“The Modi government has crossed its expiry date. No matter what Modi babu does now, the BJP’s achche din will not come back. This is the beginning of the end for the Modi government.” When Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee thundered thus from the stage, the vast multitude that had gathered at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata on January 19 received it with prolonged applause and slogan-shouting. There was little doubt among the hundreds of thousands who formed the audience and those who had assembled on the stage that they were part of a unique political event. Leaders from 23 opposition parties had gathered in Kolkata at the invitation of the Trinamool Congress chief. Drawn from all parts of the country, they represented mainstream political organisations as well as regional or identity-based formations. Collectively, they and the gathering paraded the social and political diversity of the country. At the same time, the event also highlighted how political parties and leaders drawn from heterogeneous backgrounds and perspectives had come together with the agenda of building a broad platform aimed at defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the next general election.
The commonality of this agenda was stressed by all the participants. Yet, the potential discords that a political or organisational structure to attain this objective could face did not go unnoticed by political observers. This was evident in the choice of leaders on the part of various parties to represent them at the rally. While former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah represented the National Conference, former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and his son, Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, represented the Janata Dal (Secular). The Congress was represented by its leader in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and its Rajya Sabha member from West Bengal Abhishek Manu Singhvi. The debate whether this representation from the Congress was adequate continues in political circles.
Many prominent regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal ( RLD ) were represented by their topmost leaders—Akhilesh Yadav, N. Chandrababu Naidu, Arvind Kejriwal, Sharad Pawar, M.K. Stalin, Tejaswi Yadav, Hemant Soren and the Ajit Singh-Jayant Chaudhary duo respectively. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP president Mayawati followed Rahul Gandhi’s example and sent Rajya Sabha member Satish Chandra Mishra to represent her party, which has a significant following in Uttar Pradesh as a party upholding Dalit interests. Well-known BJP dissidents and former Union Ministers Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Shatrughan Sinha, the Young Turks from Gujarat Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani, and former Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Gegong Apang, who recently left the BJP, also added strength to the rally. Among the regional parties not present at the rally were the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The Left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), long-standing political adversaries of the Trinamool Congress, were also absent.
The speakers mounted a no-holds-barred attack on the Narendra Modi government on issues ranging from demonetisation and economic policies to the Rafale controversy, and from communalisation of society to attacks on constitutional institutions. “What Pakistan could not achieve in 70 years, these people have done in just four and half years. They have divided the people of the country,” said Arvind Kejriwal. “The BJP is destroying all the institutions in the country, the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation], the E.D. [Enforcement Directorate], the RBI [Reserve Bank of India], the banks,” said Mamata Banerjee. But the main focus was on the need to oust Modi as every leader spoke of the need for “unity” to defeat the BJP. “We have one ambition—save India, save democracy; and that is why we want to unite. That is the campaign we are doing, and that is the purpose for which we are gathered here,” said Chandrababu Naidu. Abhishek Manu Singhvi said: “This rainbow coalition has one purpose—to build a new India and to drive out the BJP.” Arun Shourie said: “It is by uniting [that] the opposition will be able to defeat the BJP… It is about saving the country.”
All the speakers said the opposition should unite to defeat the Modi government even if it meant sacrificing the individual interests of different parties. While Sharad Pawar came up with the formula of “one seat, one candidate” against the BJP, Akhilesh Yadav urged all present to ensure that the BJP failed to win seats in States represented at the rally. The speeches were centred around the way in which the fundamentals of India’s democracy were under attack, the threat to the Constitution, and the need to prevent Modi from coming back to power. Farooq Abdullah summed up the essence of why leaders of such diverse political backgrounds had agreed to join hands: “The issue is not about removing one individual named Modi, it is about saving the country, saving our democratic institutions, about our Constitution.”
Abhishek Manu Singhvi said diverse political parties had come together on one platform because the Modi government had crossed all limits of vendetta politics, promoted divisive policies, indulged in political impropriety of the worst order and weakened democratic institutions. He said no matter what name this rainbow coalition of parties from across India would get, but a rainbow coalition it was, and a beginning had been made. Mallikarjun Kharge said that the times were such that “dil mile ya na mile, haath milakar chalo”(even if there is no union of hearts, let there be a union of hands). The goodwill message from Sonia Gandhi that he read out said the rally was an “important attempt to galvanise leaders across the political spectrum to fight arrogant and divisive Modi government”. Earlier, Rahul Gandhi had said in a letter to Mamata Banerjee: “I extend my support to Mamata di on this show of unity and hope that we send a powerful message of a united India together.”
