Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Opposition is living in a bubble. And it just burst

Stung by defeat, some Opposition MPs are privately wondering why the election for Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson was fought at all Rajya Sabha,Harivansh,BJP
Rajya Sabha Chairperson M Venkaiah Naidu greets newly-elected RS Deputy Chairperson Harivansh Narayan Singh during the Monsoon session of Parliament, New Delhi, August 9(PTI)

These days there is an inexplicable smugness in the opposition camp. Their squiggles on the back of an envelope tell them that 2019 will bring “achche din” for them.

They genuinely believe that the arithmetic is stacked against the Narendra Modi government ever since Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav sealed their deal for Uttar Pradesh. Their conspiratorial conversations are not about how to beat the BJP; but, who among them, can be prime minister. Will it be Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Rahul Gandhi, or a surprise contender like Pranab Mukherjee?

The opposition is living in a bubble — one that just burst— when it badly botched the election to the post of deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha.

Yes, in itself, the election has no bearing on 2019, except as a blueprint for political alignments and to discover who is malleable, moveable and unshakeable. The defeat of the Congress candidate tells us two things. 

First, a grand alliance of all non-BJP parties is still a myth. Many regional parties can be flipped and turned, even when the BJP is the main challenger on their home turf, such as in Odisha. A national Mahagathbandhan is still a nebulous idea, which, even if formed, is clearly fragile and easily breakable. 

And second, there is a curious complacency in the opposition parties, the Congress in particular. This gives the BJP, with its competitive spirit and win-at-all-costs hunger, a clear edge.

The first giveaway of both sloppy floor management and an absence of a killer instinct is the number of absentees. The division of votes shows that apart from Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP and Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP, whose parliamentarians chose a tactical absence from the vote, there were still ten MPs from the Congress, the Samajawadi Party, the Trinamool Congress and the DMK who were not present to vote. By contrast, the BJP managed to rally all its troops, save one missing MP from NPF, an alliance partner. Even Arun Jaitley, who has been ill, turned up to vote in the election. The BJP showed that it still plays every election to win.

The choice of candidate in Harivansh Narayan Singh was also a strategically smart move. The relationship between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi has always been somewhat open to courtship from other suitors. In fact, Nitish Kumar is said to have been more than willing to review his partnership with the BJP less than a year after he flipped and joined the other side. Insiders say direct contact had been established between him and Rahul Gandhi over the past couple of months to discuss the contours of a new arrangement, but the Congress simply did not move fast enough. Whether this was from mistrust, wariness or simply a laggard pace of decision-making is not known. Instead, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah swiftly used the chance to mend the relationship, and with this election they have at least made it tougher for Nitish to make any dramatic new moves.

If the Prime Minister was working the phone lines himself to Naveen Patnaik and K Chandrashekar Rao (TRS), Rahul Gandhi missed that chance with the Delhi Chief Minister. The two parties may be on the opposite sides of the trenches in the capital, but so are Patnaik and the BJP in Odisha. If the BJP could temporarily put regional battles aside, why couldn’t the Congress? To not be able to garner the support of Arvind Kejriwal (whose fractious relationship with Modi is no secret) and Mehbooba Mufti (who has been unceremoniously dumped by the BJP) speaks of extremely poor people-management skills.

Stung by defeat, some opposition MPs are privately wondering why the election was fought at all. Might not a consensus candidate been better than exposing faultlines in the opposition at a time when crafting a larger alliance is still a work in progress? Others believe that, just like the BJP stepped back and chose a regional player as its nominee, so, too, should have the Congress. For instance, the TDP was keen to contest, say sources. Or a candidate may have been chosen from the DMK at a time when the party is on a clear upswing in Tamil Nadu and is being wooed assiduously by every major formation. Even the original idea of a Sharad Pawar-backed NCP nominee may have put some pressure on the Shiv Sena by making regional pride a factor. Lastly, the opposition failed to make the Muzaffarpur rapes a national issue, as had happened with the December 16, 2012, Delhi gang rape. Otherwise, Nitish Kumar’s party would have been much more politically tarnished, and choosing a candidate from it nay have posed a risk.

The Congress and several other opposition parties are playing for basic survival in 2019. Their lack of urgency and anxiety is befuddling.

Barkha Dutt

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author-HT

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