By Deepika Bhan
Who will do 'Opposition Jodo'? A million-dollar question the answer to which seems to be as difficult as Aesop's fable 'Who will bell the cat'?
The opposition is a highly divided lot with several of the leaders nursing ambitions for the country's top job. Getting them together on one platform and making them rally behind a face is a task where the impossibility quotient is much higher.
In Indian politics, face is an essential requirement, as people identify a party with the personality. Jayaprakash Narayan toppled Indira Gandhi in 1977, V.P. Singh defeated Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the BJP man at the Centre in 1998. In 2004, the Congress-led government had Sonia Gandhi as the unifying face even though Manmohan Singh was made the PM.
And since 2014, the face has been Narendra Modi who has made the BJP the best performing party at the Centre and in several states.
So, for the opposition a face is needed to match and checkmate Modi, and it is here where the challenge for the divided opposition lies.
From time to time, faces like Mamata Banerjee, K. Chandrashekar Rao, Arvind Kejriwal, Nitish Kumar, M.K. Stalin, Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray, etc. crop up. Each one of them wants to build his or her sphere to create the necessary influence that can push them ahead.
When Rahul Gandhi embarked on his Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress described it as "the movement to unite the voices of the people of India, against injustice". It sought not to bracket the Yatra as a party programme and tried hard to rally other opposition forces, social and religious bodies.
"The yatra was not for winning elections but against hate," Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said at the concluding event in Kashmir. "BJP is spreading hate... Rahul Gandhi has proven that he can unite the country from Kanyakumari to Kashmir..."
Even as the Congress tried to portray BJY as a movement, the efforts to package Rahul Gandhi were too stark to be overlooked. The party wanted to portray Gandhi as the face with a mass following so that he can have an edge over other aspiring faces. Other opposition parties were invited to attend the Yatra, but all did not come.
A total of 21 opposition parties were invited for the concluding event of the Yatra in Kashmir in a bid to build a 'united opposition' against the BJP. But some key parties, including the Congress' allies in some states, skipped the event.
The political parties that did not show up for the event include the JD(U), RJD, CPI(M), Trinamool Congress, SP, NCP and Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray).
Among those that were not invited to the event at all were the Aam Aadmi Party, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Bharat Rashtra Samiti (formerly TRS), and Ghulam Nabi Azad's Democratic Progressive Azad Party.
The Congress may have wanted to make a grand show of opposition unity in Kashmir, but the staying away of the leaders of key parties exposed the chinks.
Even as Gandhi was walking across the country, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao held a mega rally on January 18, the first since his party changed its name from the Telangana Rashtra Samithi to Bharat Rashtra Samithi.
KCR got some top opposition leaders to stand by his side. These included Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann, Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav and CPI general secretary D. Raja.
The public meeting was billed as a precursor to the formation of an anti-BJP alliance ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Telangana also goes to the polls later this year.
Different power centres within the opposition bracket have been showcasing their own capability to take on the BJP nationally and in the states too. This manifests the competition within the opposition which also is a hindrance to a united formation.
During the ongoing Parliament Budget Session, the opposition has got the Adani-Hindenburg Research report as a weapon to corner the ruling BJP at the Centre. The issue has seen the opposition come together to make a united attack on the BJP-led Central government. The Congress is proactive on the Adani issue and has got most of the opposition on board.
On February 3, MPs of 16 parties attended the opposition parties' meeting in Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge's chamber in Parliament. Among the 16 parties were the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) besides the Congress, DMK, Samajwadi Party, Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray), Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United), CPI(M), CPI, NCP, National Conference, Indian Union Muslim League, KC (Jose Mani), KC (Thomas) and RSP.
The parties have supported the Congress in demanding a JPC probe or SC-monitored investigation into the matter. This unity is Adani row-based, but could form a basis for any future attempt.
With the Lok Sabha elections over 14 months away, the challenge for the opposition is to come on one platform and stick together behind a face, which is no less charismatic than Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Though the Congress has declined electorally, it continues to be critical for any opposition unity. In September last year, at an event organised by the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana, several parties came together, but the Congress was excluded.
During this event, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar did publicly state that "no opposition alliance can be meaningful without the Congress".
The Adani row may have brought together some parties in the opposition, but they are divided on several issues. And a divided opposition cannot form a national alternative to the BJP.
India needs a robust opposition that has the power to check the wrongs in the government. The opposition needs a leader who can either weld the fragments, build a path for itself and provide an alternative.
Who can be the face to perform the difficult task? The answer is not easy.