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Mainstream, VOL LX No 30, New Delhi, July 16, 2022

Presidential election; Modi on the mission to break opposition unity to ensure Sinha’s defeat | Arun Srivastava

Friday 15 July 2022

by Arun Srivastava

The opposition leaders have not only abandoned their presidential candidate Yshwant Sinha but have betrayed him. After three senior leaders declined to be the opposition candidate to oppose the BJP’s nominee, Sinha was the fourth choice to fill the void. Opposition formally agreed on his name even before the BJP could finalise its candidate.

Ironically just after Narendra Modi announced the name of Draupadi Murmum the opposition leaders started sulking and distancing from Sinha. This is the worst thing that could have happened with Sinha. In their eagerness and haste to express their unity and purpose the opposition had agreed on the name of Sinha. But once Modi announced the candidature of Murmu they started the relevance of Sinha from the point of view of their electoral gains.

Momentarily they forgot that they were in the bout ring for greater cause, to protect the democratic institutions and check emergence of authoritarian mode of governance. The electoral compulsions overshadowed their ideological commitment. Baring a couple of opposition parties, they have virtually left Sinha to fend for himself. An IAS officer-turned-politician, Sinha who was once close to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and held the finance and external affairs portfolios in his ministry emerged as the consensus candidate of opposition parties for the presidential election.

The presidential election to be held on July 18 in the real sense has acquired the character of the royal battle between the prime minister Narendra Modi and Yashwant Sinha. It would be wrong to construe that Sinha has a tough challenger in Draupadi Murmu. But there is no doubt that by fielding Murmu for the office of president, Modi has put Sinha in a very tight spot. A combined opposition rallying solidly behind Sinha might have completely changed the political equations and scenario. But with opposition rank showing the sign of confusion has simply made the task of Modi easier. The law makers who were not inclined to support Murmu have eventually become her dedicated voters.

It is a known fact that Modi has been designing the campaign strategy for Murmu. Modi should have re-nominated Ramnath Kovind for the second term. But he did not. Instead he opted for Murmu with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. He had come to realise that Kovind might not be able to protect his political interest in the backdrop of opposition trying to consolidate and strike back, after remaining down for last 8 years. Modi has put high stake on Murmu. She would not pose questions as Kovind had done on some occasions. With Murmu as the president, Modi will have smooth sailing.

The major reflection that made Modi to fall on Murmu has been to entice the dalit and Adivasi. The RSS through its Adivasi sabha has been desperately trying to win over the tribals. But so far it has not yielded a major positive response. The Adivasi organisation has been active in Bihar, Odisha and Chhatishgarh for more than 40 years, but it has not succeeded in making a serious dent and rally the adivasis behind BJP. Though Modi has succeeded in creating a larger and dependable support base in the urban middle class, he has not succeeded in identifying himself with them. This is the reason that leaders like Shibu Soren could not be banished.

The RSS for quite time has been harping on the ideological line that adivasis are Hindus though the adivasis have been outright rejecting it as a misconstrued and imaginary hypothesis. Now with Murmu as the president Modi, precisely the RSS, could find it easier to penetrate the Adivasi society and bring them under the fold of Hindu community. Through nominating Murmu and make her win the presidential election, Modi also intends to expand his following and appeal amongst them. In the last assembly elections in these states, the tribals and Dalits had extensively voted for the JMM, RJD and Congress. By nominating Murmu as NDA candidate, Modi has managed to confound the opposition leaders.

It is really worrying to notice that prominent opposition leaders have been caught in the whirlpool of caste politics. At a time when the country is sliding down on all development indices and fascism is gradually overtaking the democratic functioning, these leaders instead of fighting the authoritarian rule are searching of destiny in the quagmire of caste politics. The opposition leaders are in a fix over Murmu’s candidature and nurse fears that opposing her might alienate tribal voters.

This attitude of theirs makes it explicit that they are also not concerned of the plight of the poor and common Indians. Like RSS and BJP, eliminating poverty , eradicating unemployment and bringing back the economy which has witnessed major decline during Modi’s rule has not at all been the priority. It also gives rise to an impression that for them poor people of the country are more concerned of their caste interest rather than improving their financial condition and coming out of the economic morass. Had it not been the case they would not have dithered on their choice of candidates and ensuring the defeat of Modi’s candidate. Their vacillation personifies their lack of proper perception deciding the correct priorities.

Their dumping Sinha is undoubtedly the manifestation of their inability to understand the realpolitik of India though they claim to be veterans and weatherproof politicians? It is beyond comprehension how could they envisage that not supporting Murmu would erode their support base amongst the adivasis and dalit. It is a utopian notion. Questions may be asked what precisely she had done for the adivasis. She was governor of Jharkhand, but could not stop the Raghubar government from forcing the tribals to part with their lands. The Jharkhandis and adivasis fought a protected battle against the Raghubar government.

The worst has been with TMC chief Mamata Banerjee who has played the vital role in selecting Sinha as the opposition candidate. The other leaders are chief minister of Jharkhand Hemant Soren and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Of course Soren being from tribal community has been soft to Murmu, who had one stage the Governor of the state. Kumar who has been planning to float a new forum with RJD and has running feud with Modi, has also ironically decided to support Murmu. He is doing so when the state does not have significant number of Adivasi voters. He has thrown his weight behind Murmu only to ensure that Dalits do not turn hostile.

