Opposition unity for Presidential Election;will it bear any fruit?

Every day, we see some new moves towards opposition unity. This time opposition is getting united for Presidential Election. Will these moves bear fruit?

Empirical evidence says “NO”. The personality of Narendra Modi is strong enough to dwarf all the moves that aim to bring all the non-BJP parties together.

opposition unity
Some opposition leaders met in Chennai on the occasion of Karunanidhi’s birthday, Source : The Financial Express

Opposition unity and Presidential election

This year, opposition unity moves have become even more interesting because we are going to have a new President on July 15. These moves are being led by Congress and are primarily aimed at forging a Grand Alliance against the BJP. However, the short-term goal of these moves is to force the Central Government (read the BJP) to come to a consensus on the Presidential polls.

So far, the BJP has demurred on this issue. This is not surprising because the party is in a position of strength and can dictate terms on who the next President is going to be. It is certain that the next President will be the BJP’s choice. If you have been following the career graph of this party, you will easily conclude that the BJP will not let go of this attractive advantage.

History of opposition unity

For a long time, the Central Government has been led by Congress. First, it was Nehru who led the government for 14 long years. Then, after a gap of one and a half years, his daughter Indira Gandhi took over the control of the party and ran the country for nearly 15 years. It was during Mrs. Gandhis’s rule that the first definite moves towards uniting the opposition began.

Many Indians think that Nehru ruled unopposed. Is it true? No. There was still a small but vocal section of MPs which opposed Nehru. This section was led by the venerable Ram Manohar Lohiya, the ‘father’ of the Indian socialist movement. There was another group which was a bitter opponent of Nehru’s policies. The name of this group was Jansangh and comprised leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, and Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya.

Then there were also the Communists which had just got their foothold in Kerala.

Strangely, these three political formations never tried to come together and present a united front against the ruling party.

The Indira years and opposition unity

Opposition unity efforts got a boost in the mid-1970s thanks to the untiring efforts of the Late Jaiprakash Narayan. It is important here to understand the reasons why these efforts became successful.

In 1971, Mrs. Gandhi had decidedly trounced Pakistan in a  14-day war with that country. Pakistan was divided into two and Mrs. Gandhi soon attained the status of a goddess. The entire country worshiped her as if she were a modern-day goddess. Soon, her own party men started considering Mrs. Gandhi as the embodiment of India.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Gandhi soon found herself in the middle of a nation-wide crisis. The economy was performing miserably and the average Indian citizen was finding it hard to lead a decent life. Prices of essential commodities were reaching sky high levels. There was a feeling of general discontent in the country. Unemployment was high and the student community was getting bitter about the lack of jobs.

Mrs. Gandhi was the unintentional ‘architect’ of Janata Party; Source : NDTV

A wise leader, in these circumstances, would have reached out to the citizens and heard them out. But in this case, Mrs. Gandhi perceived that there was a threat to the country’s security. She thought that the best way to counter discontent was to clamp down Emergency.

The Janta experiment

Mrs. Gandhi’s decision to impose Emergency was not just opposed by the citizens but by most of the non-Congress parties as well. In 1977, a brand new political formation emerged which had a very simple name- Janta Party. Led by Jaiprakash Narain, this party was actually a coalition of differing ideologies. Since this party had the backing of a large number of Indians, the Janta Party swept to power in the 1977 general elections. We can say that the Janta Party was the first fruit of opposition unity.

However, this fruit turned out to just be an experiment, it had no flesh and no seed. It was just a stop gap arrangement meant to keep Mrs. Gandhi away from power. The Janta Party unraveled itself after just two years.

The Janta Dal years

The next opportunity for the opposition to come together came during the last days of Rajiv Gandhi‘s administration. His government was besmirched by charges of corruption and there was an overall environment of disgust towards him. Like Mrs. Gandhi, Rajiv too tried to stifle the voices of dissent but was unsuccessful in his efforts.

Most of the opposition parties came together in 1989 and formed a National Front whose main aim was to deprive the Congress of power. This Front was led by a new party, Janta Dal which was led by V.P Singh, a former minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government.

VP Singh was the central figure in the National Front that defeated Congress in the 1989 elections; Source : The Hindu Center

The National Front succeeded in defeating the Congress in the 1989 elections and history repeated itself. Unfortunately, the new government led by V.P Singh fell down within a year under its own weight. There were too many contradictions in the National Front to be resolved.

The  flawed DNA of opposition unity

Why did the two formations of Janta Dal and National Front fail? In my opinion, these groups did echo the popular voice against corruption. In both the cases, the ruling dispensation was neck deep in corruption and favoritism. The voting public wanted these two governments to go precisely because of corruption-related reasons. This wish was fulfilled by the formation of the Janta Party and the National Front.

However, these two groups did not understand one simple fact- the voters wanted them to deliver good governance as well. But, here was a situation where these two governments simply dissolved under the weight of their internal contradictions.

An optimistic mood

It would be simplistic for the Congress to assume that it can successfully forge some kind of opposition unity. The reason is that unlike 1975 and 1989, there is no discontent in the country. Narendra Modi is still perceived to be an honest, capable and a determined Prime Minister by millions of Indians. His government has not indulged in any form of corruption and the country is on a path of fast development. From July 2017 onwards, the country will have a unified tax structure called the GST. A large number of women now use gas cylinders to cook their food. May poor Indians are getting benefits from the government directly into their bank accounts. Generally, there is an environment of optimism in the country.

The Congress Desperation

There is a sense of desperation in the Congress. And a sense of urgency too. Over the past 3 years, the party has been losing election after election. There is only a handful of states where the Congress is in power and there is no guarantee that it will retain its control over some of them in the near future. It is widely expected that the Congress will lose Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka in the 2018 elections. The Congress is now irrelevant in major states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and Rahul Gandhi’s leadership is not helping the part either.

opposition unity
Congress is directionless these days under Sonia Gandhi and Rahul; Source : The Mint

Congress’ call for opposition unity is actually a cry for help. It wants its allies like the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to come together and help the Congress win the 2019 polls. Unfortunately, Congress is finding it difficult to get other parties that would accept its leadership. For example, the Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh Yadav still distrusts the Congress. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar keeps himself at an arm’s length from the Congress. Only the communists want to talk with the Congress.

Who will win?

Even if all the opposition parties were to unite today and projected their Presidential candidate, they would still lose. And lose badly. The BJP of Modi is invincible today. Not only does it command a vast majority in the Lok Sabha, it also controls the governments of several states. After the elections in Uttar Pradesh, the party will become stronger in the Rajya Sabha too. The BJP is well set to have its own President for the first time in its history.

Opposition unity for Presidential Election;will it bear any fruit?
Pranab Mukherjee is reportedly unwilling to stand for the second term as President of India; Source : One India

Will the opposition unity efforts of the Congress for Presidential election succeed? I don’t think so. Some political parties like the TMC do not think Rahul Gandhi has the right leadership skills and this is one reason why unity talks will not succeed. However, some parties like the CPM and the DMK will still support Congress because they have no option.

In days to come, expect to hear the voices on consensus on Presidential election become stronger.


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