By Amulya Ganguli
Mamata Banerjee’s mega rally in Kolkata had one notable absentee. Although many in the Who’s Who of opposition stalwarts graced the occasion, Rahul Gandhi was conspicuous by his absence.
While some like Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, who overcame his party’s deep animus against the Congress in Rahul’s company during the recent assembly elections, was present along with the DMK’s M.K. Stalin, who had recently proposed the Congress president’s name for the Prime Minister’s post if and when the opposition mahagathbandhan won the general election, his hero was nowhere to be seen.
His place was taken by the Congress’s Mallikarjun Kharge. But the void was palpable. It was like staging “Hamlet” without the Prince of Denmark.
True, Mayawati was also absent with her confidant, Satish Mishra, representing her. But she has recently been following a temperamental line of her own, abruptly breaking off ties with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and seemingly dictating the terms for her alliance with the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav in UP.
She can hardly be regarded, therefore, as someone who is amenable in the matter of winning friends and influencing people. Moreover, given her background of alliances with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there is always the fear that if she does not have her own way, she may cross over to the other side.
She may be a little more reliable at present than, say, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who is acquiring the reputation of being a fence-sitter par excellence. But her absence as well as that of Patnaik will lend substance to the BJP’s charge about the gathbandhans being no more than a messy khichdi or a motley combine.
It is possible that Rahul’s presence would have been an adequate riposte to the BJP’s jibe if only because, first, he has become a far more effective and aggressive speaker than in the past, who would have undoubtedly been a major attraction at the show.
And, secondly, because the Congress still carries the aura of a national party unlike any of the other participants even if, for all practical purposes, the 134-year-old patriarch of Indian politics has become something of a regional outfit at present.
However, it is because the Congress has succeeded in picking itself up from the floor after its 2014 drubbing that the party has become the primary target of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s criticism at virtually all his rallies while the BJP is no longer insisting on ushering in a Congress-mukt (free) India.
It is also possible that since the much-criticized Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was at the Congress’ helm during its heyday, Rahul’s presence would have recalled some of the memories of those days, at least for the ordinary people if not the chatterati.
Arguably, the Left parties might have decided to attend the rally if Rahul and Sonia Gandhi were present. The two dynasts would have also lent a lustre to the show and mostly been at the centre of television cameras.
It is not impossible that Mamata Banerjee’s objective in staging the rally was more to project herself than to act as a catalyst for forming a grand alliance of anti-BJP parties.
Her claim that the regional parties would be the BJP’s main opponent in the forthcoming general election was possibly a metaphor for her own ambitions about which her acolytes have been more vocal than the West Bengal chief minister herself.
But it is precisely this kind of a self-serving agenda which will play into the BJP’s hands and raise the spectre of opportunism being the guiding force of the national opposition.
The tensions in U.P. over seat-sharing have already led to the dissipation of some of the euphoria generated by the electoral successes of the Congress and other parties over the BJP in recent weeks.
Instead of consolidating those gains, the elbowing out of others by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in U.P., and the exclusion of the Congress president from the Kolkata rally, have shown that it will be a miracle if the national opposition can offer a one-against-one fight against the BJP in each Lok Sabha constituency as Mamata Banerjee used to say.
For all the brave words uttered in Kolkata, the term, khichdi, will remain uppermost in popular perception unless each and every leader in the opposition camp, big and small, realizes that a credible show of unity is the only road to success.
To travel on this road, the parties and their leaders will have to rise above their petty jealousies and douse their overarching ambitions.
They will have to realise that the Modi government’s difficulties on multiple fronts – economic, social and even bureaucratic – give the opposition a unique opportunity to forge ahead. The chance should not be recklessly squandered by the flaunting of inflated egos.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])