Rajat Sharma

Will opposition parties agree on a single leader till 2024?

AKBThe monsoon session of Parliament has been paralyzed for the last ten days due to continuous disruption of proceedings by the opposition parties demanding a probe into the Pegasus controversy. On Thursday, opposition members in Rajya Sabha resorted to loud clapping (thalis) in order to disrupt the proceedings, while in the Lok Sabha, Trinamool and Congress MPs tore the business papers and threw them in the air.

Both Houses of Parliament are being adjourned frequently due to disruptions. While the government says it is ready for debates on all issues inside the house, the opposition too has been saying it wants debate. Then why this deadlock? Why are opposition MPs clapping loudly, tearing up papers, snatching answer sheet from the minister and causing pandemonium?

The motive is clear: the opposition wants to corner the government on the Pegasus spyware issue, but the parties are speaking in different tunes. One party wants debate inside the House, the other wants a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe, and a third wants a probe by a Supreme Court judge. On its part, the Centre is clear about its stand. It wants the opposition to come forward with concrete evidence because probe cannot be ordered on the basis of hearsay.

On Wednesday, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tried to take a lead by convening a meeting of opposition leaders in Parliament. The meeting was attended by Congress, Shiv Sena, NCP, Samajwadi Party, RJD, AAP, CPI(M), CPI and National Conference. Trinamool Congress leaders did not attend. Soon after the meeting, opposition members tore up business papers and threw them in the air inside Lok Sabha. TMC MPs shouted slogans like ‘Khela Habey” inside the House. After the House was adjourned, opposition MPs marched from Parliament to Vijay Chowk where they addressed the media. Rahul Gandhi was joined by Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Rout, NCP leader Supriya Sule, SP leader Ramgopal Yadav and leaders from DMK and RJD. Rahul Gandhi said, he wanted replies to only two questions. One, whether Pegasus spyware was purchased by the government from Israel, and Two, whether the government mounted surveillance on people inside India?

At almost the same time, West Bengal chief minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee had called a meeting of TMC MPs to prepare a strategy to counter Modi government. Later, TMC MP Kalyan Banerjee clearly said that only Mamata Banerjee can lead the opposition against Modi. He said, Mamata was the only alternative to Modi, since “she is Leader No.1”. Soon after, Mamata Banerjee called on interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi at the latter’s residence 10, Janpath. The 45-minute long meeting was also attended by Rahul Gandhi. Addressing the media, the TMC supremo said, all opposition parties will have to join hands and work together. She however avoided any reply to the question whether she was ready to lead the opposition.

At the moment there appear to be three candidates in the race to lead the opposition: Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar. Interestingly, all these three leaders are preparing their strategies separately. Pawar, took SP leader Ramgopal Yadav with him to call on RJD chief Lalu Prasad to inquire about his health. Among the opposition leaders, Pawar is the most experienced and active leader. He knows even if Lalu Yadav is ailing and had been away from active politics for last several years, he should not be considered a weak leader. The meeting would have remained a secret, had not Lalu’s daughter Misa Bharati not tweeted about it.

Two points are clear from the political developments. One, the opposition is not going to calm down soon and will continue to obstruct Parliament proceedings. Nor is the government ready to bow down to opposition’s demands. The TMC MP Shantanu Sen who snatched the papers from IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnav’s hands has been suspended for the session by Rajya Sabha. But the MPs in Lok Sabha who tore papers inside the House on Wednesday may, or may not be punished. Already, the Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla has called opposition leaders and issued a warning that he may take action against erring members. The government has decided to get all the bills passed in Parliament even if opposition members shout and create obstacles.

Two, it is almost certain that the monsoon session will continue till August 13 in an acrimonious atmosphere, with opposition protesting loudly, and the government getting its official business done amidst pandemonium. Moreover, Congress leaders are worried that Mamata Banerjee, who is in Delhi, might try to steal the show, and that is why, Rahul Gandhi’s activity and visibility have increased in the past few days. One day, he rode a tractor to Parliament with party MPs to highlight farmers’ issue, and on Wednesday, he led opposition MPs on a march to Vijay Chowk. Congress leaders do not want Mamata to emerge as a symbol of united opposition.

On the other hand, Trinamool MPs want Mamata to emerge as the undisputed leader of opposition. It is true that Mamata gave a tough fight to the BJP election machine during the West Bengal assembly elections and inflicted a crushing defeat. Mamata Banerjee wants to encash the goodwill generated by her victory in order to corner Modi at the national level. Some might say that there are still three years left for the 2024 general elections, but Mamata replied by saying that in order to defeat BJP, opposition parties would require to prepare much in advance. It is also correct that Mamata does not want to keep Congress away from the conglomeration of opposition parties. That is why, she gave special preference to her meeting with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi at 10, Janpath.

The dark horse in the present political game of Russian roulette is Sharad Pawar. He is the most experienced of the lot among the opposition leaders and his acumen is recognized by leaders like Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee. In his long political career, Pawar got several chances to become the prime minister but missed them by a whisker. Two points go against him: One, he is aging, and Two, his party NCP is mostly confined to Maharashtra. But, in the past, we have seen, when opposition parties combine they do not look at age or the regional limitations of a leader. The only point that is taken up is: unanimity among opposition leaders.

Whether it is Sharad Pawar or Mamata Banerjee, both know that it would be a tough game to bring all opposition leaders to agree on a single name on the issue of leadership.

Secondly, the challenge from Modi and his vast party machine is gigantic. Modi is a strong leader and he has an effective party organization that has spread to each and every state of India. Modi has mastered the art of fighting elections. He has strengthened his clout only by dint of his tireless work. Of course, the electoral reverses in West Bengal were a setback, but Modi is a leader who never gets disheartened by defeat. He appears to be least bothered even if all opposition parties join hands.

The 2024 Lok Sabha elections are three years away. The moot point is whether opposition parties will manage to remain together till that time, and whether they would agree on the name of an undisputed leader. It is very difficult to hazard a guess at this moment.

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