The speeches skirted around the potentially contentious issue of leadership, a question that may well come to the fore as and when these parties seek to formalise the association and give it a concrete organisational shape. All the leaders asserted that the leadership issue had been left open and that they were at this stage focussing on consensus on the need to prevent a division of anti-BJP votes across the country. On the leadership question, Akhilesh Yadav said: “The one who would be the people’s candidate would become the leader of this coalition.” Mamata Banerjee was of the view that the issue was not important at this stage because the alliance had many leaders capable of playing the Prime Minister’s role, and that right now the focus was on “BJP bhagao” (push the BJP out). The rest could wait until after the election.
The sense at the end of all this was that there would be a broad understanding among parties in each State for strategic seat-sharing to prevent a division of anti-BJP votes. Singhvi pointed out that the BJP had been the beneficiary of a division of votes in 2014 and that this time that should be avoided at all costs. The understanding is that this sort of strategic seat-sharing would work against the BJP in many States, including the big ones such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and the smaller ones like Delhi and Jharkhand and also in Bihar, where the Grand Alliance experiment was successful in the 2015 Assembly elections. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) was part of the alliance then but has since gone back to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Working out seat-sharing adjustments, however, will not be easy. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the S.P. and the BSP announced their alliance ahead of the Kolkata rally, leaving three seats for the RLD and only two for the Congress, Amethi and Rae Bareili, considered the grand old party’s pocket boroughs for many decades. In response, the Congress has announced its intention to contest all 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. It has also made a major tactical move by appointing Priyanka Vadra, party president Rahul Gandhi’s sister, Congress general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh. The party expects this to enthuse its workers in the State unit and galvanise them to take on the BJP in at least 15 to 20 seats.
Eastern Uttar Pradesh has 30 Lok Sabha seats. By all indications, the Congress, alongside its campaign for the general election, will push for the carving out of a separate State of Poorvanchal from the districts in the region. Already, leaders like Jairam Ramesh, a key member of the Congress’ policy formulation team, have called for the reorganisation of Uttar Pradesh. Ramesh spoke of it while delivering the CD Deshmukh memorial lecture in January. The Congress leadership expects this to have a positive electoral impact. The Congress is also preparing for an alliance with the Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party (Lohia), the outfit launched by Shivpal Yadav, brother of S.P. founder Mulayam Singh Yadav. A politically active Priyanka Vadra will certainly cut into the BJP vote base, especially its upper-caste core, but there is also a perception that her proactive presence will take away votes from the S.P.-BSP alliance. Evidently, notwithstanding the bonhomie that was on display at the Kolkata rally, working out an acceptable and effective understanding and seat-sharing formula will not be easy. Similar issues are expected to come up in other States such as Bihar.
Central to these issues is the new assertiveness that the Congress leadership at various levels seems to have acquired following recent Assembly election victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Political observers and activists belonging to all parties, including the Congress, say that after the victories in these States the Congress’ sense of entitlement has risen to an extent that is disproportionate to its actual influence on the ground. Even in Bihar, where the party’s alliance with the RJD is time-tested, there are reports that the Congress’ demand for seats is unexpectedly high.
In this context, the party’s participation in the Kolkata rally came about after much rumination. By all indications, the central leadership was practically forced to acknowledge the significance of the occasion and send representatives.
BJP scoffs at unity show
The BJP has tried to belittle the show of unity of the opposition, with Prime Minister Modi calling it an “alliance against the people” and party president Amit Shah lampooning it as a multi-headed directionless political creature with as many as nine aspirants for the Prime Minister’s post. Nonetheless, BJP units across several States are clearly jittery after the rally and follow-up events. A senior BJP leader considered close to the the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh leadership in Uttar Pradesh told Frontline that the formation of the S.P.-BSP alliance had weakened the BJP’s prospects in at least 60 seats. “With similar alignments bound to happen in other States, the BJP is staring at the loss of a minimum of 100 seats from the 2014 Lok Sabha tally,” the leader said. The Sangh Parivar is also of the view that the opposition alliance would give a greater fillip to the campaign on alleged EVM tampering. One of the concrete steps that came out of the rally was the formation of a four-member committee comprising Akhilesh Yadav, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Satish Mishra and Arvind Kejriwal to take up the matter with the Election Commission.
The effect of the opposition manoeuvres has started reflecting in pre-election surveys. A recent survey predicted a BJP rout in Uttar Pradesh. It said the ruling party would get just five of the State’s 80 seats if the S.P., the BSP and the Congress came together, and 18 if the Congress was on its own. Clearly, there are new writings on the wall and the Kolkata rally has etched its own unique pictures on it.