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Predictably, Mamta Banerjee’s snide remark about Rahul Gandhi’s frequent – and, often mysterious —visits abroad has elicited an equally nasty response from loyal Congress operatives. And, with the Nationalist Congress Party veteran Sharad Pawar standing next to her, Banerjee also announced the death of the United Progressive Alliance. That too was a cruel blow. For the Congress faithful, the UPA’s existence, even if only notional, bestows on Sonia Gandhi an aura as its “chairperson,” however inconsequential it may be.
No less noteworthy is Ghulam Nabi Azad’s observation, though made in a different context, that he could simply not foresee the possibility of the Congress Party securing 300 seats in the next Lok Sabha elections. What Azad is clearly hinting at is that no political party is in a position to win a national election on its own. Translated into simple language, this means only a combination of political parties can displace Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in New Delhi.
Taken together, these comments force everybody to take note of the elephant in the room: the intermittent and intemperate leadership of Rahul Gandhi, who remains as much at war with his own party leaders as with the Sangh Parivar. Rahul Gandhi has made it clear that he will neither mend his ways nor compromise on his sense of entitlement (of a prime ministerial kind), nor learn any lesson from two successive drubbings. Assorted Congressmen have tried and failed to make the not so young Gandhi try to acquire a new acceptability or a gravitas.
Yet, it is almost a blasphemous thought for a Congress functionary to concede that one of the primary reasons why Narendra Modi could take off so spectacularly in 2013-14 was because he had brilliantly juxtaposed himself to Rahul Gandhi, who did everything possible to come across as an erratic, spoiled son of a zamindar.
So the question of Rahul remains the Congress’s unresolved dilemma. It’s all very well to say that the leadership matters of a political party are its internal affairs but the Congress’s inability and unwillingness to make the Gandhis behave is a source of great dismay for non-BJP leaders anxious to defeat Modi.
Common political sense suggests that notwithstanding his presumed political skills and the trillions in unaccounted funds that the BJP has, 10 years of incumbency have made Narendra Modi a much soiled and frayed leader. All political leaders—democrats, dictators and autocrats—come with a shelf-life and Modi is especially vulnerable.
But 2024 is still far off. Chickens must be hatched before they get counted. This means all those who believe India needs to be freed from Modi’s grasp – and of all the unappetising impulses he has institutionalised in our body polity – have a responsibility to try and convince the electorate that they have what it takes to provide a reasonable, viable and desirable alternative. They need to find a voice and an idiom to convince people that India ought to be less harsh, less violent and less dishonest a nation than it has become under Modi’s duplicitous stewardship.
To begin with, Opposition leaders would have to demonstratively develop habits and a modus operandi of working together. The country would be willing to experiment with a non-BJP alternative provided the latter can ensure a degree of stability and maturity in running the nation’s affairs.
And, to be sure, working together does not come easily to Indian political leaders and parties. In the early years, the Socialists wrote the book on in-fighting and splits; in the post-1967 decline of the Congress, the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal experiment collapsed within months, as did the post-1977 Janata Dal humpty-dumpty. After the post-Ayodhya convulsions, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram did join hands to beat back the saffron onslaught but that partnership ended up ingloriously with the Lucknow Guest House episode.
At the national level, the NDA was the first reasonably successful coming together of national and regional parties and leaders, partly because Atal Bihari Vajpayee was an amiable, non-confrontational politician and partly because of a back-room operative called Pramod Mahajan. The 10 years of the UPA worked coherently and cogently mostly because of Manmohan Singh’s capacity for collegiate functioning and partly of because of that skilful hand-holder, Ahmed Patel.
In recent years, we have had an extremely workable coalition arrangement going on in Maharashtra. It will be sobering to recall that the BJP lost Maharashtra because in its post-2019 arrogance the saffron party was simply not willing to acknowledge and accommodate its coalition partner’s ambitions. It will remain unverified whether the BJP was also guilty of bad faith, going back on its pre-poll understanding with Uddhav Thackeray. Either way, the second biggest state remains outside the reach of Modi-Shah.
Uddhav Thackeray has made a sobering chief minister, conducting himself with dignity and level-headedness, avoiding his father’s biting vitriolic without pushing himself into the limelight. The Maharashtra coalition has survived and prospered because of the sagacious presence of Sharad Pawar. Moreover, the ideologically incompatible Shiv Sena and Congress have learnt to work together in common interest.
Rather than squabbling over who should be anchoring the anti-Modi front, the Opposition parties have to reach a clear-headed understanding of their individual and collective strengths and weakness – and how they can help each other overcome their weaknesses and supplement their strength. Above all, everyone has to know their limits.
A good beginning must be made with the coming together of all non-BJP forces in next year’s presidential election. If they are able to deny the Modi-Shah regime a captive president, all other constitutional functionaries – especially the Election Commission of India – would become more mindful of their professional dharma.
By the time 2024 comes, the Modi era will be drowning in its own excesses. But the coup de grace requires every non-BJP party to strike a balance between partisan calculations and the national interest. Collectively, the opposition has a responsibility to be united, vigilant and purposeful and give voters a good enough reason to see the back of this regressive regime.