A New Opposition Front? Yes, If the Congress Plays the Role of the Left in 2004
Karnataka seems to be moving fast, from a BJP-mukt (BJP free) South India it is now leading the states in bringing about a major opposition unity on the lines of the erstwhile United Front. The circumstances are different as indeed are some of the players, but the oath taking of HD Kumaraswamy is fast turning into an occasion to bring the federal parties together against the BJP. To a point where the Chief Minister designate is leaving nothing to chance, and is currently in Delhi wooing and thanking Bahujan Samaj party leader Mayawati and meeting the Congress first family to tie up the loose ends.
If JD-S leader Danish Ali is right then the swearing in tomorrow will see a parade of Opposition leaders: National Conference from Jammu and Kashmir, Trinamool Congress from West Bengal, Rashtriya Janata Dal from Bihar, both Samajwadi party and BSP from Uttar Pradesh, Telugu Desam from Andhra Pradesh, Telegana Rashtriya Samiti from Telengana, Nationalist Congress Party from Maharashtra, DMK from Tamil Nadu along with the Left parties and of course the Congress that is in the state government as well.
All leaders spoken to in Delhi are of the view that one, the JD(S)-Congress alliance will hold; and two, it will help crystallise new Opposition unity with the Congress playing the cementing role as the Left had in 2004. The Left has been hit hard in these four years and is fighting for survival in West Bengal under Trinamool Congress rule and does not have the energy or the interest to provide the nucleus necessary for the others to coalesce.
The Congress party, vastly reduced in numbers under the bJP onslaught, has indicated a change in mindset after reaching out to the JD-S to form the government in Karnataka. It has demonstrated a capability—noted and commented upon by Opposition leaders—to put up a stiff fight against the antics of the BJP; and moreover has made it clear in the process that it is not looking to lead any Opposition coalition but is willing to consider all possibilities. This a senior Opposition leader said, has worked for most of the regional parties who have been fairly distrustful of the Congress insofar as this aspect is concerned.
In fact, it is here that the Left scored in 2004 as it was not seen as a challenger by the regional parties and trusted to keep its promises. The UPA came together really after the Left parties with 61 MPs decided to support the Congress and evovled a common minimum program acceptable to all. Left leaders did the running around and talking, clearing the table as it were for the Congress to eat on.
This time the Congress party is in a similar role, expected to smooth the creases and ensure that it cobbles up a coalition without treading on the ultra-sensitive toes of the regional leaders. Chandrababu Naidu for instance has not dropped the BJP in Andhra Pradesh for similar treatment by the Congress party in the state, and will no doubt want assurances to be built into the larger understanding and reflected in a common agenda. The same holds true for the two UP parties that have worked out a seat sharing system between themselves with the Congress clearly being seen here as a junior partner.
In West Bengal, it will not be the Left but the Congress that will have to walk the thin line between the communists and the Trinamool Congress and negotiate for a broad seat sharing that currently, of course, looks impossible. In states like Kerala the two can agree to disagree, except perhaps in few seats where the BJP has gained momentum over these years.
In short, the Congress will have to peddle from the back without really steering the Opposition cycle. The Left found this easy to do as its presence in states outside West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura was negligble and it had little to lose, but more to gain. Besides, the Left did occupy the higher moral ground insofar as alliances were concerned, carrying with it a level of trust and confidence that had worked well during the National Front and United Front experiments and again in 2004 when the United Progressive Alliance under the Congress party took birth.
The Congress has so far been finding this difficult, and even in Karnataka was confident of winning a second term on its own. The same has been true in all the other states that have gone to the polls, with the Congress gaining ground but not the government in Gujarat. In states where there are regional parties—as all of the above—the Congress will have to accept its drastically reduced role and not insist on leading from the front, and thereby getting the lions share of the seats. Its decision to give in to the Janata Dal-S after the BJP failed to get a clear majority in Karnataka is the only approach that will work in forging a new Opposition unity for the 2019 general elections. Based on the Congress realisation that it cannot look on the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls as an opportunity to revive, but instead as a holding operation strategically calculated to defeat the BJP through a larger opposition revival across India.
The current enthusiasm that led to statements from most state capitals in favour of Kuraswamy and new coalition government in Karnataka is not generated by the victory as it were, but by what opposition leaders are reading as a signal from the Congress party that it is prepared to shift from its self obseesed politics to embrace a larger whole.
The next few weeks will determine this in finer details. Interestingly BJP President Amit Shah is clearly aware of this shift and as his press conference today indicated he is worried. He just could not move away from the Congress during his long discourse. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is still silent on this, despite his 21 rallies during the campaign in the state.