Opposition unity: Why the bounce is back

INDIA, the new name of the Opposition alliance for 2024, is loaded with significance and the promise of a new, more inclusive politics

 Opposition leaders greet Sonia Gandhi at the Opposition conclave in Bengaluru, 17-18 July
Opposition leaders greet Sonia Gandhi at the Opposition conclave in Bengaluru, 17-18 July

Shalini Sahay

When West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee left her hotel in Bengaluru on Monday to attend the first informal session of Opposition leaders at the Taj West End, she told the media that she would return after an hour. She promised to brief them on her return.

She eventually returned three hours later, in a visibly good mood, though she did not stay to dine with the others. There had been questions about her participation and her role within the loose alliance in the lead-up to the conclave.

The Indian National Congress and the Left front had just fought a bitter panchayat election in Bengal against both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. The outspoken chief minister had grimly said that if the Opposition parties attacked her in the state, they should not expect her to go out of her way to humour them in Delhi.

She had made her reservations about the Congress and Rahul Gandhi public and, on several occasions, her MPs missed attending or boycotted coordination meetings convened by the Congress in Parliament.

If the signs of a thaw were visible on Monday, however, the next day they were in full flow. The previous evening, Banerjee was seated next to Sonia Gandhi while Rahul Gandhi sat next to Nitish Kumar. On Tuesday, she sat between Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. They chatted amiably, and eyewitnesses said that she even accepted a lozenge from Rahul Gandhi.

Later in the afternoon, as the leaders continued their deliberations, skipping lunch, Rahul Gandhi again offered to share with her the nuts in the bowl in front of them. The bonhomie was evident again when Banerjee was invited to address the media as the first speaker at the press conference, after the opening remarks by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge.

It was she who revealed that the name of the alliance would be ‘INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance)’. Rahul Gandhi, who spoke last after Uddhav Thackeray and Arvind Kejriwal, enthusiastically endorsed and defended the name, which some leaders expressed doubts about as sounding contrived.

The leaders looked comfortable and joyous
The leaders looked comfortable and joyous

Kejriwal, it was reported, had said that the name was less important than the seat-sharing arrangement, in any case. The Left front leaders also said they were uncomfortable. In the renewed spirit of accommodation, in less than 12 hours it was resolved that the tagline for INDIA would be Jeetega Bharat (India will be victorious).

Mallikarjun Kharge had set the tone of the meeting when he candidly admitted that the parties did have differences, but those differences were not such that they could not be set aside in the national interest. He asserted that the Congress was neither interested in coming to power at the Centre, nor in grabbing the office of prime minister.

The country was passing through a critical juncture and it was important to fight for the country and the Constitution, he underlined. The redoubtable Lalu Prasad Yadav is said to have asked the Congress leadership to rein in one of its leaders, a veiled reference to the Bengal Congress unit chief and Lok Sabha MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who is prone to publicly attacking Mamata Banerjee.

And indeed, the overwhelming feeling among the leaders was that while ruling parties cannot escape criticism and be held to account, the criticism should remain civil and not be allowed to become bitter. Banerjee was mollified enough to amiably address Sitaram Yechury and D. Raja as ‘Yechuryji’ and ‘Raja’, and ended by effusively thanking “our favourite, everyone’s favourite Rahul, Rahul Gandhi”.

The smile on Kharge’s and Rahul Gandhi’s face indicated their amusement. The photographs seem to support the grapevine that it was by far a more relaxed and cheerful meeting than on June 23, when they first met in Patna. The ice is breaking and the leaders—even Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi, who both looked wary while greeting each other—seem to have got along well enough.

W. Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee being greeted by K'taka dy CM DK Shivakumar in Bengaluru
W. Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee being greeted by K'taka dy CM DK Shivakumar in Bengaluru

The second Opposition conclave in less than a month (the first was held on June 23 in Patna), then, delivered a knock-out name that sent the BJP leaders and its IT cell into a tizzy. They couldn’t seem to put the ‘pretenders’ down fast enough! Contrary to some claims in the media, the name was not decided accidentally or casually. The previous moniker of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), it was felt, conveyed little and appeared weaker than the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

By renaming the alliance INDIA, the Opposition moved to reclaim the democratic and nationalist narrative appropriated by the NDA. Congress spokesman Gurdeep Singh Sappal explained that the name signified the commitment of the alliance to the inclusive ‘Constitutional idea of India’ as opposed to the BJP’s exclusionary idea of India.

Sappal underscored that the 26 Opposition parties had together polled 5 million more votes in 2019 than the BJP. This was despite Pulwama and despite Narendra Modi’s popularity reaching a peak following that nationalistic fervour.

The parties in Bengaluru, he reminded, were running as many as 11 state governments and were no pushovers. The work of the conclave, however, went beyond the name. Much thought had clearly been given to preparing a roadmap and a strategy.

For instance, the alliance issued a collective pledge to provide an alternative model of governance which would be ‘consultative, democratic and participative’, as against the authoritarian, ad-hoc and arbitrary governance of the current regime.

The 26 political parties also pledged to conduct a caste census. The pledge spoke of their commitment to strengthen the public sector and a ‘competitive private sector’, as opposed to the privatisation and promotion of crony capitalism espoused by the current regime. Even as the BJP scoffed at the ‘conclave of the corrupt’ in Bengaluru, the 26 political parties have deftly differentiated the INDIA from the BJP.

INDIA’s commitment to the constitution—to secular democracy, social justice and federalism—is unexceptionable and will be hard to counter. What’s more, the pledge takes note of the unfolding tragedy in Manipur and the prime minister’s continued silence. The alibi that the PM is working silently for a solution in Manipur is becoming less convincing as the violence continues unabated.

The PM, who has all the time for election campaigns and for abusing the Opposition, has progressively made his own position untenable on Manipur. Bengaluru also saw an Opposition that has seldom looked more decisive, organised and methodical—and yes, aligned enough to be described in the singular rather than the plural.

The conclave has unanimously decided to constitute a 11-member coordination committee and set up a common secretariat in New Delhi, which will coordinate across parties for organising joint rallies, agitations and executing the common agenda.

It also resolved to finalise a common minimum programme when the parties meet again in Mumbai next month. The buzz from Bengaluru is that the 26 parties had in principle agreed to act in sync in Parliament, where the monsoon session began on Thursday (July 20). Sources also claimed that the parties discussed the role of the sold-out media and ways of countering them.

If these sources are to be believed, the parties are contemplating a boycott of TV channels that are brazenly partisan and even ensure that the 11 state governments represented in INDIA stop releasing ads to media organisations perceived to be hostile and unfair to the Opposition.

A communication coup, a psychological victory, a clear roadmap for the future and the promise of a clear alternative—this is what the Bengaluru conclave achieved. Now, the Opposition should be prepared for more ‘shock and awe’ tactics to be unleashed by a rattled BJP. The battlelines for 2024 are neatly drawn.

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