An excitement of sorts was injected into politics in the national capital this week with the Opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi hosting a breakfast meeting with fellow travellers of 'like-minded' parties, an euphemism for those in the camp opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Visuals of leaders of 15 political parties partaking in a working breakfast meeting at the Constitution Club; barely a kilometer away from Parliament House was intended to convey a message both to the BJP government and to detractors within the Congress, with a cycle yatra protesting fuel prices thrown-in for visual effect.
It was for the first time that Rahul Gandhi exhibited his comfort level in engaging with leaders of various parties, some of whom are seniors by several leagues. It was a calculated projection of greater acceptability of the Congress leader around the theme of unity in the opposition ranks inside Parliament.
Over the past two years, while the Opposition parties have been raising issues of concern there was a lack of focus with parties with separate priorities preferring to adopt tactics to highlight issues without a common cause allowing the ruling coalition the advantage of diffusion of forces.
After days of backchannel and steady spadework by seniors, Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and Lok Sabha Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the assembled leaders identified issues and accorded priority—discussions on the Pegasus spyware with the Home Minister in attendance followed by another on the three farm laws and farmers agitation now in its eighth-month.
With just over a week left before the scheduled August 13 date of adjournment of the Monsoon session, a major bloc of the opposition are sticking together while a section including the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Aam Aadmi Party preferring a different note. The conspicuous absence of these two put to shade an equally unthinkable development at the meeting, Trinamool Congress and the Left Parties MPs in the same room.
These are early days of the major opposition bloc working together with the Congress taking a march in the battle of perception in providing leadership. The development comes in the backdrop of three events—two outside and one within the Congress tent.
Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar forays
Sensing a vacuum in the leadership space in the opposition, veteran Sharad Pawar was first off the block this year when a party member provided a platform for several parties to brainstorm the drift in national politics. Significantly, the Congress stayed away and soon the curated arrangement came unstuck. Pawar stepped in to swiftly reject any allusions to a resurrection of the age-old chimera of Indian politics—a Third Front. The verdict, any formation of parties opposed to the BJP cannot be without Congress.
And then Mamata Banejree strode in. Armed with her Trinamool Congress’s massive victory in West Bengal in the face of a determined push by the BJP in recent Assembly elections, the West Bengal Chief Minister did a reconnaissance of the landscape.
This was not her first foray. Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Mamata Banerjee went along with the Telugu Desam Party and Chandrababu Naidu, one of the architects of the 1996-United Front experiment. While the Modi wave swept in the BJP to power, Naidu was a washout even in his home state failing to win the trust of the electors in the Andhra Pradesh assembly. The opposition since then remained rudderless.
While it is perfectly legitimate for a leader to aspire for the top political post in the country, pan-India acceptance and the ability to bring about disparate parties on one platform requires dexterity of the demonstrated by the likes of Vishwanath Pratap Singh or Harkishan Singh Surjeet during the 1989-2004 period in national politics.
The storm within
Last year in autumn, the Grand Old Party witnessed a rare burst when 23 leaders raised the sense of listlessness in the party, underscoring the need to demonstrate effective leadership and suggesting sweeping changes in the party structure. After the initial attack, the G23 pulled spoilers on its glide path agreeing to a timetable for organisational polls and over time one of the signatories on the letter to Congress president joined the BJP.
The Tuesday meeting should come as a breather in the party which continues to emit confusing signals on the central leadership issue. The impression is that despite his perceived reluctance to take charge again, key appointments and decisions in the party are being taken by him aided by his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra while mother Sonia Gandhi remains the interim president.
Meanwhile, there is little to suggest that the stalemate in Parliament would end any time soon. With Prime Minister Modi attacking the opposition for disrupting the Parliament session and characterising it as an ‘insult’ to the people, Rahul Gandhi on his part termed the government approach as negating the wish of 60 percent the people of the country, a calculation based on the vote share in the last Lok Sabha elections. On Wednesday, Rajya Sabha members of 14 parties including the AAP joined the issue with the government apportioning blame on it for not accepting informed discussions on issues.
The ruling coalition parliamentary managers would require summoning all skills to break the deadlock through a mutually acceptable formula. Meanwhile, will the momentum created by the Tuesday meet last? With due apologies to a famous ad line: “A lot can happen over breakfast”, just that the ingredients need to be right for a political brew in the making.
— KV Prasad is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. The views expressed are personal.
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)