In the garb of finding a suitable Presidential candidate, several Opposition leaders have commenced parleys, to position themselves in the leadership role of a possible Federal Front that may come up before the Lok Sabha elections. In fact, the principal reason for the formal and informal consultations which went on throughout the week, was to ensure that one or two leaders were prominently placed, in order to take the command of this new formation. This has become essential because of the collapse of the UPA and the non-acceptability of the Gandhis in the leadership role of an alternate coalition.
West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee who has taken the lead, tried to convince Sharad Pawar to be the Opposition face for next month’s Presidential election, but the shrewd and astute Maratha leader declined to take the bait. It is evident that Mamata wanted to get Pawar out of the way as the head of the proposed coalition and simultaneously thought that once he takes her support as also of other Opposition parties, he would be obliged to side step from the leadership role and support somebody else.
While Mamata’s thinking was both political and calculative, she seemed to under-estimate Pawar’s ability to play politics on multiple boards. Pawar is too smart for any of the other contemporary politicians and is amongst the very few leaders, who have connections in almost all the political parties including the BJP. He wants to keep his options open to ensure that his and his daughter’s interests are never compromised at any stage and therefore, knowing fully well that it would be difficult to beat the BJP in the President’s race, he did his own calculations by declining to be the sacrificial lamb.
Mamata has not given up on Opposition unity, but at the meeting convened by her, two prominent leaders, K. Chandrashekhar Rao and Arvind Kejriwal kept away. Both of them are also equally ambitious and believe that they could be the consensus choice to lead the possible Federal Front at a later date. In addition, they refused to be involved in the discussions for the President’s choice though they may have also shortlisted some people.
Mamata can be a formidable challenger to Narendra Modi in 2024 but other than that, the BJP seems to be sitting pretty safe and if the polls were to be conducted today, Modi would return with a thumping majority. Nevertheless, it does not imply that other leaders should stop trying to pursue their ambitions.
The main message which came out from the Opposition parleys was that the Congress has ceased to enjoy the primary position despite being far bigger than other regional or national parties barring the BJP. Neither Mamata, Pawar, Kejriwal nor Rao would want Congress as the spearhead of the Opposition effort to dislodge the BJP. Everyone realises that under the Gandhis, it would be a no-win situation.
A secret survey conducted by certain supporters of the Congress has estimated that in 2024, the Congress may not be the single largest Opposition formation in the Lok Sabha. This survey, whose reliability would always be questioned, has concluded that the Congress was bound to lose from both Rae Bareli and Rahul Gandhi’s present Parliamentary constituency and may have between 17 to 23 Members of Parliament. In other words, Mamata and the TMC, could easily be the largest Opposition group in the Lower House.
There are reports that the worried Congress leadership has identified four possible “safe seats” for Rahul Gandhi to contest from. Out of these, two constituencies are in Karnataka, one in Maharashtra and one in Tamil Nadu. This is perhaps the worst possible scenario for the Congress.
The final decision on the organisational elections of the party has not been taken and later this year, it faces the prospects of a drubbing both in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, unless some remedial measures are immediately taken and the task assigned to seasoned politicians to chalk out the electoral strategy. The recent Rajya Sabha polls have indicated that the party is losing the capacity to even ensure the voting of its own members and has therefore had to expel a few leaders.
Coming to the President’s election, the BJP is very comfortably placed and it would be in the Opposition’s interest not to go for a symbolic contest and instead try to help the ruling dispensation arrive at a consensus candidate. The confrontation would be ugly and make the BJP even more determined to push for a candidate whose acceptability may be minimal amongst leaders of other parties.
A consensus for the highest position of the land is ideal and would help in enhancing the prestige of the august office. There are several eminently placed Indians who could make very good Presidents and the only thing is that both the government and the Opposition would have to identify one of them and reach a consensus on his or her name.
The President’s elections in the past have witnessed contests and the closest was in 1969 when after the death of Dr Zakir Husain, the then Vice President, V.V. Giri, supported by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, scraped through by defeating the official Congress nominee and then Speaker, Dr Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. The historic split of the Congress took place for the first time, with Indira Gandhi urging the electorate to go for “conscience voting”.
In the present context, it would be ideal, if senior BJP and Opposition leaders reach a consensus. Between us.