Opposition’s Weaknesses On Full Display With President Election

On July 18, India will hold its sixteenth Presidential elections, and on July 21, whoever is elected will drive into Rashtrapati Bhavan, the largest residence of any Head of state in the world. For five years, he or she will live in a 320-acre estate in the heart of New Delhi atop Raisina Hill, in a largely ceremonial role but with the express mandate to protect the Constitution.

Who will that person be? The President is elected by members of both Houses of parliament, and members of the 28 state Assemblies and three Union Territories of Delhi, Puducherry and Jammu and Kashmir. In all, some 776 MPs and some 4,120 MLAs will be the electoral college.

Purely numerically, the candidate nominated by the ruling BJP can lose: the BJP has more MPs, but the non-BJP parties have more MLAs. However, such an assessment is based on all non-BJP parties voting together against the BJP. This unprecedented degree of Opposition unity against the ruling party is unlikely to happen. Since the margin of difference between both groups is small, any fracture in the non-BJP collective will ensure a comfortable victory for the BJP’s candidate.

This became evident in the meeting of Opposition parties convened two days ago by Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. 22 parties were invited, only 16 attended. The notable absentees were the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), YSR Congress, Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) and the Aam Admi Party (AAP). The BJD and the YSR Congress had voted in favour of the BJP nominee even in the last presidential elections. No candidate has yet been nominated by either side. Consultations are on, but some takeaways are more than evident – especially for the Opposition.

Firstly – and most importantly – the Opposition must understand that any attempt to forge an arithmetical unity, hurriedly cobbled together for a particular event – such as in this case the presidential elections – will just not succeed. It is a futile show of strength, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing more than a photo-op. Leaders of a medley of parties come together and hold up their hands in unity, and then vanish into their own silos to resume their attacks on one another.

For instance, the Congress, which attended Mamata Banerjee’s meeting, had fought against her in the recent West Bengal election. This, when it was apparent that only the TMC can effectively take on the BJP, and dividing the vote will be counter-productive. In the event, the TMC roundly defeated the BJP in spite of the Congress indirectly helping the BJP. Again, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress fought separately against the BJP in the recent UP state elections, and both lost. Arguments for greater Opposition unity cut no ice with their leaders then.

In Telangana, the Congress has decided to fight the TRS in the next Assembly elections, when both parties oppose the BJP, and should fight together. No wonder then that the TRS, although staunchly opposed to the BJP, did not attend the meeting. Similarly, for both AAP and the Congress, the BJP is the principal opponent, but they attack each other more than they attack the BJP. In the last Assembly elections in Goa, the TMC, AAP and the Congress fought the BJP separately, thus dividing the Opposition vote, although the TMC did make an offer to the Congress later – to no avail – for both parties to fight collectively.

Such examples can be multiplied. The essential point is that a sporadic show of arithmetical unity only on the eve of a specific event like the presidential elections is doomed to failure, irrespective of the quality of the candidate. What is essential is an organic unity based on a carefully and painstakingly worked out Common (Minimum) Program among all non-BJP parties on a pan-India scale. This would include common goals, coordinated strategy, unified candidates, planned state level alliances, and forging a larger vision that overarches local interests in the greater national interest.

When such a pan-India common Opposition front appears to be in the making, and holds the hope of being electorally efficacious, then non-BJP parties, which habitually sit on the fence or flirt with the BJP, such as the BJD and the YSR Congress, may join hands. Until then, the Opposition’s cause seems hopeless, and there are always distinct advantages of doing business with the party in power at the Centre.

It must never be forgotten that as the ruling party at the Centre, the BJP has an array of tools which it can use to coerce non-BJP parties to comply. These include central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI. Although theoretically independent of political control, they invoke their powers mysteriously – and repeatedly – against the national ruling party’s political opponents. This becomes that much easier when there are legal cases already pending against Opposition leaders. These can be allowed to pend if such leaders ‘cooperate’, or fast-forwarded if they don’t. Corruption, of course, needs to be tackled, but skeletons-conjured or otherwise – can be found in any political cupboard. The BJP holds the key to open any cupboard it wishes to. Opposition leaders know that, and unless they see another alternative credibly emerging that can take on the BJP nationally, some of them prefer to comply.

The President of India is the country’s highest Constitutional post. It is an office of great dignity and respect, as I know personally, having served as Press Secretary to two Presidents, R Venkatraman and Shankar Dayal Sharma. But behind the serene settings of the regal Rashtrapati Bhavan, a great deal of rather unedifying politics is afoot about who will occupy that chair, for although the President is above partisan politics, his or her role in a scenario of fractured politics can be critically important.

The Opposition must learn that if it wants its person in that high office, and also have a fighting chance of performing credibly in the next national elections in 2024, it must get back to the drawing board, work out a national coalition, rise above brittle individual egos, eschew silo politics, and replace last-minute efforts by a more enduring, workable and resilient organic unity, motivated by the single goal of defeating the BJP. Perhaps, for this round of presidential elections, this boat has sailed.

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