Now that the dust has settled over the handy defeat of the Congress leader B K Hariprasad in the election for the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman’s position, the episode is likely an important reality check for opposition parties, particularly in light of recent efforts towards being perceived as an united force against the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Be it the recent show of strength at the swearing-in ceremony of Janata Dal (Secular)’s H D Kumaraswamy as the chief minister of Karnataka, or a series of by-polls wins, or more recently, the no-confidence motion against the Narendra Modi government, the opposition parties have gone out of their way to speak in one voice – at least in their criticism of the Union government.
This had led to a perception that the opposition unity-in-the-making was not merely an electoral formula but an ideological understanding against the saffron party. Despite the fact that over the last two decades, never have the parties in opposition come so close to one another like they have in the present, the chinks in its armour lay bare on the crucial day of the deputy chairman’s election.
The NDA candidate Harivansh Narayan Singh, a Janata Dal (United) member, got 125 votes against Hariprasad’s 101. The result was not surprising after the fence-sitting Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal, K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi and the AIADMK decided to support the NDA. At the same time, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), YSR Congress, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – all of whom have been more than just critical of the BJP – decided to abstain from voting.
On the other hand, BJP’s allies like Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), which was apparently miffed with the BJP for preferring a JD(U) candidate for the post, and Shiv Sena, which has already decided to contest the 2019 elections alone, came on board to support former journalist Harivansh.
For the BJP, Harivansh’s victory will surely be a confidence booster as the NDA won despite being in a minority in the upper house. Precisely for this reason, the opposition, especially the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, had hedged their bets on this crucial election. Although the election did not carry much weight in terms of its mass appeal, had the opposition ensured its candidate’s victory, it would have been a powerful symbolic message towards a larger anti-BJP consolidation on the ground.
Prime minister Narendra Modi realised the importance of the election and dived into the contest himself. Not only did he reach out to parties like TRS and BJD, he also ensured that the NDA constituents remained united. One may call it compromising the chair’s dignity but the way Modi took a dig at B K Hariprasad after his loss reflected the thrill that BJP derived from its win.
In his speech congratulating Harivansh, the prime minister said that the contest was between “two Haris” but played on the initials of the opposition candidate to say while one was “BK” (sold-out in the Hindi) the other was not. Following objection by the Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Kumar Jha and the Congress, the remark was expunged from the parliamentary records, but nonetheless indicated the sentiment in the BJP ranks.
There are four significant takeaways that can be inferred from the August 9 polls in the upper house.
One, the BJP is far more organised and determined than the opposition. While the opposition parties came out as having different priorities, and conflicting interests, the saffron party got its flock together. Following the dissent shown by the Shiv Sena, SAD (Badal), JD (U) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, questions were being asked whether Amit Shah, the BJP’s president, would be able to salvage the situation or not. He, along with Modi, saw an opportunity to reach out to the disgruntled allies and did.
By selecting a JD(U) candidate for the post, the Modi-Shah duo not only appeased the Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, but also opened channels for parties like BJD and TRS to support the NDA. Modi, himself called BJD supremo and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik and TRS’s Chandrasekhar Rao. Harivansh’s candidature also pacified the Shiv Sena who had been bickering over lack of importance of allies in the NDA. At the same time, it gave room to Nitish Kumar to reach out to multiple opposition parties, including the Aam Aadmi Party. Altogether, the election of deputy chairman became an opportunity for NDA to galvanise itself again.
On the other hand, the opposition could finalise Hariprasad as its candidate only a day ahead of the election after initial discussions about fielding Nationalist Congress Party’s Vandana Chavan or TMC’s Sukhendu Sekhar Roy or Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Tiruchi Siva. After it was clear that the BJD and TRS would support the NDA, the regional allies of UPA withdrew and the Congress was forced to field Hariprasad as the proverbial sacrificial goat.
The UPA got more than a month after former deputy chairman P J Kurien’s tenure ended on June 30 to decide on its candidate and woo independent political players. However, at the end, it became an opportunity wasted.
Two, the polls exposed the leadership crisis in the opposition. Both Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi took the lead in making the election a big deal for the opposition but none of them could propel oneself to play the leader. Rahul Gandhi’s sincere but inexperienced steering came to the fore when the AAP alleged that the Congress did not even make courtesy calls for support. It is quite a failure for the Congress as the AAP had supported the Congress in both the president’s and vice-president’s elections. Banerjee, too, could not muster the support of Chandrasekhar Rao, who had willingly endorsed her proposal of a federal front a few months ago.
In contrast, both Modi and Shah held the baton with determination to bring on board parties both within and outside the NDA. In such a context, if the 2019 elections pans out to “Modi versus who knows”, it is anybody’s guess who will be at an advantage.
Three, much of the opposition unity will be dependent on state-level political equations. The regional parties have indicated clearly that they would go against the BJP only if it brings them certain benefits in their states. Their national-level decisions will also depend on the same consideration. Thus, PDP, which just got dumped by the BJP, abstained as the opposition candidate was supported by the National Conference, its primary rival in Kashmir. For the TRS, too, the Congress is the main opposition in Telangana and the BJP is not much of a force there.
Similarly, the YSR Congress could not have been seen voting against the NDA along with the Telugu Desam Party, against which it will have to contest in the 2019 assembly elections.
The BJD, which has maintained an equidistant position from both the national parties, however, appears to be moving closer to the BJP of late. It walked out of the no-confidence motion against it, giving the Modi government an advantage and also supported the BJP when it was being cornered by the opposition on the faulty processing of the National Register of Citizens in Assam. However, there are no concrete indications as of now to say that BJD could join the NDA again. Political observers also believe that by supporting the BJP on some national issues, BJD was looking to neutralise the Odisha BJP’s campaign against Naveen Patnaik’s government.
The opposition unity currently rests primarily on the shoulders of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, two arch rivals who have decided to come together in Uttar Pradesh, until now.
The Congress, in its CWC meeting, has decided that it was ready to work around the priorities of regional players who are ready to be part of an opposition. But will the grand old party be available on every occasion to sacrifice its interests for its regional allies is a question it will have to answer sooner or later.
Whether or not the regional parties forsake their interests for a national goal also remains to be seen. As of now, no regional party outside the UPA wants to be seen entirely in the Congress camp, or is ready to give the Congress the go-ahead to lead the flock.
Four, the Rajya Sabha polls, most importantly, indicate that the opposition remains a loose entity. Even if the electoral calculations click, it would still need to advance an alternative vision which is different from the BJP’s. It would need to project a certain degree of common ideological grounding. If that does not happen, the BJP’s ongoing campaign that the opposition alliance is only a game of opportunism could hold weight. Given that Modi will remain the pivotal figure in 2019 general elections, the opposition cannot afford to be seen as a bunch of contradictions, as was seen in the deputy chairman’s elections.
In arrangement with The Wire