What I propose to share may not be soothing to the ears of those who have been talking of opposition unity for more than two years. This rhetoric of opposition unity has not translated into the reality of forging a robust and formidable alliance around issues which impact the people of India.
RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav was the first politician to sense that right-wing authoritarian politics can be defeated only by developing sensible alliance across India. On May 16, 2014, while pundits were analysing the 2014 general election results, Yadav called his bête noir, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, to express concerns and the challenges ahead for secular and socialist politics.
Next morning in his Patna residence, as the RJD chief was apprising himself of constituency and party-wise polled votes, he received a phone call from UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Yadav conversed at length with her. A few minutes into the conversation, he expressed solidarity with the then Congress president. He told her, “Madam, don’t worry! Collectively we will fight back and root out the RSS hegemony. We shall win. I have poll figures in front of me! Our votes got divided and they aggressively polarised their own. Collectively we shall fight back! But it necessitates a strong bonding beyond the petty interests and poor arithmetic of seat sharing.”
Just two months later, the JDU, RJD and Congress stitched together an alliance for Rajya Sabha and state assembly by-elections. The same ‘grand alliance’ swept the 2015 state assembly elections convincingly and was intact until July 2017, when in an unprecedented move, Nitish Kumar switched sides and aligned with the BJP. History shall bear witness to the fact that since 2014, Yadav has been one of the most vocal leaders in favour of stitching state-based alliances to defeat the BJP-led NDA at all levels.
Let us turn to Bihar. The NDA’s condition is more deplorable than before. Reports of scams, riots, crime, molestation, gang rapes, kidnapping, murder and mob lynching surface on a regular basis. In spite of the so called “double engine government” in Bihar, there are no major development projects. Even projects that have already been announced are running late. The Centre is not able to release funds as claimed by state ministers and the special package announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has simply proved to be a ‘jumla‘.
After Nitish Kumar’s “ghar-wapsi“, ex-CM Jitanram Manjhi deserted the NDA and allied with the RJD. Despite the NDA boasting of big names such as Nitish Kumar, Ram Vilas Paswan, Upender Kushwaha, it was badly defeated in all by-elections. Tejashwi Yadav, who took the baton from his father, was successful in disseminating his father’s message.
It is not difficult to gauge that the RJD commands strong support and goodwill among the poor, minorities, backwards and weaker sections of the society. Moreover, a rise in atrocities against Dalits across the country, especially in BJP-ruled states, and the dilution of SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, Dalits have tilted towards pro-social justice parties and in Bihar, the RJD has maximum traction.
If one looks at the 2014 elections results, in the Hindi belt, the RJD was the BJP’s toughest rival. The margins of BJP candidates against RJD’s were minimal. The narrow defeat was also due to the fact that Nitish Kumar had fielded many Muslim candidates, splitting the votes committed to secularism and social justice. The scenario now is completely conflicting. Weaker sections and minorities are not only disgruntled with Nitish Kumar, but distrust him. Furthermore, after 13 years in power, he is finally battling anti-incumbency. His alignment with all major political parties of Bihar at different intervals has labelled him as an opportunist and turncoat politician.
Nationwide alliance looks encouraging
A nationwide alliance against the NDA looks encouraging, assuring and optimistic in spite of all the hiccups in recent times. The Congress, with its footprint and national acceptance, is undoubtedly best equipped to lead the opposition’s cavalcade against the NDA. However congress will have to take the leadership role with large-heartedness and work towards the goals of people and communities on the margins.
Large-heartedness also requires that Congress acknowledge they do not have a robust base in states like UP and Bihar. Hence, who takes the driving seat in a coalition must be decided on a state-wise basis. The Congress must also accept that in the larger scheme of things – to save constitution and protect the idea of secular, socialist and democratic India – it must allow regional outfits in respective states to lead the attack on the BJP. The Congress has to play a proactive role by accommodating the coalition of regional parties with their agenda challenging the right-wing authoritarian posture of the BJP. The sole criteria should be winnablility.
It is said that one must learn from the strength of their adversaries. In that sense, the Congress can draw lessons from the BJP on how to stitch a formidable opposition despite differences. The BJP had no qualms playing second fiddle to JDU, SAD, BJD and Shiv Sena in Bihar, Punjab, Odisha and Maharashtra respectively for very long. Congress must adopt a similar strategy. An honest introspection of several state-based alliances formed by the Congress will help it realise the rot within its ranks. This rot also generates a kind of self-defeating rigidity that forces it to adopt a policy which not only decimated the Congress but also spelt doom for forces of social justice and secularism. This rigidness during the 2009 general elections and 2010 Bihar assembly allowed the BJP to grow from strength to strength in Bihar while piggybacking on the JDU.
It is heartening to note that under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, the Congress is willing to understand the sentiments and expectations of regional partners’ core voters. Regional parties have a greater ability to transfer votes than the Congress. Regional parties are in the best position to capitalise on identity politics. National parties cannot understand local sentiments and issues fully and also find it difficult to mediate between warring factions of their state units. The national parties also find it difficult to correctly gauge the popularity levels of factions competing against each other within the party. For this, the high command has to rely on their close confidantes. Thus, more or less, the reliance is on luck to pick the right coalition partner or person.
National parties and regional parties have their own strength and shortcomings. It is of importance that these aspects are identified and acknowledged, to forge a successful coalition.
The Congress is among the top contenders in almost all the states, barring a few in the Hindi heartland. Only a good performance from the Congress can ensure that the coalition against BJP has the requisite numbers. Regional parties will have to accept a national party in the leadership role. Pulling punches above one’s weight is a good trait but that should be employed against the opposition. Every coalition partner will have to remain committed towards the larger goal of defeating the BJP. Only then the UPA (or whatever new nomenclature emerges) can pose a formidable challenge.
It is high time that the opposition works smartly in stitching an alliance. It must engage in building a blue-print committed to subaltern empowerment, building a progressive narrative of all-round development and prosperity to represent itself as a vibrant and viable political alternative to the nation. Opposition unity needs to be chalked out setting aside individual aspirations and egos. One must not forget that to win elections, merely social arithmetic is not enough; proper chemistry is required to defeat the right wing authoritarianism that poses a threat to the constitution and social harmony.
Sanjay Yadav is a political adviser to Tejashwi Yadav, former deputy chief minister of Bihar.