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Why uniting anti-BJP parties won’t be easy for Sonia Gandhi: Opinion

The furrow Sonia now ploughs is lonelier than it was in 1999 or 2004

analysis Updated: Mar 17, 2018 20:06 IST
Vinod Sharma
Congress president Rahul Gandhi hugs his mother, Sonia Gandhi, after her speech at the 84th Plenary Session of the Indian National Congress (INC) at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi on Saturday.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi hugs his mother, Sonia Gandhi, after her speech at the 84th Plenary Session of the Indian National Congress (INC) at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi on Saturday.(Mohd Zakir / HT Photo)

A day after Sonia Gandhi broke bread with leaders of anti-BJP parties, her move to assemble them on one platform found resonance in the bypolls in two key north Indian states: Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The signal from the voters was unmistakable: hang together or get hanged separately. The ground also seems ripe for anti-BJP line-ups if one factors in the latter’s growing temperamental disconnect with smaller allies. Symptomatic of that is the TDP- inspired no trust move .

But can Sonia pull it off? A veteran now, she was a neophyte 19 summers ago when she first ventured to set up an alternative to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The events of April 1999 left her red faced for failing to muster the magical 272 after dislodging the NDA by one vote. The Samajwadi Party, then led by Mulayam Singh, did not play ball. The embarrassment was as much that of the CPI(M)’s Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who took Mulayam at his word to convey the assurance of the SP’s support to the Congress through Arjun Singh.

An honest broker, the Marxist veteran had struck a rapport with Sonia at a one-on-one meeting they had at his Teen Murti Lane bungalow. He had then shared with me details of their talks: “She came all alone on a languid afternoon. I said I’ve one air-conditioner and that’s in my bedroom. As she’s like my daughter, we could sit there and talk.”

Surjeet used the meeting to allay her party’s apprehensions of the Left insisting on difficult-to-meet conditions: “ I said a few thousand crore rupees for anti-poverty schemes would give us justification for backing the government…and she’d get her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi’s pro-poor image.”

But he erred in believing Mulayam whom he should have known better. The SP leader had gained political respectability from the Left’s companionship. Surjeet, in fact, tried to make him the prime minister when the Congress withdrew support to HD Deve Gowda in 1997. The move was scuttled by VP Singh and Chandrababu Naidu, who worked in tandem to build a consensus around Inder Kumar Gujral.

Gujral carried the day for two reasons. Essentially a technocrat, he could be PM without posing a threat, in mass-support terms, to other United Front leaders. It was Mulayam’s popular base that created resistance from other aspirants, notably SR Bommai egged on by Lalu Prasad to oust the SP leader from the race.

The Surjeet-Arjun Singh duo aren’t around anymore and the other sworn BJP adversary Lalu is in jail. Sonia has to do the matchmaking by herself, relying on protagonists she might not instinctively trust. Even among the Congress old-guard, her choice is restricted in the absence of Pranab Mukherjee, who could be contacted for advice, but not any outreach to potential allies.

A host of other reasons make the prospects of an anti-saffron front difficult. The political clout of the Left — that was a formidable ideological lynchpin against the BJP in the 1990s — has shrunk in the face of aggressive Hindutva. Then there’s that factional face-off within the CPI(M) over the nature of its ties with the Congress.

The setback in Tripura and the BJP’s alienation from present and prospective allies could trigger a rethink.

Jyoti Basu described not letting him take the PM’s office in 1996 a historic blunder. The party’s argument against his elevation then was: we can’t take power when we lack the numbers to influence policy! The Meghalaya of the BJP’s making turns that logic on its head. Politics without pragmatism is the sure road to sanyasa.

That’s what Surjeet was good at. He refused to receive Mulayam at his residence after the 1999 betrayal. But in 2004 he turned up with him at Sonia’s UPA dinner. Four years later, it was the SP that saved the Manmohan Singh regime after the Prakash Karat-led CPI(M) pulled out over the India-US nuclear deal.

The one person in the Opposition who has Surjeet’s experience and savvy is Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). An alliance between him and the Congress in Maharashtra could commit him to building a front to fight the BJP. That’ll also encourage other regional satraps to pick up equity in the national play of politics. How well it all shapes up will depend on popular pressure from below —the voter desirous of a new dispensation in Delhi.

The BJP’s challenge is to keep that pressure to the minimum!

vinodsharma@hindustantimes.com