adani Crisis, But Will it Bring in Votes?

Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the CPI (ML-Liberation) which is a part of the ruling alliance in Bihar, set the mood. “The agenda of this convention is very clear – if the Constitution and democracy are in danger, there is a need for a decisive struggle to save them from the fascist forces and we need a grand unity for that,” he emphasised, adding that the Bihar’s grand alliance comprising the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United), Congress and the Left parties could be the template for a national-level opposition front.

The importance of Congress to the puzzle

But it was Nitish Kumar who first spilled the beans on why the coming together of different opposition parties, despite having been pushed to a corner by the formidable BJP, has been so difficult. Nitish said, pointing at Congress leader Khurshid, “If they take my suggestion and fight together, they (BJP) will go below 100 seats, but if they don’t take my suggestion, you know what will happen.”

For a long time now, regional parties who dominate the opposition space in their respective states have had to battle the Congress. The grand old party, the regional parties allege, has always had a big-brotherly posturing. “Their leaders may be weak in their constituencies but they have the gait of a national leader. That is the precise problem. Ground-level leaders are difficult to persuade. The Congress must take it upon itself to bring these state-level leaders in the loop and make them think beyond their personal ambitions,” a Rashtriya Janata Dal leader told The Wire on the condition of anonymity. 

He said that the Congress’s insistence to contest 50 seats in the last Bihar assembly polls may have prevented the grand alliance, aka Mahagathbandhan, from coming to power. The grand old party’s strike rate was the worst among all its allies. 

Nitish, too, pointed at the same symptom and exhorted the Congress to come together for larger concerns that were discussed at the convention. To be fair, Nitish, who was seen as harbouring prime ministerial ambitions earlier, hasn’t made any move that may tilt the scales against Congress. 

Only a month ago, Nitish didn’t accept the invite sent out by the Bharat Rashtra Samithi chief and Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao to attend a similar convention without the Congress. Akhilesh Yadav joined Rao but not Nitish. When asked why he didn’t go, he merely said that his dream was to see opposition forces coming together – his understated way to say that he didn’t see any future for a non-Congress opposition front and will like to be a part of a grand alliance consisting of all opposition parties irrespective of their differences. 

JDU leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar at the ‘Save Constitution, Save India’ conference in Patna on February 18, 2023. Photo: Twitter/@Dipankar_cpiml

Nitish merely reiterated the same at the Patna convention. Observers say that the coming together of opposition parties with a common strategy may truly limit the prospects of the BJP in north India and neutralise any other gains that the BJP may have in other regions. 

The electoral history of India shows that the BJP has gained largely at the cost of the Congress, while the regional parties have managed to hold their own against the saffron party. The BJP’s performance has really been the best in states where it is pitched directly against the Congress. In that respect, the Congress may be in dire need to join hands with regional parties with pockets of influence in these states and reclaim some of their lost territories instead of living in false hubris. At the same time, it will have to realistically assess its positions in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and settle for only those constituencies where it can give a tough fight. 

Also read: Bharat Jodo Yatra Has Turned Congress Into Main Opposition, But Electoral Test Remains

Tejashwi Yadav’s assessment of the political possibilities was more or less similar. “We have said it time and again that in places where regional parties are strong, they should be given the driving seat and where there is a bipolar contest between the Congress and BJP, we will support Congress,” he said at the convention. Such an electoral formula was mooted by the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee even in 2019, but she hardly found any takers then. Currently, she appears to be torn between her own national ambitions, expansion plans and the general consensus among the opposition ranks about the need to oust the BJP from power. 

Representing the Congress, Khurshid appeared to agree with the formula mooted by the regional leaders but couldn’t commit anything. Rather, he resorted to a little drama.  

“…the situation is akin to lovers taking their time to decide who should say I love you first…it happens that sometimes an inexperienced lover is uninhibited enough to make the first move,” he said. 

Did he mean that the “inexperienced lover” are the smaller parties, like the CPI (ML-Liberation) which took the initiative to bring the parties together? Or did he expect the regional parties to approach the Congress first? 

Whatever the case, the Congress may still need to bury its pride and be accommodating enough to work out an electoral formula acceptable to all. But that didn’t look so evident when national-level leaders only sought to re-assert the importance of Congress instead of sending out a positive vibe.  

Immediately after the convention, the chief spokesperson of the Congress Jairam Ramesh sent out a rather aggressive response. He said that the Congress was “well-aware” of its role and that it didn’t need a “certificate” from anyone. He also took the opportunity to say that Congress was the only party never to compromise with the BJP, in what may only sound like a dig at Nitish at the moment. 

“The Congress is the only political party that has never made a compromise with the BJP anywhere. There are some Opposition parties who come for (Rajya Sabha Leader of the Opposition) Mallikarjun Kharge’s meetings but their actions are in favour of the ruling party. We are not two-faced with respect to the BJP,” he said but did not name any party. 

Ramesh is perhaps right that there can’t be any effective opposition front without the Congress, but did he get his timing wrong? 

Congress’s general secretary (organisation) K.C. Venugopal was subtler in his remarks. “Our job is to do that only. To try and lessen the BJP numbers,” he said, adding that the party had taken the initiative to bring together different opposition forces in the Parliament on the Adani issue and also extended an invite to all to participate in the Bharat Jodo Yatra. He also said that how an opposition front could shape up will be discussed in the upcoming plenary session of the Congress in Raipur. 

Clearly, the Congress is depending much on its electoral prospects in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka which will go to polls before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, as Ramesh himself indicated at a recent press briefing. That will perhaps decide the extent of space the Congress may be willing to give to other opposition parties. 

An electoral opposition unity looks far off at the moment. As dreamy as Khurshid may have sounded, the opposition parties appear to be more like rivals in trade than disgruntled lovers. 

Edited by Vikram Mukka.