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New Delhi: Ending weeks of speculation, we now know the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Droupadi Murmu will square off against Yashwant Sinha in a presidential race with a foregone conclusion.
We also now know that in searching for a candidate behind whom they could throw their collective weight, a supposedly ‘united’ opposition was not so much fighting the Narendra Modi government than playing a game of one upmanship within its own ranks – of seizing the day in a battle that had already been lost. The opposition didn’t have the numbers, never did, to project a unanimous choice for an election for the next president of India.
But there was one slot that was available. That of leader of opposition, if not in parliament then at least in the presidential poll fight and then for the 2024 general election. Between the largest opposition party and the number two. Between Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee.
As TMC national spokesperson Saket Gokhale tweeted, “For bringing the Opposition together on a candidate for the Presidential Election, someone had to take the first step. West Bengal CM @Mamata Official has done just that”.
Of course, the “candidate would not be from the TMC”, he said.
Never mind that K.C. Venugopal, general secretary in charge of Congress organisation told The Wire earlier this week that Sonia Gandhi had been actively parleying with other opposition heavyweights to find a consensus candidate.
“Two three weeks before itself, Madam Gandhi had spoken to Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, [Sitaram] Yechury and others and clarified Congress’s stand clearly. We need to have a common candidate and Congress party is ready to go with anybody who is acceptable to all,” he said. But after that, he says, Sonia Gandhi came down with post-COVID complications.
Venugopal admitted that there was some “miscommunication” but whether there really was any is the moot question.
Was Mamata Banerjee just being clumsy in the new role of ‘chief leader of opposition’ that she had decided to don?
Or was the now former TMC leader Yashwant Sinha always Candidate Number 1 and was the Bengal leader just playing along, biding her time? Sinha’s name was being bandied around in TMC circles even before the June 15 meeting when Sharad Pawar formally turned down the proposal. Gokhale’s tweet, mentioned earlier, in fact, is from June 15.
Interestingly, no one, either in the Congress or the Trinamool camp, was willing to say who proposed Pawar’s name first. Venugopal said it certainly was not the Congress party.
The names of Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah were thrown up at the June 15 meeting itself, convened by Mamata Banerjee which was attended by 16 opposition parties even though 22 were invited. There did not appear to be any prior consultation either with the candidates or amongst the parties before announcing the names.
It was clear that Mamata Banerjee was trying to muscle the Congress out of the opposition space even though it was the latter who had initiated the exercise. And Farooq Abdullah unhelpfully said, “I am grateful to Mamata Didi for proposing my name”. Abdullah may have felt he still had fire in his belly, but it was Gopalkrishna Gandhi who perhaps sent out the subtlest message to the opposition. “Having considered the matter deeply I see that the Opposition’s candidate should be one who will generate a national consensus and a national atmosphere beside Opposition unity. I feel there will be others who will do this far better than I,” he said.
If only he had accepted, a Godse versus Gandhi battle would have looked so good. Now it is one between a BJP and a former BJP leader.
With Yashwant Sinha hoping for a new political innings as the presidential nominee, the opposition, led by Pawar at a press conference on Tuesday (June 21) to announce the presidential candidate, was at pains to underline that Sinha was not a Trinamool candidate but one put up by the combined opposition.
When asked how the opposition hoped to win because the numbers were not on their side, Pawar said, not very convincingly, “We are talking to right minded parties. We hope to bring them on board.” These include parties such as the Telangana Rashtra Samithi and the Aam Aadmi Party.
Either way, in the perception battle Sinha appears to be an afterthought, not that the Trinamool cares.
It’s the national consensus that so worried Gopalakrishna Gandhi that is the talking point. First, Mamata Banerjee edged out Sonia Gandhi in hurriedly cobbling together an opposition. Then it was her clumsily worded proposal at the June 15 meeting to discuss “the bulldozing taking part in the country” that was objected to by several of those present. The Shiv Sena felt that Gandhi and Abdullah were not heavyweight enough.
As it is, the TRS refused to be on board despite the new found bonhomie between the TRS supremo K. Chandrashekhar Rao and Mamata Banerjee, all because the Congress was around. The Aam Aadmi Party and the Akali Dal would not break bread with the Congress either. And just in case the AIMIM was invited, Asaduddin Owaisi was ready with his refusal. Because of the Congress. So far, no one has telephoned Owaisi.
The Presidential poll was an opportunity to showcase a gung-ho opposition itching for battle in 2024. It has shown them up for what they are: tinpot soldiers who’ve fallen by the wayside at the first gust of wind.