A couple of weeks ago, as opposition leaders met over a zoom call to discuss some top posts within the INDIA alliance, a visibly angry Nitish Kumar walked out after Sonia Gandhi suggested that his name, which had been proposed by several parties, needed Mamata Banerjee’s nod as well.
Sources say that at this point, Rahul Gandhi intervened to tell everyone that Mamata, who was not attending the meeting, had squarely refused to back Nitish for the post. At this point, the Bihar Chief Minister said he would not accept the Convener’s position and logged off. The rest of them spent another few minutes trying to figure out how to calm him down.
What happened at this meeting is only a small glimpse into the train wreck that the opposition’s alliance has become. Sure, Nitish Kumar’s decision to walk back into the BJP’s arms is nothing but cynical opportunism, by a man who will clearly do anything to stay in power. Even political journalists have lost count of Nitish Kumar’s somersaults which are now the subject of endless memes on the internet.
The political earthquake that came with Nitish’s exit from INDIA says much more about him than anyone else. The eternal weather vane realised that post the Ram temple, the BJP’s political rise is virtually unstoppable, and faced with growing calls from a section of his party to go back to the BJP for some months now, Nitish decided to jump ship- again.
But his move is also a reflection of just how clueless and rudderless the opposition camp is. And as far as perception goes, it is a body blow. Nitish was the architect of the INDIA grouping, he was the one who pushed for the opposition to come together in the first place. As an important leader from a Hindi heartland state and as someone leading the calls for a caste census, Nitish Kumar was definitely an asset to the opposition.
The opposition has been unravelling for a while now. We are now only a couple of months away from the general election but seat sharing pacts are not in place.
The Samajwadi Party made a surprise announcement the other day, giving 11 seats to the Congress in UP, which is more than fair given the Congress’ disastrous record in recent years but the Congress is not happy and wants around 20 seats. In fact the SP has also gone ahead and announced its first list of 16 candidates for the Lok Sabha polls.
Meanwhile, the AAP suddenly said it would not have a seat sharing pact with the Congress in Punjab while Mamata Banerjee said the same for Bengal. All of this has made it much harder for the Congress to bargain with remaining allies.
Seat sharing was always going to be difficult in a grouping this vast and contradictory but the Congress does not help matters with its attitude. They have a long history of treating allies badly, going back on their word and generally assuming they are deserving of more seats. The game has changed. Several regional parties are far stronger in their respective states today and the Congress is far weaker.
Taking potshots at each other
Then there is Rahul Gandhi’s latest Yatra which has come at a rather strange time. Instead of focusing on seat sharing, the top Congress leadership is busy with Rahul’s Yatra. Ideally, he should have done this like the previous one- started in September or October and finished by mid January. The allies have also been miffed at last minute invites to the Yatra.
Sources say Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge acknowledged this at the last INDIA meeting. It also has not helped that alliance leaders have been taking potshots at each other in public. For example, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of the Congress has been regularly attacking Mamata Banerjee and the TMC, even calling for President’s rule in Bengal.
But perhaps more than anything else, the greatest problem lies with the opposition’s messaging. Modi has successfully created a narrative around the mandir and mandal, where both religion and caste are his main planks but under the umbrella of “development for all”. This is not the 1990s when social justice was the central theme of parties like the SP, RJD and JDU. Even on the caste issue, the BJP has successfully wooed OBCs over the last decade.
The opposition is still struggling to figure out what it stands for. Modi bashing alone won’t work.