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The algebra of Opposition unity

The Opposition should see in the Karnataka byelection results a goad for united action

Karnataka has done it a second time in a year, this year. The coming together of the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), post-poll in May 2018, and the inauguration of the H.D. Kumaraswamy-led coalition government was its first contribution to opposition consolidation. The Congress-JD(S) alliance winning four of the five by-elections in Karnataka earlier this week is its second.

Imparting urgency

Karnataka can be said to have imparted urgency, impetus and a sense of highly ‘doable’ purpose to the Opposition’s search for coordination. No one is accusing the Opposition any more of political opportunism. On the contrary, popular dismay over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s politically-motivated demonetisation, its rushing through of the Goods and Services Tax, its failure to check the rise in the prices of essential commodities and fuel, growing unemployment and now the Rafale issue have made Opposition convergence seem natural — in fact, apposite.

The campaigns for the coming elections to the Assemblies in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana have, as a result, acquired a new seriousness as a precursor to the 2019 national elections. The huge margins of the Congress-JD(S) victories in the Karnataka by-elections are making the coming elections seem well within victory-touch for the Opposition.

The Congress + JD(S) = Victory arithmetic was there for all to see, to do quick counts on. And the sums have clicked right in four of the five seats that have just held by-elections in the State. But the margins of victory show more than simple arithmetic. They show Congress + JD(S) = V+, victory with a huge margin. They suggest a move from the BJP’s previous vote-share to the ruling alliance in Karnataka. They suggest that fence-sitters jumped to the Congress-JD(S) side of it. And that the same pattern can be expected in the elections ahead.

Caution ahead

But here lies risk. One may call it danger. What can a political giant faced with the prospect of an electoral reverse be expected to do?

If that giant is a philosopher, albeit a political philosopher, it would say, “My time seems to be drawing to a close, I should fight to win again but also be prepared to accept possible defeat with fortitude.” But this one is not philosophically inclined. It is doing what its bio-chemistry tells it to do. Bring out of its arsenal a trusty, if rusty, old weapon: polarisation. Whence, the Ram Mandir idea’s revival, complete with a Korean side-entertainment, name-changes from Allahabad to Prayagraj, Faizabad to Ayodhya, huge patronage given to Sabarimala sanatanists. Terror outfits will, needless to say, sharpen the sword’s edge.

Will these weapons ‘deliver’? The Opposition cannot afford to assume they will not. In fact, it must work on the assumption that polarisation is a deadly weapon and can hit its mark. So, how is it to be countered?

First, by a dead-serious further consolidation of Opposition unity. This is Karnataka’s clear mandate, in fact, goad to the Opposition. It is vital and, I believe, not too late for the Congress to reach out to Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati for a concordat in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. She is more than a Dalit leader. She has shown, not without mistakes and wrong moves, that she is a tenacious leader. And she is today fighting a political force that has it in its power to cripple her impact. She deserves the Congress’s respectful accommodation. Likewise, to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. He too is more than the chief of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). His determined survival right under the Central government’s shadow is nothing short of a miracle — a miracle of democratic tenacity.

Similarly, with the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, the Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, the Biju Janata Dal’s Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, and the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah in Jammu and Kashmir. Those leaders are not pawns but high-voltage knights, bishops and castles on the chessboard today. Every non-BJP vote split is a BJP vote glued.

What of Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United)? He is a fact of our nation’s nucleating politics that cannot be wished away. When he and the astute Sharad Yadav and the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad came together previously, a natural convergence between Jayaprakash Narayan’s ‘proteges’ took place. The Congress has been too severely and rudely shocked by the Bihar leader’s about-turn to easily forget it but if the Congress can stay with Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar without straining its fortitude, it must remember that Nitish-babu also is essentially a social democrat of the Congress’s old ‘Young Turk’ DNA. No understanding is feasible between the Congress and him as of now. But I see a distinct possibility, in the not-too-distant future of Nitish-babu’s alliance with the BJP coming apart on the question of secularism. The Congress must reserve a rain-check for that future date. If an understanding can be reached between Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Telugu Desam Party president N. Chandrababu Naidu, then surely one can be reached between the Congress and leaders who are ideologically and programmatically on the same page.

Mr. Naidu’s pragmatic steps towards democratic consolidation are salutary. The overture made by him to the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, M.K. Stalin, gives meaning to the old English expression, “taking time by the forelock”. This is something the Congress must look at with diligence.

In Kerala

I need to come specifically to Kerala, 2019. The Left Democratic Front/United Democratic Front (LDF/UDF) binary is sharp when it comes to Kerala’s Assembly elections. But in the Lok Sabha, it made little difference as far as countervailing the BJP-NDA was concerned. For, there the Congress MP from Kerala and the Left MP from Kerala were together. But now, post-Sabarimala, things have changed.

What was implausible pre-Sabarimala is not only not implausible now but distinctly likely — the BJP contesting all seats and giving a very tough fight in a good number of them. With the non-BJP vote divided — who knows — it could well fluke wins.

So, what is great news for BJP supporters but an ill portent for others must lead to a re-appraisal of their poll-strategies. The LDF and the UDF just cannot afford to split the non-BJP vote in Kerala now. They must go for a seat adjustment. The Congress must see the writing on the larger wall and, taking the initiative, extend a hand to the Left in Kerala, and the Left on its part must not hesitate to take it.

The Congress and the Left must, as a historical imperative now, be seen as integral to each other as the Indian National Congress and the Congress Socialist Party were. Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat, as the P. Sundarayya and E.M.S. Namboodiripad of our times, can reverse engineer the process.

‘Reunion of broken parts’

But electoral tactics apart, what is needed by the democratic Opposition now beyond alliance arithmetic is an ideational algebra, or ‘al jabr’ in Arabic, meaning “re-union of broken parts”. This algebra should give urgent attention to the ground-level needs of the people, especially farmers and agricultural labour. Immiserated by monopolist Mafiosi and techno-commercial market greed, they need to be redeemed by a political leadership that is truly a servant of the people.

If the NDA is using mythologies, the Opposition should point to real pathologies. It should tell voters how their socio-economic infirmities work. It should rescue them from the diversions, embellished with an international cast, that they are being offered. From all accounts, this is what it now seems to be working at.

The people of Karnataka have shown that if the Congress and other democratic parties knit together a pre-poll alliance and work for realistic pro-farmer and pro-labour poverty-alleviation, they can call the bluff of sectarian rhetoric and hollow hubris and can hit a Congress + allies = V+ result.

India’s south may well be turning a plain iron key on a door that seemed locked by golden screws and diamond hinges for at least 10 more years.

But, ultimately, what is as important as, if not more than, a change of the party in power or a change of leader is the inauguration of a new political spirit. India is tired of its politics. It needs not new politicians but a new politics. The Opposition must offer not a BJP-free but a fear-free and corruption-free alternative to their voters. Not a Bha-Ja-Pa mukt Bharat but a bhaya-mukt and Bhrasht-mukt Bharat.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

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