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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 16, New Delhi, April 3, 2021

Mamata Banerjee’s call for Opposition Unity - Raises more questions than it answers | P S Jayaramu

Friday 2 April 2021

by P S Jayaramu *

In the midst of the ongoing assembly elections in West Bengal. Chief Minister Ms Mamata Banerjee has addressed a letter to senior Opposition leaders like Sharad Pawar, Arvind Kejriwal and the interim president of the Congress Party Smt. Sonia Gandhi, urging them to join hands for a united and effective struggle against what she calls BJP’s ‘assault’ on democracy and the Constitution. The letter is also addressed to M.K. Stalin, Uddhav Thackeray, Tejaswi Yadav and Navin Patnaik asking them to come together to plan a course of political action for the realignment of Opposition Parties. She has referred to the passage of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment Bill) by the Parliament granting more powers to the LG of Delhi, snatching away all the powers of the democratically elected Government of AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal, the brazen misuse of institutions like the Election Commission, the ED, the CBI in violation of democratic norms and the federal structure.

While this writer is one among those who think that the outcome of the West Bengal and Assam elections will pave the way for a debate about realignment among Opposition Parties to take on the BJP behemoth in 2024, the timing of Ms Mamata Banerjee’s letter has raised certain questions. Releasing the letter a day before the polling in the high octane contest in Nandigram, was/is seen as indirectly asking the voters of Nandigram to take the election as a direct contest between herself and Prime Minister Modi. The timing of the letter also did not go well with the West Bengal unit of the Congress Party, as its head Mr Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury described it as an act of desperation to counter the BJP. The Left Parties too saw it as a strategy to divert its voters to the TMC’s side.

Many regional Parties, including the Shiva Sena are however in agreement with Ms Banerjee and have underlined the need for all Parties opposed to the BJP to come together after the assembly elections to pursue the agenda. The proposal is a shade better than the Third Front suggested by the NCP supremo Mr Sharad Pawar a few days ago, excluding the Congress.

It is however the operationalisation of this project of Opposition Unity which will be the biggest challenge. For example, will the Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav agree to break bread with the Congress, given his political compulsions at the State level? Similarly, will the Left Parties agree to play any role in such an endeavour? More so, how well disposed will Ms Banerjee be to involve the Left Parties in the Project given the adversarial relations the TMC has with it? How cooperative will the regional satraps like Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Mohan Reddy, and Chandrashekar Rao be to the idea of an Opposition front if it is to be led by Ms Mamata Banerjee?

More importantly, how will the Congress Party at the national level respond to Ms Banerjee’s initiative? It is reasonable to assume that the Party would like to wait for the outcome of the election to the post of Party President it has promised to hold around June. There are some who believe that Mr Rahul Gandhi will be persuaded to contest the election to be formally elected as the President. It is not known how the members of the G-23 play their card when the election process is announced. Interestingly, there are rumours that the Gandhi dynasty loyalist and senior member of the Party, Mr Kamanath, who has vast experience at the Party and ministerial level at both the State and Central level, would be ‘democratically elected’ as the Party President giving Mr Rahul Gandhi a free hand to take on the Modi Government, a job he relishes most. If this were to fructify, it would be the Congress’s way of answering the BJP’s criticism of the dynasty ruling the Party!

At a more serious level, it is likely that the Congress Party as the leader of the UPA would put forward its own conditions to participate in the project of Opposition Unity. It would naturally like any realignment of Political Parties to be undertaken under its leadership, a condition which cannot be brushed aside, going by the fact that it is the national party, next only to the BJP, in the contemporary political situation. The Parties which would participate in such a venture would find it difficult to counter the Congress Party’s continued leadership of the UPA. How would the TMC led by Ms Mamata Banerjee respond to such a situation is going to be keenly watched. More so, if the TMC beats the anti-incumbency and recapture power in West Bengal for the third time. Knowing full well her antipathy to the Congress, despite her cordial personal relations with Smt. Sonia Gandhi, Ms. Banerjee may cold shoulder any such proposal. Conversely, if the TMC loses power in Bengal, Ms Mamata Banerjee’s chances for negotiations over the leadership of the Opposition Front may lose some of its steam.

At a more fundamental level, keeping in mind the role the grand old Congress Party has played in Indian Politics as an umbrella Party accomodating under its fold diverse political interests and groups consisting of the SCs, STs, OBCs and the minorities,(which has however shrunk over a period of time) along with its commitment to Secularism and Constitutional Values, it is advisable to pursue the idea of Opposition Unity, under the leadership of the Congress Party itself. Congress’s left of the centre ideological position, as articulated by Mr Rahul Gandhi in recent times, in contrast to BJP’s right of the centre position under the present dispensation, places it in an ideal, nay, pragmatic position, to be the claimant for such a role. That is also a way in which the Congress Party can reinvent itself for a more vibrant role in India’s politics. Congress Party’s leadership of the UPA, both in running the Government and as leader of the Opposition in the Parliament, in the last decade, is an additional reason for its leadership of the Opposition Front.

Concluding observations:

1) The Opposition to BJP’s majoritarian politics, with the premium it attaches to electoral democracy rather than substantive democracy and its trampling of the autonomy of the institutions, makes it imperative for strengthening the Opposition forces. A reinvented UPA, rather than a Third Front minus the Congress and Left Parties, is necessary not only to to keep democracy vibrant but to oppose BJP’s Hindutva Politics, which runs contrary to the values enshrined in the Preamble of our Constitution.

2) keeping in mind their shrinking space in Indian Politics, the Left Parties should realise the need for being less and less doctrinaire and more receptive to the aspirations of the youth and the growing middle class if they want to stay relevant.

3) Finally, the project of a United Opposition to the BJP at the national level should accommodate the identities and interests of the States as articulated by the regional satraps to maintain and nurture the federal character of the Polity.

* (Author: Dr P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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