As Opposition leaders clasped and raised their hands on the dais for the customary photo-op at Jantar Mantar on Wednesday evening, N Chandrababu Naidu stood on the right and Sharad Pawar on the left of Mamata Banerjee. She, in turn, folded her hands in a namaskar.
Naidu and Pawar have come to occupy the space that Harkishan Singh Surjeet did in 2003-04. They are the strategists of what opposition hopes could turn into either a UPA 3 government or another United Front government, which had ruled at the Centre from 1996 to 1998, with the support of the Congress and CPI (M) from outside.
At the public meeting, Banerjee had an intense discussion with Pawar before she launched into an attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but also warned the Congress to show more respect to regional parties.
Banerjee was bristling that a Congress MP from Bengal had attacked her government in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday afternoon. She complained as much to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi when she met her in the Central Hall of Parliament before reaching the protest venue.
For the most part, Naidu and Pawar sat side by side and chatted frequently. By evening, the leaders gathered at Pawar’s residence at 6, Janpath. As the leaders prepared to leave, Congress president Rahul Gandhi also reached Pawar’s residence. Apart from Banerjee, Naidu and others, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, whose party had organised the Jantar Mantar protest, was also present.
Opposition leaders like Farooq Abdullah and some others implored the Congress chief to strike alliances with regional parties in Delhi, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. With the exception of Delhi, the Congress believes the opposition’s agenda of defeating the BJP is better served if it remains frenemies with the Trinamool in Bengal and SP-BSP alliance in UP. Kejriwal said on Thursday that the Congress has "almost" rejected the possibility of an alliance in Delhi.
Pawar’s bungalow has for the last few months been the venue for opposition leaders to get together to strategise. Opposition leaders, including the Congress president, are known to drop in to hold consultations with him. Naidu has spent as much time in Delhi as he has in his home state. A section of New Delhi’s Andhra Pradesh Bhavan is now a full-fledged control room for Naidu to keep track of developments in the state. Naidu has also been reaching out to all opposition leaders, including some of the tougher bargainers like BSP chief Mayawati.
The synergy between Pawar and Naidu, with help from National Conference leader Abdullah, was evident as Banerjee held a protest in Kolkata earlier this month. Pawar, 78, a veteran of several political battles, and Naidu, 68, who cut his teeth in coalition politics during the United Front years, worked the phones to ensure political leaders issued messages expressing solidarity with Banerjee.
Pawar and Naidu also made some of the opposition leaders, including Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav and Kejriwal, land at the protest site the next day to provide moral support to Banerjee, and made Rahul Gandhi tweet his support to her despite the local Congress unit’s reservations. The two also ensured that the Congress sends its representative at the Jantar Mantar protest, which the AAP had organised.
Pawar, a former chief minister of Maharashtra and multiple-term union minister, was a key player in keeping the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party alliance alive for 15-years in Maharashtra, and also during the UPA 1 and 2 coalition governments. Pawar was also one of the earliest benefactors of Banerjee when she had quit the Congress to float her own party in 1997.
A key figure missing in these discussions was CPI (M) chief Sitaram Yechury. However, the Left has since the middle of 2016 played a role disproportionate to its strength in Parliament. It has mobilized farmers and workers to march to Delhi, Mumbai and in several other parts of the country to ask questions to the government on atrocities on Dalits and on agrarian distress.
Given the political dynamics in Bengal, Yechury attended the protest meeting at Jantar Mantar but left before Banerjee’s arrival. Yechury, since he was Surjeet’s lieutenant in 1996 and in 2004, is a veteran of managing the contradictions of coalition politics. He knows and is respected by several of the regional leaders, and his advise heeded given that his party's stated position of not joining a government at the Centre or vying for ministerial portfolios. Yechury remains someone that Pawar and Naidu turn to at critical junctures.