Even if the rally of the national opposition leaders in Kolkata last Saturday was a fairly impressive affair, it was nowhere near what the people of the city had seen earlier, notably during the Left Front’s heyday. Perhaps the opportunity provided by television to see and hear the speakers at home, or on the large screens put up at strategic locations, made many people stay away from the brigade parade ground. Even then, the chief minister’s appeal to those in the audience who had started to leave when six or seven of those on the stage were yet to speak showed that it wasn’t an event which would become part of the political folklore.
This shortfall in the failure to catch the public imagination might have been averted if Mamata Banerjee had shed some of her biases and gone out of the way to ensure the attendance of Rahul Gandhi and Sitaram Yechury. After all, it made no sense when the Congress president and the CPI(M) general secretary were absent from what was being touted as a “united” India rally. If anything, it showed that Mamata Banerjee is still bound by her restrictive provincial outlook which makes her incapable of looking beyond West Bengal and acquiring a broad national perspective.
It isn’t clear what made Rahul Gandhi stay away – after all, he did send a letter to “Mamata-di” wishing success for the rally – but there is little doubt that his presence would have made fewer people leave the venue. In the end, it was left to the dissident BJP leader, Shatrughan Sinha, to echo the Congress president’s trademark anti-Narendra Modi slogan, “chowkidar chor hai.” Since the Congress in the state is no longer a major challenger to the ruling Trinamool Congress – the BJP is seemingly taking this place among the non-Left parties – the reason for Mamata Banerjee’s standoffish attitude towards the 134-year-old patriarch of Indian politics is difficult to explain.
However, it is possible that Mamata Banerjee instinctively felt that the presence of Prince Charming would detract from the unstated purpose of the rally of projecting herself as a prime ministerial aspirant. It was apparently the same clash of ambitions which also made the BSP’s Mayawati stay away. But if these conflicting aspirations provide grist to the BJP’s propaganda mill depicting the opposition unity efforts as a recipe for a khichdi or hodge-podge alliance, so does the Left’s boycott of the rally.
Yechury’s remark that Mamata Banerjee cannot complain about the BJP’s undemocratic ways when she pursues similar policies in West Bengal showed that the gulf between the Trinamool Congress and the Left is wider than between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress. At the root of this breach lies the anarchic conditions which marked the state’s panchayat elections, forcing hundreds of opposition candidates to withdraw from the contest to give the Trinamool Congress a free run.
It is undoubtedly a black spot in Mamata Banerjee’s record which the presence of 22 parties at the rally cannot erase. It shows that it will take much more than the joint raising of hands by the leaders on the dais to foster faith in the opposition’s ability to take on the BJP. The background of few of these parties inspires confidence because of the lawlessness of their cadres, as in the Trinamool Congress’s case, or because of the penchant for cynicism and whimsicality, as in the BSP’s case.
Besides, while criticizing the Trinamool Congress, Yechury might have remembered that it has learnt many of its violent ways from the Marxists. ,For the opposition jamborees to make an impact, the various parties will have, first, to come clean about their transgressions, as Rahul Gandhi did when he ascribed the Congress’s defeat in 2014 to arrogance, or when Akhilesh Yadav admitted the high-handedness of some of the Samajwadi Party supporters.
Secondly, the parties will have to overcome their state-level animosities and focus on the big picture. They will have to leave behind their adversarial relations in the states, such as the one between the Left and the Congress in Kerala, and display the kind of broadmindedness which the Telugu Desam and the Congress did during the assembly elections to come together. Otherwise, if they continue to bicker in the states, they will be easy prey for the BJP.
In addition, the parties will have to break free of the habit of looking to the pre-liberalisation period before 1991 when life moved at a leisurely pace like the cumbersome ambassador cars. The calls, therefore, for dispensing with the electronic voting machines (which are admired all over the world for the speed with which they produce the results) must be forsaken once and for all. Demands of this nature are a reminder that not a few of the regional leaders are old fogeys who would happily do away with computers and the English language if they could. They have to be told, therefore, that the country is now well into the 21st century.
Amulya Ganguli is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.