After Tuesday’s meeting of two AAP chief ministers Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann with Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, in a joint press meet none of them mentioned the name of the Congress while harping on the need of opposition unity for 2024. Both these parties, AAP and Trinamool Congress, have the Congress as rival in their respective states, i.e. Delhi, Punjab and Bengal.
Their reaction to any success of the Congress party has always been lukewarm in the recent past. Mamata Banaerjee did not attend the swearing-in of the new Chief Minister of Karnataka. Even on the day Congress stamped a spectacular victory in Karnataka, Mamata Banerjee neither named Cong nor Rahul Gandhi in her statement on the electoral outcome. Still she was invited for the swearing in, while Kejrawal was not.
Such reaction of some opposition parties is easily understandable: A strong Congress is not liked by the non-Cong opposition as it stifles their scope of assertion and their claim to the top slot of the country, both of which sell well in their respective states. This is however more evident among the parties which are not in direct alliance with the Congress.
Both these leaders—Kejriwal and Banerjee—are in close touch with Nitish Kumar and Akhilesh Yadav, who too in a varying degree are less interested in the Congress. All these parties are interested in pre-poll adjustment if only in their respective states Congress give up their claim to any significant role and allow them to contest almost all the seats.
In fact, all these people are playing an old game that the Left had played in its heyday when it ruled 3 states. Back then, in the last century, the CPI(M) for decades tried to weaken the Cong first, and then extract support from it for a Third Front government (in which they never participated). The entire Third Front (consisting of a motley combination of parties like the JD, SP, the Akalis, TDP, AGP, DMK/ADMK) dreamt of growing slightly larger than the Cong so that the latter is compelled to support it.
They succeeded only once, in 1996. Instead of supporting Narsimha Rao’s Congress that got 140 seats out of 545, they imposed on the country a government led by Janata Dal that had secured only 46 seats, and the experiment ended in a disaster. Had they not experimented with this dangerous political game, a Rao-led coalition government could have completed five years, and the country’s future could have been different.
That experiment ended in 1998, when BJP emerged as the unexpected winner of this game and formed a majority-supported government for the first time. Though it was brought down a year later, in the ensuing election it returned to power and lasted a full term. The so-called Third Front experiment thus ushered in the BJP era in this country. The BJP was then ousted from power in 2004, but came back a decade later to rule for the next ten years. The next election in 2024 will decide whether it will be extended further.
Perhaps the only way to challenge the BJP is rallying around the Congress which is still by far the largest opposition party and the only contender against the BJP is states like MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Karnataka, and small states like Uttarakhand, Himachal and some other even smaller states in the North-East. The opposition can wrest power at the centre only if the Congress is strengthened and can successfully contain the BJP in these states.
But leaders like Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee still love to float the old idea of a third-party led government, though it is not likely that Rahul Gandhi will ever concede to this demand, particularly if Congress emerges as the largest opposition party which in any way it will. Of course some parties will be firmly with the Congress, like the NCP, Shiv Sens’s Thackeray faction, JMM, and DMK. While the Left will remain open to any form of non-BJP government, it will be more inclined to have a Congress-led government.
Meanwhile, the other stream of opposition—Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee or Akhilesh Yadav—is busy with their self-interest and is willing to join Congress only with a one-on-one contest formula accepted. It means the Congress will cede everything in states like Bengal, UP, Delhi and, more importantly Punjab. It is just another attempt to weaken the Congress further by restricting it to lesser number of states.
Of course it benefits the TMC and the AAP the most. Banerjee is now scared that the Muslim vote that was the most crucial and single largest factor in her victory in the last assembly election is fast shifting towards the Congress-Left-ISF combination. A few months ago, the Congress has defeated the TMC in a by-election in Muslim dominated Sagardighi assembly constituency of Murshidabad district.
It will be interesting to see whether these two streams of opposition parties can reach an adjustment before the Lok Sabha elections. Or else, the scenario will remain open for calculations and machinations after the elections. – INDIA NEWS STREAM