Uniting a fractured Opposition
Having been a frontrunner, UPA must revive itself to take on the powerful NDA.
What is the main challenge before the Congress party which dreams of containing the resurgent BJP? It would be to reinvent the United Progressive Alliance before the next Lok Sabha elections. The Opposition is unable to take on the government on serious matters beyond demonetisation, GST and farmers' issues. It is fractured, divided, directionless, and lacks a strong narrative. A classic example was the Presidential elections last year where there was cross-voting.
The only magic wand that can stop the Modi juggernaut is the anti-BJP unity. Going by the current political scenario, the unity is eluding the Opposition for various reasons; although, in the 2014 general elections, BJP formed the government with only 31 per cent of the votes while 69 per cent voted for the Opposition. With the Congress becoming weaker, ruling in just six states and several regional players getting stronger, unity is evading the Opposition. As matters stand today, no viable coalition or party is in a position to pose any serious challenge to BJP, which is an advantage to the lotus party.
The first challenge before the Congress is to take a lead in uniting the Opposition and reinventing the UPA. While in 2004, when the then Congress President Sonia Gandhi was able to gobble up a coalition to take on the Vajpayee government, today, the scene has changed. She is not in good health and has handed over the party to her son Rahul Gandhi. Most opposition leaders like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Mulayam Singh or Mayawati would not like to work under his leadership. That is why Sonia Gandhi has again taken the task of forging a strong anti-Narendra Modi front recently. Though Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a powerful leader after the party's spectacular performance in the recent Gujarat Assembly and Rajasthan by-elections, most UPA allies prefer Sonia Gandhi to her son and have no issues in uniting under her leadership again.
The second challenge is who will bell the cat to unite the Opposition? The regional parties are not willing to give the weakened Congress that primacy. Only last month, the NCP chief Sharad Pawar called for Opposition unity and held an impressive 'Save Constitution March' in Maharashtra. Though the Congress also participated in it, the Congress leaders were wary of playing second fiddle to the NCP, which is only a regional party. Within days, Sonia Gandhi came to the forefront and convened a meeting of Opposition parties in the Parliament. Even as this was going on, the Trinamool camp started talking about how Mamata Banerjee would be the best bet to unite the Opposition. Therefore, the Congress has to sort out who could bring everyone under one umbrella.
The third challenge is agreeing on a Prime Ministerial candidate. Though the Congress may be agreeable to a wider coalition with the regional parties, the issue of a Prime Ministerial candidate will pose problems. The Congress will never support any candidate from any other party and on the other hand, the others may not agree to Rahul Gandhi as the opposition Prime Ministerial candidate. Some regional chieftains like Mamata Banerjee are strong claimants. Alternatively, they may form a front and leave the question of a Prime Ministerial face after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But, a front without a Prime Ministerial candidate will be weak against the BJP-led NDA with Modi as their leader.
The fourth challenge is to check the surge of BJP in the Northeast and the South. Congress and BJP are pitted against each other in only seven states. The party is already at its peak in 12 big states including Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, with 272 (after Rajasthan bypolls) of the 336 NDA seats in its kitty. It has reached the peak in the north and that is why BJP is looking to the south and the northeast for expansion.
There are 25 seats to grab in the Northeastern region. There was a time when Congress ruled almost all the states in the region but today, the scenario is different with BJP and its allies ruling in five of the seven states.
The Congress needs to make efforts to check BJP's resurgence in the South, and also retain Karnataka in the next month's Assembly polls. Karnataka and Punjab are the two big states that the party is ruling at present. South had been the stronghold of the Congress at one time, but gradually it has lost space to regional parties. The Congress has been riding piggyback on DMK or AIADMK since 1967. In Kerala, the Congress-led UDF has been alternating with the left-led LDF. The united Andhra Pradesh had been a Congress stronghold but the emergence of Telugu Desam Party and Telangana Rashtra Samithi, has weakened it further with the result, the Congress is nowhere in the bifurcated Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
Former Finance Minister Chidambaram has put it succinctly at his book launch function recently that it was "very difficult" for the Congress to bring all Opposition parties on one platform on every issue. "On some issues, many will join. On many issues, some will join. I think it is ambitious to expect that single-state parties which are almost seven or eight parties…. to come on to the Congress platform on every single issue." Reinventing UPA could perhaps be the only way to unite the fractured Opposition.
(Views expressed are strictly personal)