Mamata has been the first opposition leader to drop out of the battle field. Her U-turn has indeed been shocking. She led the opposition pack in picking Sinha and announcing his candidature. Even at that point of time Sinha was the national vice president of her Trinmool Congress. He resigned only after his name was announced as the opposition nominee. It is really strange how could a person who proposed the name of Sinha and projected him as the future president dump him? Political observers underline two reasons for her retreat; first, BJP’s machination to topple her government, and, second her fear to lose the tribal support. Her close aids claim that the fear of adivasis deserting her that made her dump Sinha. Her standing behind Sinha should have alienated the tribal voters in West Bengal ahead of the panchayat elections next year and the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Tribals constitute 7-8 per cent of the state’s population, and are a deciding factor in 47 assembly seats and seven Lok Sabha constituencies spread across the Junglemahal.

Mamata’s fear got manifest in her observation that Murmu could have been a consensus nominee had the NDA discussed with the Opposition before fielding her. She ought to have realised that why should Modi discuss the issue when he has already pursuing the policy of not taking the opposition into confidence. It was indeed shocking to see Mamata throwing away the weapon even before the battle has formally begun. She had said Murmu has better chances of winning with the NDA’s numbers bolstered following the change of guard in Maharashtra. If she had succeeded in deciphering the prevailing political situation, she must not had pushed Sinha in the ring. Undoubtedly a defeat will be quite humiliating for him.

The expectation of the TMC leadership that Modi should have followed practice of putting consensus candidate exposes their political immaturity. Why Modi should go for a consensus candidate? He is known for his identity politics. In fact Modi’s action has not come as a surprise. What is surprising is the irresolute stand of TMC and other opposition parties towards Sinha. Sinha, who was the TMC national vice president had resigned from the post to contest the presidential polls. He had even said; "I am confident that all TMC MPs and MLAs will vote in my favour". Eleventh hour U-turn of Mamata really falls in the category of betrayal.

Tribals, who had been staunch supporters of TMC since it ousted the Left Front from power in 2011, however, shifted their allegiance to the BJP in 2018 during panchayat polls after being miffed over corruption in the local level. BJP swept the tribal-dominated areas in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, winning five of six seats in Junglemahal and both Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri in northern West Bengal. Mamata instead of pursuing this populist line should have honestly strived to root out corruption. Tribals were absolutely right in their assertion that corruption has become endemic. Mamata must realise that supporting Murmu would not eradicate this malaise.

Though Modi and Amit Shah had engineered defection in Shiv Sena to bring the state under their control. The main consideration, apart from this gain nevertheless was to ensure enough electoral support for Murmu from Maharashtra. In the present political scenario Murmu is assured of solid support of at least 70 MLAs and MPs from Maharshtra, which would have gone otherwise to Sinha.

Uddhav Thackeray the Shiv Sena chief who has been relentlessly fighting BJP’s hegemony and not allowing space to it to expand in Maharashtra has become a victim to the coercionist politics of it. The Sena MPs who pledge their support Uddhav but are close to rebel leader Eknath Shinde have been using the Murmu factor to force him to submit to BJP dictates. Interestingly their argument has been Shiv Sena would lose the support of the Adivasis of Maharashtra, where their population is quite huge and spread across the state. Uddhav supporting Sinha would antagonise the adivasis of the state and they would turn hostile to Shiv Sena. The support of Adivasis to an organisation representing the aspiration of Marathas is so acute that the rebels are forcing Uddhav to severe his relations with MahaVikas Aghadi ( the front of NCP, Congress and Sena) and become an ally of BJP. Eventually under pressure and faced with the exigencies of political survival, the Sena chief Uddhav has to announce his support to Murmu.

The attempt of the BJP to engineer defection in Goa is purely meant to ensure victory of Murmu. BJP has its government in Goa. It has majority. There is no need for more votes to protect the government. Even then BJP has been engineering split to increase the vote tally.

While Modi has fielded Murmu, he has at the same time brought a legislation which completely alters the Forest Rights Act This decision of Modi will disempower crores of Advisis and others living in forest areas. Obviously, this has been done in the name of ‘ease of doing business’ for a chosen few. But it will end the ‘ease of living’ for the vast many. In August 2009, for ensuring implementation of this law, the then ministry of environment and forests had issued a circular that stipulated that no clearances for diversion of forest land under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, would be considered unless rights provided under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, were first settled. This circular implied that the rights of tribal and other communities have to be settled before a decision can even be considered on forest and environmental clearance.

Nevertheless Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha has described the election as a battle between progressive and regressive ideologies. For Congress it is an ideological fight and it will fight, no matter how many votes Sinha gets. What a misfortune for Sinha who just a fortnight back had said“ Now a time has come when for a larger national cause I must step aside from the party (TMC) to work for greater opposition unity. I am sure she TMC chief and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee] approves of the step,” is now facing the worst kind of disgrace. He has been virtually declared a loser by his own comrades and colleagues who have pushed into the wrestling ring.

Sinha’s name came into contention after NCP chief Sharad Pawar, National Conference (NC) president Farooq Abdullah and former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi had declined to be opposition nominee for the presidential election. While Mamata had congratulated him for getting the support of like-minded allies she had also said “A man of great honour and acumen, who would surely uphold the values that represent our great nation!” Unfortunately for purely electoral reasons she has dumped him.

Taking suo mato initiative Pawar had also spoken to Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, K. Chandrashekar Rao (of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi) and Tejashwi Yadav (of RJD) and ought their support.

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