Even if we expand our net and search within the entire Opposition for a peacemaker, we will come up wanting.
New Delhi: Communication between the Congress and the Government is currently at an all-time low, following the Smirti Irani-Sonia Gandhi face-off in Parliament. Sonia Gandhi’s “Don’t Talk to Me” has sent a strong signal down the ranks. For its part, the BJP too is keeping up the aggression in Parliament. So it does look as if some sort of a via media will need to be established before the two sides start talking again. As it is, even before this incident, there was very little back channel, or face to face, communication between the Gandhis and Team Modi. While he was alive, it was the late Arun Jaitley who used to reach out and establish contact on sensitive issues. But now there is no one in the BJP who has that kind of access or credibility with the Opposition. There are three reasons for this. One, the veterans who have some gravitas such as Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari have been sidelined; other Cabinet ministers such as Piyush Goyal, Smriti Irani, Dharmendra Pradhan etc., do not have the access that is essential for the ease of doing business with the Opposition; apart from which none of them have the mandate that Jaitley had. And third, there seems to be an unsaid rule that the more aggressive you are in dealing with the Opposition the more kudos you will get. (Regarding the last point, you only have to look at the BJP’s social media posts that applaud every minister who nails the Opposition). Traditionally, the reach-out happens from someone within the Big Four—that is the Cabinet Ministers for Defence, Home, Foreign Affairs and Finance or in other words, Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah, S. Jaishankar and Nirmala Sitharaman. Of these, Rajnath would be the most suited to play emissary, he belongs to the Vajpayee era and represents a political style that Sonia Gandhi is comfortable with. But he doesn’t enjoy the same equation with the PM that Jaitley did, or Amit Shah does. As far as the Home Minister is concerned, there is little love lost between him and the leaders who once sent him behind bars. Both Nirmala and Jaishankar lack the seniority of a peacemaker, and besides both have had sparring matches with Rahul Gandhi. With most of the elders relegated to the sidelines there is no one who can try and break this deadlock.
Within the Congress too, there is no leader who can take on this role. Ahmed Patel is no more but even while he was alive, his Gujarat baggage was viewed with suspicion by the Modi-Shah duo. Kamal Nath has been relegated to the state, Captain Amarinder Singh has left the building, Shashi Tharoor still remembers the “50 crore girlfriend” barb against his late wife, Ghulam Nabi Azad is not trusted by the Congress ever since Modi praised him on the floor of the Rajya Sabha and Anand Sharma is reportedly wooing the BJP for some compromise to hold on to his Lutyens Delhi bungalow. Which leaves Manish Tewari, who belongs to a nearly extinct breed—a Congress Lok Sabha member from North India. He is bilingual (i.e. he knows the difference between a “Rashtrapati” and a “Rashtrapatni”), articulate, a former Union Minister and well versed in parliamentary procedure. But Manish is also a signatory to the G23, which makes the Gandhis wary of his intentions. Other members of Team Rahul who have now been placed high up in the Congress hierarchy are too inexperienced and too junior and lack the finesse for the role.
However, one thing is clear, as long as Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury remains the leader of the Lok Sabha, the Congress lines of communication will be faulty both with the government and also with the TMC, one of the largest blocs in the Opposition.
Even if we expand our net and search within the entire Opposition for a peacemaker, we will come up wanting. There is no Chandra Shekhar, Harkishen Singh Surjeet or Somnath Chatterjee any more. The two Yadav leaders—both Mulayam and Lalu—are ailing and besieged with their own problems. The Congress views Mamata Banerjee’s ambitions with suspicion and quite rightly so. She and Narendra Modi seem to share one common goal—that of a Congress Lupt Bharat. The veteran Sharad Pawar could play peacemaker, for despite their political differences, Modi has singled him out for praise on more than one occasion. But can Pawar defuse the tension between the Congress and Modi? For reasons of his own, he hasn’t made any discernible attempts so far. Chandrababu Naidu is on a weak wicket within his own state to think of venturing on the national arena, the Badals hate the Gandhis, M.K. Stalin prefers to be confined in his home state. The one politician who does enjoy some goodwill in both camps is Naveen Patnaik. But the Odisha CM’s own health issues may prohibit his playing a larger role—plus he has shown a penchant for either the international arena or local Oriya politics, but never the national limelight. The other Opposition leaders are too junior, not to mention too embroiled in ED cases of their own. Moreover, the Congress does not trust Jagan Reddy or Arvind Kejriwal, seeing them as rivals rather than allies.
Then will the BJP deploy Captain Amarinder Singh to reach out to the Congress? The Captain and Sonia have a cordial rapport but the Gen Next Gandhis will not do business with someone who has crossed over to the “dark side”. With the Monsoon session veering towards a washout, the government and Congress have three months before Parliament reconvenes for winter session to figure out a talk-plan that suits them both. But, don’t forget in the middle are some crucial Assembly polls including in Gujarat and Himachal where the BJP and the Congress will be the main adversaries. And the star campaigners will be the Gandhis from the Congress versus the PM from BJP. So there goes that interim break. If there was ever the need for some third party intervention, it is now. But who will play that role?