Thursday, June 20, 2024

Political Line | Big Picture: There is nothing inevitable about opposition unity

(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu. You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)

The expulsion of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from the Lok Sabha has suddenly changed the dynamics of Opposition politics in India. Before I explain, let me add a caveat: at the moment it is too early to spot any public outrage against the BJP or any groundswell of support for Mr. Gandhi. But the sudden turn of events has forced several Opposition parties, particularly those who were wary of the Congress, to revise their positions.  

Soon after the disqualification of Mr. Gandhi, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and Delhi Chief Minister (CM) Arvind Kejriwal announced this was not the fight of the Congress alone. “A conspiracy is being hatched to eliminate non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them. We have differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this,” said Mr. Kejriwal. 

Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee said, “Today we have witnessed a new low of Indian democracy. While BJP leaders with criminal antecedents are inducted into the cabinet, Opposition leaders are disqualified for their speeches,” she said.  

To appreciate the significance of the reactions of Kejriwal and Banerjee we need to recall what they were doing and saying earlier in the week. Ms. Banerjee received Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav in Kolkata. Both said the Congress and the BJP were the same for them, and it was for the Congress to decide what it would do to defeat the BJP. Akhilesh Yadav reiterated his equidistance policy towards the two national parties.

Ms. Banerjee even took potshots at Mr. Gandhi: “The BJP is not letting Parliament function in order to establish Rahul Gandhi as the leader of the Opposition. If Rahul remains leader of the Opposition, nobody would be able to defeat Narendra Modi, because Rahul is Modi’s biggest TRP,” Ms. Banerjee told her party leadership.

Then Ms. Banerjee arrived in Bhubaneswar to meet her Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik, of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Both agreed to work together to protect the federal system of India.

Mr. Kejriwal had invited seven non-Congress, non-BJP Chief Ministers for dinner in Delhi – but nobody turned up.

What was the intent of all these moves? Superfluously they all look like genuine efforts at expanding and enhancing the opposition space, but the real effect is the further strengthening of the BJP. Talks of a Congress-less front against the BJP creates confusion, and weakens the Congress claim to be the natural leader of the anti-BJP front in India. 

Now, note the fact that Ms. Banerjee had stopped calling out Mr. Modi for several months. Regional opposition parties are under severe pressure from investigations by central agencies. In parliament the TMC had made tactical retreats in favour of the BJP. 

Mr. Kejriwal, who had for a long period stopped naming the PM before restarting, was scathing after the disqualification. He said Mr. Modi was the least educated and the most corrupt Prime Minister India has had. 

In the guise of proposing multiple opposition fronts and questioning the credentials of the Congress, they were effectively smoothening the way for the BJP for 2024. That’s when the Surat verdict came, which was quickly followed up by the BJP with Mr. Gandhi’s disqualification from Lok Sabha.  

At this point, the regional leaders had to rethink their strategy. First, there is a question of personal survival. They perhaps felt despite their softened politics towards the BJP, they too could be targeted. By going for the jugular, i.e. Mr. Gandhi, the BJP signalled to other parties that its take-no-prisoner politics was limitless. 

Secondly, these parties suddenly sense possible public outrage against the BJP in the run-up to the election. If that does happen, these parties want to ride that wave, and they cannot be tacitly playing alongside the BJP in isolating the Congress. Instead, the attempt will have to be to align with the Congress at this point and wait for the opportunity to get the best possible bargain out of it.  

There are several parties that have not reacted. The Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) in power in Andhra Pradesh, and the BJD in Odisha did not offer any support to the Congress or Mr. Gandhi immediately. They will weigh their options, and might respond later. Other parties that have now come out in support of the Congress too will weigh the pros and cons in the days to come.  

The Big Picture is that the expulsion of Rahul Gandhi from the Lok Sabha has set off a churn among regional parties, but that is no guarantee that a unified, galvanised opposition is in the making ahead of 2024. 

Federalism Tract: Notes on managing Indian diversity 

In what could be a game changer ahead of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly elections scheduled for April-May this year, the ruling BJP government has scrapped the reservation of 4% given to Muslims in Karnataka and distributed it to two dominant communities — Veerashaiva-Lingayats and Vokkaligas — at 2% each in jobs and admissions in educational institutions. 

As the countdown to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls begins, the two poles in Uttar Pradesh politics have once again started serenading the Other Backward Classes (OBC) voters who will decide the outcome of 80 seats. In 2014 and 2019, the BJP won 71 and 62 of these seats, respectively, by evoking the Hindu identity of the non-Yadav OBCs and Most Backward Castes (MBCs), who together constitute around 40% of the State’s population.

“Unlike the hard sciences, establishing causal links of discrimination is challenging. However, the lack of tools to establish causality does not negate the presence of discrimination…. Discrimination is not necessarily a one-off, high-pitched melodramatic event of hurling abuses at somebody. It is a layered and continuous process that happens through everyday doses, steadily creating an atmosphere of ‘us’ and ‘them’.’  A perspective by two IIT alumni on what they saw and how discrimination operated on the pretext of merit.

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