As Sonia seeks Opposition unity, Rahul bides time

Rasheed Kidwai | 15 Mar 2018 02:18 PM

Leaders from a cross section of parties registered their presence at the dinner. PIC/INC India (Twitter)

Sonia Gandhi’s words that the cacophony of politics is the very music of our democracy ring true in the context of the recent byelection results and attempts at forging opposition unity among 20 warring parties.

Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Araria Lok Sabha bypoll results have lessons for everyone. While it opens up the 2019 Lok Sabha election to many possibilities, it would be simply naïve to underestimate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own capability to turn the tables. The BJP has a master tactician in Amit Shah in addition to a robust election-machinery and a huge army of Sangh Parivar volunteers even outside the political theatre.

The reluctant coming together of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party is at a nascent stage. Given the whimsical nature of the top SP and BSP leadership, the future of this alliance would always be at the mercy of ‘Behanji’ Mayawati and ‘Netaji’ Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mulayam has a rich history of cutting behind-the-scene murky deals that often seemingly harm lofty interests.

Paradoxically, the biggest obstacle in forging opposition unity on the lines of Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and to a lesser extent, the likes of Harkishen Singh Surjeet and V P Singh, is Sonia Gandhi who is herself a prime mover of unity moves. Sonia recently hosted a dinner where 20 non-BJP/NDA partners were present.

On the face of it, the event looked like a promising beginning, but in reality it was a damp squib. None of these regional parties ranging from SP, BSP, Trinamool, NCP to Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) is prepared to play second fiddle to the Congress. Privately, Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and the rest are sceptical over Sonia’s motive to junk her retirement plans. In their view, the mother in Sonia is more anxious to politically settle son Rahul than to have a broad anti-Modi front. Many regional leaders, including Pawar, Mamata and Chandrshekhar Rao have a chequered history with the Nehru-Gandhi family.

As I have mentioned at length in my recently published book, ‘Ballot – Ten episodes that have shaped India’s democracy’ (Hachette), cult of a personality figure has been central to all Lok Sabha polls since the first general election held in 1951-52. Nehru was largely instrumental in Congress success in 1951-52, 1957 and 1962 parliamentary polls. Indira Gandhi dominated the political scene till her death in 1984. Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sonia had their moments while likes of PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh remained under the shadow.

The present day opposition, including the Congress, has no match to counter Modi’s towering personality cult and it is going to be the biggest handicap for 2019. Like Indira, Modi has amazing capacity to make any election in to ‘him versus the rest’ and emerge victorious.

When Indira found socialists and backward class leaders closing ranks under Lohia, she used her gender and ‘humble origins’ to counter it. On 20 January 1967 at Raebareli, Indira invoked her womanhood as a source of strength, earning the informal title of ‘Mother India’ with a speech where she called the entire country her family, and highlighting how she had to take care of its burdens.

At a public meeting in Jaipur, around the same time, Indira had hit out at former royals and targeted Maharani Gayatri Devi, who had won the 1962 Lok Sabha poll by a mammoth margin. Gayatri Devi, a glamorous queen, had fancied herself Indira’s rival. Gayatri Devi worked hard to bring the Swatantra Party, which believed in free enterprise and closer ties with the West, close to the Right wing Jana Sangh. Indira was direct and asked the voters ‘to go ask the maharajas and maharanis how much they had done for the people in their states when they ruled them and what they did to fight the British while they lived in luxury at the cost of the people.’

Decades later, Modi masterly used his humble ‘chaiwala’ origins as a contrast to Congress's ‘elitist’ leadership. Modi’s cause was greatly helped by Mani Shankar Aiyar.

Interestingly, the Congress under Rahul’s leadership and Sonia’s watchful eyes is not disheartened by the party’s rather pathetic performance in the recent byelections. As long as Modi’s juggernaut can be checked or kept on a leash, 10 Janpath has reasons to be happy. At 48, Rahul is not in a tearing hurry, nor does he harbour prime ministerial ambitions. Rather, he wants time to settle down and take over the party leadership more effectively.

Rahul’s priority is Karnataka and then MadhyaPradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh  Assembly polls where success would provide the Congress with necessary oxygen to keep it going. The division of work between mother and son is not without significance or dividends.

Rasheed Kidwai is the Associate Editor with The Telegraph. His Twitter handle is @rasheedkidwai

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