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Congress needs a new slogan and India needs a new opposition, writes Barkha Dutt

Not only is the Congress, with its present set of weapons and ammunition, not battle-ready to take on the BJP; it isn’t even equipped any longer to lead the opposition.

columns Updated: Jul 29, 2017 14:35 IST
Nitish Kumar,Bihar,Congress
Nitish Kumar with Sushil Kumar Modi at Raj Bhawan in Patna on Thursday. No one really thinks that Nitish Kumar’s exit from the coalition was driven by principled opposition to corruption.(Santosh Kumar/HT Photo)

It took less than 15 hours for Nitish Kumar to resign and return as Chief Minister of Bihar with his old partners as his new allies. It took less than two hours for the BJP – which slotted a parliamentary board meeting timed to the exact moment of Nitish Kumar’s resignation — to welcome him back to the home team. That both sides were playing to a script that had been written well in advance is obvious. But when Rahul Gandhi declares that he knew about this “three-four months ago”, you’ve got to hold your head and ask: So, what did do you do about it? Was it denial, defeatism or complacency that kept the Congress from creating an incentive for Nitish Kumar to stay? And what stopped you from taking a more public position, as a coalition partner, against the continuation of Tejashwi Yadav amid pretty serious charges of financial corruption?

Yes, no one really thinks that Nitish Kumar’s exit was driven by principled opposition to corruption – after all, when he joined hands with Lalu Yadav in 2015, he was already convicted of corruption. It wasn’t about secularism back then, as the Congress claimed and it isn’t about graft now; it is quite simply politics — and yes, politics is the singular, often brazen, pursuit of power.

As the Modi juggernaut storms its ways across the finishing line to almost reach its destination of a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’, the challenger, left straggling, now seems to be asleep at the wheel.

The truth — as India enters a phase of BJP hegemony — is this: Not only is the Congress, with its present set of weapons and ammunition, not battle-ready to take on the BJP; it isn’t even equipped any longer to lead the opposition. The exit of Nitish Kumar proves that the Gandhi family is no longer the pivot around which the non-BJP, non-Congress parties will organise themselves.

Even confronted with an existential crisis the Congress has been laggard; instead of fighting for its life it has betrayed a peculiar and elite smugness. Letting Goa slip when it could have formed the government there; letting Shankersinh Vaghela walk when he was the only candidate with some fight in him in Gujarat, waiting too long to announce Meira Kumar as the Presidential nominee instead of beating the BJP to it, vacationing abroad during key moments of political turmoil and of course the refusal to cede a leadership role to other political leaders — Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar or Naveen Patnaik — all of whom the Congress today needs more than they need it.

It’s possible that Nitish would have left them anyway; there were tell-tale signs that he was hedging his bets — qualified support for demonetisation, endorsing the BJP’s choice for President —but did the Congress pay any attention to the JD (U) statement, when Pavan Verma was authorised to demand a cogent “opposition narrative”, warning that Modi’s domination could not be fought in an “ad hoc, confused and reactive” manner? Yes, people close to Nitish Kumar say what really swung his decision was not so much a calculation that he would never be able to beat Modi and become Prime Minister; but that there was a real danger of losing Bihar in the next election. Apparently, the BJP’s win in Uttar Pradesh where the opposition banked on Muslim-Yadav consolidation, but saw forward castes, other backward castes and Dalits join hands to defeat it, was a scenario Nitish feared in Bihar as well if he remained with Lalu Yadav. But whatever were the arithmetical calculations of the chief minister, what deftness or quick thinking did the Congress or Lalu Yadav display? For instance, Rahul Gandhi could have made a public statement demanding the sacking of Tejashwi Yadav or his father could have asked him to step down. That would have at least forced Nitish Kumar to construct an alternative reason for his exit, instead of allowing him to claim the higher moral ground and handing over the state – and the general election of 2019 — on a platter to Narendra Modi. Then they could have more effectively taken on Nitish’s glaring flip-flops and U-turns on the BJP.

The Congress needs to wake up from its slumber: falling back on the jaded tropes of secularism and betrayal is no longer going to work as a political idea. Taking shield on corruption allegations behind the cloak of inauthentic secularism is cynical politics and its time is up. Especially because that secularism is bent at will and abandoned when necessary. The Congress needs a new slogan and India needs a new opposition.

Barkha Dutt is an award­-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 28, 2017 19:08 IST