Two factors are now standing in the way of opposition unity: the absence of an acceptable unifying figure and the Indian National Congress. In the political history of post-independence India, real opposition unity before any parliamentary election came about only in 1977, when Jayprakash Narayan brought together all the disparate political groups under a single umbrella to fight Indira Gandhi and her Emergency. But that became possible only because JP was there. It is entirely a different story that the Janata Party, the creation of JP’s efforts, disintegrated after it came to power. Perhaps JP could have prevented it. But by that time, he had become critically ill and chose not to intervene in the Janata Party’s internal squabbles.
The irony is that Nitish Kumar is no Jayprakash Narayan, and in 2024 he wanted to cobble up an opposition conglomeration where Congress would be a partner, a party that still considers itself the sole arbiter of the nation’s destiny. It is not officially known what parleys Nitish Kumar had with various regional parties, but he perhaps misjudged the calculations of Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal. But the fact cannot be denied that Nitish was the person who first girded up his loins to give a united fight to the BJP, and his jettisoning of the I.N.D.I.A. bloc virtually marks the end of the platform.
Mamata Banerjee’s role in this drama looks a bit inexplicable. The latest leaks from her party sources indicate that she is happy with Nitish’s exit from the I.N.D.I.A. bloc. Newspaper reports, citing Trinamul sources, clearly aver that Mamata was opposed to Nitish becoming the convenor of the I.N.D.I.A. grouping as she had no faith in the Bihar chief minister’s future moves and that she considers Nitish’s exit as a good riddance. However, the idea of the I.N.D.I.A. bloc had taken shape after Nitish and Mamata had a separate meeting on an earlier occasion, and the bloc had its first meeting in Patna with Nitish Kumar playing the host.
Who is speaking the truth? It is difficult to judge at this moment. The only truth coming out of this quagmire is that there is no true spirit of oppositional unity. The scenario was not much different in 1977, as there were widespread mistrusts between the Jan Sangh and socialist stalwarts even when they were in jail during the fag-end of the emergency. But there was the towering figure of JP, who could bring different opposing views to one particular point. If Nitish had kept history in mind, then he had a chance to play the role of a 2024 incarnation of JP. But the Bihar Chief Minister has his eyes on the post of Prime Minister of India—in other words, an eye for power politics, which his one-time mentor, Jayaprakash Narayan, always abhorred.
The I.N.D.I.A. bloc’s Achilles’ heels lie here. While the BJP has only Narendra Modi for the post of Prime Minister, almost every constituent of the I.N.D.I.A. bloc has its own leaders for the post of PM. Everybody knows that Mamata has ambitions for the same post. AAP thinks that Arvind Kejriwal is best suited for that position. Ask any minor constituent of the bloc. They will say in tongue-in-cheek style that their leaders also do not lag behind in qualities.
One thing is clear: Nitish Kumar was not made the convenor of the I.N.D.I.A., as the idea had ruffled Congress’ ego. Trinamul’s explanation in this respect does not hold water before any discerning eye. This also brings to the fore the impossibility of any real alliance at the national level where Congress is a partner, as the grand old party still cannot adjust to the reality that it has now become a fringe player in national affairs. As things stand today, Congress is still to accept the fundamental change that has come over India’s political spectrum due to the Vindheswari Prasad Mandal Commission report.
Let us judge whether Congress can really stake any claim to become the I.N.D.I.A. alliance leader. To be frank, Congress now has no one who can be called a leader. From 1952 to 1984, Congress’ vote share in Lok Sabha elections hovered around 40 percent, but its seat tally always remained on the plus side of 350, except in the years 1967 and 1977, when Congress fared poorly. The destruction of the party started with the rise of Indira Gandhi, and it gradually poisoned the party’s prospects. Family rules crept in. Even in 1977, when the Congress fared miserably by winning 154 seats, the party’s vote percentage stood a little over 34 percent. But from 1984 to 2009, it was a saga of steadily losing ground, and henceforth, the party could not take centre stage in Indian politics in general. It now wins only around 50 seats in the Lok Sabha.
So Mamata Banerjee can legitimately challenge Congress’ hegemonistic desire. While the Congress has won around 50 seats from all over the country in recent times, she has won around 40 seats from West Bengal alone. Both Nitish and Mamata were eager for an early settlement of seat shares among the I.N.D.I.A. constituents, which could not take place due to procrastination by the Congress. This is one of the principal reasons behind the actual fissures in the I.N.D.I.A. bloc. Congress leaders had hoped that an impressive performance in the assembly elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh would enable them to drive a hard bargain during seat-sharing negotiations. But the electorate of the three states dashed Congress’ hopes. Victory in Telangana, a poor consolation prize, served no purpose for Mallikarjun Khagde’s party.
Relations between the Trinamul Congress and the Congress are now at a bitter juncture. The West Bengal chief minister was on perfectly logical ground when she offered two Lok Sabha seats to the Congress, while Rahul Gandhi demanded between 10 and 12 seats. His demands show that Rahul has no idea about the actual state of Congress affairs in West Bengal. It will not be an overstatement to say that Congress is in a moribund condition in the state, and Rahul Gandhi should not have demanded 10–12 seats had he really wanted an alliance in West Bengal.
It is well known that Mamata does not hold Rahul Gandhi in very high esteem. So far, the state administration has not extended much help to Rahul Gandhi’s Naya Yatra through West Bengal. On the contrary, under the banner of some non-political organisations, the Nehru-Gandhi family scion is being asked to go back to the state. Mamata knows that she is in a strong position as far as the TMC-Congress relationship is concerned. That is why she is reported to have ignored entreaties from Khadge and Sonia Gandhi to cooperate with Rahul’s Nyay Yatra. The West Bengal chief minister is reported to have said that she would think of an alliance after the poll.
An extremely interesting observation indeed. But politics has no final words. Will something spectacular happen from the side of some of the I.N.D.I.A. platform constituents after the poll?
(The author is a senior journalist and commentator).