Marginalised Opposition

It would be sometime before one gets to know who actually won in the game of brinkmanship on the issue of the UPA candidate for the President’s office – Congress president Sonia Gandhi, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee or Samajwadi Party boss Mulayam Singh Yadav. As of now between the three it looks to be advantage Congress with Mamata ploughing a lone furrow. Mamata’s alliance with Mulayam Singh, anyway, was never expected be for a long term.

Given her style of politics, which is driven by Banerjee’s personal charisma and aggression, she is never known to be part of any political conglomeration for a very long time. People voted her for being bullish and obviously she sees no need for course correction, at least as of now. Banerjee cannot afford to give up her politics of aggression for politics of accommodation. Therefore one would have to wait for the events to unfold in the coming days to know between the three who was the actual winner.

However, the events of the past week, especially the NDA meeting on Sunday, amply made clear the lack of effectiveness of the official opposition – the BJP and its allies. During the tenure of UPA I, the Left parties despite supporting the government had usurped the space and the functions of the Opposition. In UPA II, this role to an extent has gone to the Trinamool Congress, which unlike the Left, is not just supporting the government but is also part of it. This also gives it that extra leverage to have the Congress on the tenterhooks.

Soon after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called up senior BJP leader LK Advani, BJP president Sushma Swaraj and BJP president Nitin Gadkari informing them about the UPA decision to field finance minister Pranab Mukherjee for the post of president, the BJP came out with its official reaction regretting that the announcement was made before either taking the Opposition into confidence or at any stage discussing the matter with them.

The statement betrayed a very non-enviable position that the Opposition finds itself in. One, it doesn’t enjoy a cordial working relation with the government to get invited for a discussion for national consensus. Two, the government, given the fragmented state of the Opposition parties, finds it fangless to invite any kind of awe needing rapprochement. Their state of helplessness has only been reiterated by their inability to decide on a presidential nominee at their meeting on Sunday.

The BJP should be grateful to the prime minister that he took the pains of calling three different leaders to convey the message for nobody really knows who is calling the shots in the party. The prime minister’s courtesies probably saved BJP leaders from some imminent internal bickering.

Why does the Opposition find itself so marginalised today? This has largely been due to the lack of initiative on the part of the largest Opposition party to forge a national counter to the UPA. Party president Nitin Gadkari, leaders of Opposition in Parliament Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley have all proved to be unequal to the job of winning confidence and acceptance of the leaders of the regional parties.

Through the 1990s, the duo of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani managed to create that counter, which culminated in the formation of the NDA government. The two managed to do it so well because they had the ability to define their respective roles within the party and also there was no visible clamour for larger share in the power pie between the two. They also created a team of political workers which could do the bidding for them. And importantly, at no point of time in their long and distinguished career did the two allow their personal ego override the party agenda.

They also managed to forge the alliance by roping in effective leaders from especially the Socialist stream to do the bidding for them, where their direct intervention was not desirable. The energetic George Fernandes effortlessly fitted into the role of the convenor of the National Democratic Alliance. He could hold forth with Farooq Abdullah, Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu, J Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee with equal ease and self-assurance as he could with Vajpayee and Advani. He even foisted a Samata Party chief minister in Manipur – Radha Madhav Koijam.

The present NDA convenor Sharad Yadav doesn’t have either Fernandes’ acumen or poise to enjoy same acceptance among the partners as a master interlocutor, which Fernandes was. Yadav’s task of creating a convergence becomes all the more difficult as the Opposition ranks today is surfeit with regional satraps with national ambitions. Within the BJP too, the national party is faced with the rise of Gujarat BJP and the onerous task of reining it. Their inability to do so has once again been reflected in the NDA leaving the decision to contest the Presidential polls to the chief ministers.

In the past few years, the edifice of the NDA has been crumbling. No initiative whatsoever has been taken by the current BJP leaders to repair the ranks. In the past five years has anybody from the party tried to restore relations with their able ally in Odisha – Naveen Patnaik. Has there been any worthwhile interaction with other possible partners like Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, Babulal Marandi in Jharkhand and for that matter J Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu.

The laid back attitude of the BJP leadership is best illustrated in their eagerness and comfort to give only the nuanced reaction to the government or the UPA moves. Politics is all about initiative, the art which the principal opposition party seems to have forgotten. Even the matter of presidential nomination, the NDA waited for the UPA to act with the exception of Advani who travelled to Chennai to broach the matter with Jayalalitha.

Despite being badly outnumbered, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in 2007 had managed to put up a very dignified fight thanks to his personal initiative. He had managed a campaign team of some young and vociferous leaders, who worked dedicatedly knowing full well that defeat was staring them in their face. Politics is all about contest; pitching for one’s political agenda, which needs will and energy. The BJP and for that matter the NDA as of now doesn’t look like a powerhouse.

Sidharth Mishra is President, Centre for Reforms, Development and Justice and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post.

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