Here is why opposition should concentrate on a front and not on leadership after Bihar political drama

The new BJP is characterised by commitment to its core ideology and unfeeling pursuit of power. In contrast, Congress does not display belief in ideals.

ET Spotlight
By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

On Thursday, July 27, hours after Nitish Kumar became chief minister of Bihar with a new set of overalls, this time with a saffron tinge, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor demonstrated his skills as wordsmith on Twitter:

Word of the day!
Definition of *snollygoster*
US dialect: a shrewd, unprincipled politician
First Known Use: 1845
Most recent use: 26/7/17

Within minutes, there was a rejoinder: “I discovered Ozymandian. Suggesting or pertaining to a proud king whose empire and memory have long since crumbled into obscurity”. The reply referred to 19th century English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet, Ozymandias, considered as representative of his writings. Shelley penned the fourteen lines about Ramesses the Great, the Egyptian pharaoh, and sonnet’s title took its name from the Emperor’s Greek name. Its central theme, the inevitable decline of leaders and their empires, alludes to a pompous ruler whose kingdom and memory have paled into insignificance.
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Neither Tharoor nor the person who tossed the chuckle back took names but hints were unmistakable. If the first tweet took a jibe at Nitish Kumar, the response was a reminder of Rahul Gandhi’s many failures. From a time when the Congress governed India barely three years ago, its national footprint has shrunk to just five states and one Union territory. Of these, elections are due in four states — Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram — over the next two years and there is no certainty if the Congress will retain power in even one of them. Nadir will in all probability have a new mark. The first comment that the Congress vice-president made on the events in Bihar was that he knew for long what had been brewing in the Bihar chief minister’s mind.

Great clairvoyance, no doubt. But then, what did he do? Apparently, despite public squabbling between Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, the eternally-in-waiting Congress president decided to put off intervention till the weekend. He reportedly met Ashok Choudhary, the state party chief, after keeping him waiting for three days. Barely two years ago, didn’t one-time Congress leader from Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, say that humiliation by Gandhi triggered his decision to join the BJP? Also, didn’t the Congress vice-president choose to remain in the audience watching Shankersinh Vaghela script his elaborate drama over his departure from the party? Talk about someone who doesn’t learn from history being doomed to relive it.

In contrast to Gandhi’s part-time and casual approach to his job, BJP leaders pounce on every opportunity, be it to form a government despite not securing a majority or to wean away legislators from other parties. Note the alacrity with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacted after Kumar handed in his resignation.

The new BJP, compared to the pre-Modi era, is characterised by greater commitment to its core ideology and unfeeling pursuit of power. In contrast, neither does the Congress nor its leadership display belief in ideals nor is its political smartness visible in any of its moves. Kumar may be rightly mocked by Tharoor but his characteristics are nothing new. Though the smallest of coalition partners in Bihar, the Congress leadership made no use of its presence and leverage its position. The Mahagatbandhan was an unlikely formation because despite stopping the Modi cavalcade and its rhetoric about secularism, its success was based more on poll arithmetic and less on genuine convergence of ideas. The Congress leadership should have persuaded Lalu to discard his indifference to governance and brought Kumar into the forefront of a political campaign against growing majoritarianism. The Congress saw the Mahagatbandhan as an end in itself and not as a beginning of a process. This stemmed from fears that the emergence of Kumar and Lalu as credible national voices would stymie its chances of being the vanguard of opposition.
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Co-existing plans
Rahul Gandhi, or whatever constitutes the Congress high command, must take a step back now if it wishes to secure its position in the future. Kumar’s decision to cohabit with the BJP is undoubtedly a numerical setback. By neither rejecting the possibility nor endorsing the Bihar chief minister as the potential challenger to Modi in 2019, the Congress curated his national ambition and this magnifies the impact of his departure. The party now needs to move with swiftness and campaign among people that the project “opposition unity” is not a closed shop. Mulayam Singh Yadav, sulking for long and discreetly hoping for a call-up from Modi, senses closure of this possibility and appears eyeing for a position in an anti-BJP front. His interview (see “Going Back on One’s Word is Also Corruption”, p. 5) provides opposition parties with an opportunity to revive the process and moving beyond bemoaning Bihar developments.

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As a party, redemption for Congress lies in repositioning itself as a coalition of robust regional units. Instead of the “family” being its titular head, its leadership must be vested in a presidium. Just as the party was once an umbrella outfit, it must envision an anti-BJP platform as a conglomerate of parties guided by the credo of the enemy’s enemy being a friend. If Kumar can make a neat break from a professed anti-communal plank to declaring corruption as the key issue in India, thereby justifying reviving the coalition with the BJP, there is nothing but personal egos stopping the Congress from engaging with the Aam Aadmi Party and the Biju Janata Dal in putting up a show against the BJP. There is no denying that the BJP is the dominant party and the fulcrum of Indian politics. The formation of the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar recognised the ascendancy of the BJP and its highest ever vote share in the polls, despite the humiliating tally in the assembly, only underscored this.

Parties with rivalries in states, like the Trinamool Congress and the Left Front in West Bengal, must be convinced about the larger threat and collaborate on specific agitations. Instead of getting bogged down at the onset with the eventual question of a “face” to challenge Modi in 2019, it makes better sense to consolidate forces and harness people’s unease — and possible unrest. Despite gains in durbar politics, reports from the field suggest that the BJP election machine remains proactive in the field identifying possible weaknesses. Non-BJP parties do not have much time and the task is undoubtedly daunting. But it is important for all parties to hit the ground and stop being dazzled by BJP’s headlight politics.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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