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Opposition unity needed

Opposition unity needed
Just before the elections in 2004, I interviewed the DMK chief M Karunanidhi and asked him why he was becoming a part of the UPA. He paused for a minute and then explained that in his opinion there was space for the Sonia Gandhi-led UPA to emerge as an alternative. He could read the political situation so well, and the UPA came to power in 2004 and also returned in 2009. Has the time come for another opposition unity move?
Karunanidhi has been part of several coalition governments including the National Front, United Front, National Democratic Alliance and United Progressive Alliance at different times and he always correctly predicted the national as well as the local political environment. It is not sure whether his son M.K. Stalin has the same political understanding, but the 94th birthday of the nonagenarian leader was celebrated with much fanfare by not only the DMK but also the non-BJP opposition parties on June 3.

Although it was meant to be a celebration of the six decades of Karunanidhi as a legislator, besides his 94th birthday, the occasion was turned into a show of Opposition unity with a galaxy of leaders showing up to cheer the DMK patriarch. Akin to the show when the National Front, was floated in 1988 in Chennai, Karunanidhi's birthday celebration provided a platform for non-NDA parties to showcase the Opposition unity. It was also the coming of age of Stalin at the national level as he was the host.

While the birthday boy gave it a miss because of his health, the opposition leaders like the Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, CPI leader Sudhakar Reddy, CPI-M general secretary Sitaram Yechury and former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah addressed thousands of DMK supporters gathered at Chennai's YMCA grounds on Saturday. Pointing out at the galaxy of leaders, Omar Abdullah wrapped up saying that it "truly represents north to west to south to east" of India.

The opposition has now realised that the BJP is surging forward because of lack of credible challengers. The Chennai meeting was the second public show of unity among the opposition parties and their move to challenge the BJP in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Congress President Sonia Gandhi's lunch to the leaders of 17 opposition parties last week was the first.

Talk of opposition unity surfaces whenever the ruling party or a coalition becomes stronger. While such experiments had taken place earlier, they were all short-lived experiments, except the UPA. For instance, after the Emergency in 1975, the non-Congress parties combined and formed the Janata government led by Morarji Desai in 1977, but it could not last long, leading to the return of Indira Gandhi in 1980. The National Front government led by V.P. Singh and supported by the Left and the Right also did not last long. Then came the United Front experiment with the Congress supporting the non-BJP coalition, but this too lasted just two and a half years. Only when the UPA was formed against the BJP, it succeeded for two terms.

It is a long road before 2019 polls, and it takes a lot to make this unity move a success. The first litmus test will be the upcoming Presidential polls where the combined opposition is planning to put up a joint candidate. The next test will come when the BJP and the Congress have a direct fight in eight states which will go to polls in the next two years including Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Karnataka.

Then comes the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The present unity efforts are meant to sustain until then. In politics, one week is said to be long and two years is really long as anything may happen. It might be an obstacle race for the opposition to form a Mahagatbandhan against the BJP from now on. Can the BSP and SP, Left, and the Trinamool Congress and such bitter enemies at the state level forget their differences and remain together? Beyond an agreement between the leaders of the opposition parties, unity and harmony at the ground level are required for challenging the BJP. The opposition also needs a common minimum agenda. There are many strong state leaders, but the opposition should agree on a strong leader at the national level. Above all, there is a need for a counter-narrative as just Modi-bashing is only strengthening him.

The unity moves in the opposition ranks is a welcome effort, as any democracy requires a robust and credible opposition. On paper, the opposition parties have the necessary strength to defeat the BJP, which had won 282 seats by polling 31.34 per cent of the votes and the NDA winning 337 seats with 38.5 per cent votes. The unity will come at a cost as there are several inherent contradictions. Some parties like the Congress are national, others like the SP and BSP are caste-based, the Left parties are ideological, and some others are less principled and more mundane. Therefore, only the threat of annihilation would make them come together. The only way to stop the bloom of the lotus is for them to come together forgetting their differences, egos, personal ambitions and opportunism. This is easier said than done. IPA
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Kalyani Shankar

Kalyani Shankar

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