A week after Rahul Gandhi hosted a breakfast meeting for Opposition MPs, Congress leader Kapil Sibal held a dinner conclave on Monday at his residence ostensibly to deliberate on building a united front against the BJP before the 2024 general election. If Gandhi was focussed on formulating a consensus within the Opposition in Parliament against the government on its handling of Covid-19, the Pegasus scandal and the farmers’ agitation, the Sibal show had markings of the making of a broader front of parties opposed to the BJP. These conclaves are significant since many Opposition fronts in the 1980s and thereafter, were born out of meetings held over a meal or two. Though the Monday event has not revealed a roadmap for forging a united Opposition front, it stood out for the impressive guest list: Leaders such as NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, representatives of the BJD, YSRCP, TRS etc. who were absent at the meeting convened by Gandhi, showed up at Sibal’s residence.
One important takeaway from these meetings is that the Congress continues to be the pivot of Opposition politics. The thin attendance at Pawar’s residence a few weeks ago, had revealed that an anti-BJP national front without the Congress was a non-starter. Some of the leaders who attended the dinner on Monday reportedly said the Congress has to get its act together for the Opposition to mount a real challenge in 2024. Ironically, the dinner conclave may not add up to more than a show of strength by the G-22 leaders in the Congress and a signal to the Gandhi family that they continue to be together and have the clout to attract the support of other Opposition leaders. However, can such conclaves subsume the contradictions that have prevented the Opposition parties from fighting the NDA as a united front? For instance, parties such as the Trinamool Congress, YSR Congress, TRS, and BJD have benefited from the decline of the Congress and see the party as their rival in their strongholds. The fact remains that the Opposition, other than presenting itself as a loose coalition of anti-BJP parties, is yet to project a political vision or present policy measures that distinguishes it as an alternative to the BJP.
Meanwhile, the BJP has taken note of the Opposition moves to isolate it. The NDA has been shrinking since the 2019 win, with allies such as Akali Dal and Shiv Sena leaving the alliance. The BJP seems to be wanting to reverse the tide and has used the recent Cabinet expansion at the Centre to induct MPs from JD(U) and LJP in the Cabinet. A new phase of coalition politics seems to be in the making.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 11, 2021 under the title ‘Food for thought’.