Patna Opposition Meet: Vision First, Leader Later

Patna Opposition Meet: Vision First, Leader Later

An ideological battle goes beyond electoral fights and includes defending secularism, federalism, freedom of expression and dissent, independence of constitutional institutions, media freedom and democratic rights of citizens, including the minorities and backward classes

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Wednesday, June 28, 2023, 11:33 PM IST
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Patna Opposition meet: Vision first, leader later |

Fifteen Opposition parties met in Patna last Friday to forge a common front in “national interest” with the aim to take on the ruling BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. After a four-hour meet, hosted by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who prepared the ground for Opposition unity over the last several months, it was announced in a joint presser that a decision has been taken to “fight the next poll together” for which the modalities will be worked out next month in Shimla. At the Patna conclave, the 15 parties decided to initiate talks on the contentious issue of seat sharing and flesh out strategy to field a common candidate against each of the BJP nominees in the maximum number of Lok Sabha seats. 

Save for the discordant note struck by the Aam Aadmi Party and the friction between AAP and the Congress over the Delhi ordinance issue, the Opposition meet is said to have ended on a “note of optimism”. The meeting focused on three points, which were agreed upon by all parties. The first point of agreement was fighting unitedly despite differences, as the idea is to put up a single Opposition candidate against the BJP in as many seats as possible. The second point was presenting a united face against any move of the Union government in any state. This is largely related to raids and corruption cases filed against Opposition leaders by central agencies. The third point of agreement was that the decision of seat sharing should be made in advance and done state-wise, as every state has a different so-political context and therefore one formula does not suit all. 

At the media brief, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the fight against the BJP is ideological and “we are together in this. There will be differences amongst us but we have decided to work together and we will work with flexibility and will safeguard our ideology”. Indeed, the fight against the BJP is not just the battle for political power but an ideological struggle and the Congress has been a lone warrior in this; others have largely been fence-sitters or have mainly been involved in electoral fights against the BJP in their individual states. This raises the question: like the Congress, are other Opposition parties keen on fighting the BJP ideologically instead of a mere political fight? 

The answer is obvious: An ideological battle goes beyond electoral fights and includes defending secularism, federalism, freedom of expression and dissent, independence of constitutional institutions, media freedom and democratic rights of citizens, including the minorities and backward classes. Apart from the Congress and barring a few like the Communist parties and to a certain extent the RJD, none of the other Oppositionparties have been in an ideological fight with the BJP. In fact, many of them including the Communist Party (Marxist) have been in an alliance with the BJP in the past and have directly and indirectly contributed to its electoral successes. Incidentally, before 2014, the BJP used to call itself as a truly secular party and accused others of pseudo-secularism and minority appeasement. 

As a matter of fact, in their Opposition to the Congress, not only have these parties aligned with the BJP but never even cared to contemplate the long-term consequences of their actions. Today, thanks to the expansion of its political and ideological footprint, the BJP has grown so big that it has become a threat to the survival of some of the regional and smaller parties. Obviously, this is the major reason — apart from the use of central agencies by the government against its opponents — behind the coming together of the Opposition parties against the prime minister and his party, while only the Congress stands out both as the BJP’s political and ideological foe in the grouping. This is not to say that these parties are not concerned enough about the socially divisive policies of the BJP-led government and erosion of democratic freedom under it. But they are equally concerned about safeguarding their political fiefdoms. 

So, what should be expected from the Patna meet? To say that it was more of a photo-op and low on substance will be an underestimation of the Opposition’s earnestness to unite. But it is early days yet, and subsequent meetings in Shimla next month and at other venues later, where modalities and strategies will be discussed, will prove whether the Opposition unity will pass the stress test. Rahul Gandhi has indicated that the Congress will be flexible in its approach. This means it is likely to accommodate the political and electoral interests of the regional parties and the grand old party would expect a similar gesture in return. However, this is easily said than done, given the tough choices on what each party is willing to sacrifice and the rivalries between AAP-Congress and TMC-Left/Congress. 

Missing at the Patna meet were some key regional players like the BJD, BRS, and YSRCP, which are in government in their respective states. But then they were also not invited for the meet and getting them on board will be hard, unless things change, the Opposition emerges stronger in the runup to the general election, and BJP is seen losing ground because of anti-incumbency after nearly 10 years of rule. While on the one hand the credibility of the Narendra Modi government is on the decline and discontent against it is building because of high unemployment, stagnant rural income, price rise and its socially divisive policies, the Opposition, on the other hand, is also faced with too many challenges to accommodate conflicting interests in a polity that is far more splintered. This will not only require tough negotiating skills but also willingness to concede political space to each other to cement the Opposition together. 

The Congress having emerged as a confident party after the Karnataka victory could pose problems for the grouping that includes parties (like the AAP) which are claiming the Congress space or those that are locked in fights with it in the states (TMC, SP and CPM). Even though Nitish Kumar has played a key role in getting parties across the political spectrum to agree to share a stage to discuss and explore possibilities of mounting an Opposition challenge to the BJP which has many-layered appeal, the road ahead for the Opposition is even more challenging, given the task of negotiating seat sharing arrangement, chalking out a common minimum programme, setting a new narrative and identifying a common leader to head the grouping. But before identifying the leader, the Opposition needs a common new vision to set a credible and easily identifiable narrative. 

The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule

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