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The Illusion of Opposition Unity

August 20, 2021 07:05 IST

There was near unanimity among the guests at the Sibal dinner that the country is ready for a change, that the ruling party has lost popularity.
However in the same breath speaker after speaker lamented that without Opposition unity Modi could as well win a third successive term, reveals Virendra Kapoor.

IMAGE: Congress leaders Kapil Sibal, left with Ghulam Nabi Azad. Photograph: PTI Photo

Kapil Sibal, the Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, is a successful lawyer.

In recent days, he has taken upon himself the rather impossible task of bringing some clarity on the leadership question in his own party.

As the chief mover behind the letter calling on the Gandhis to loosen their vice-like grip on the party and allow a transparent organisational election from the grassroots up to the level of the Congress president, he most courageously belled the court, as it were, in a party where sycophancy and flattery have all along been the only ticket to self-promotion.

Under the circumstances, the Group of 23, indicating the number of signatories to the letter piloted by Sibal, got away rather lightly.

The widely feared wrath of the high command, shorthand for Sonia, son Rahul and daughter, Priyanaka Vadra, did not visit any of the letter-writers.

Nonetheless, they are all marked men and women, to be suitably dealt with should the Gandhis return to power anytime soon.

Indeed, showing hitherto unsuspected tactical finesse and maturity, some of those who had virtually challenged the entrenched leadership to undergo the humiliating process of seeking validation from ordinary AICC members, were actually accommodated in various party committees or nominated to parliamentary forums.

In earlier times the letter-writers would have been severely penalised for their audacity in challenging the Gandhis.

Aside from some excitement in the Congress circles, nothing else seemed to have come from Sibal's initiative.

As usual, the matter was pushed on the backburner with the formation of a party panel to draw up the schedule for the organisational poll.

In the meantime, Sonia Gandhi continues as the interim president despite her ill-health and fervent requests to be relieved of the task of helming the party, especially at this critical time in its chequered history.

Now, a good year after the letter-bomb/dud, Sibal has undertaken the initiative to bring together the motley group of Opposition leaders on a single platform with an eye on ousting Modi in the 2024 Lok Sabha poll.

With his birthday coming handy, he used the happy occasion to invite a host of Opposition leaders to plot the unity moves over sumptuous eats and drinks.

In the normal course, party differences are not allowed to mar jollity and fun expected on such happy occasions.

But while the absence of BJP ministers in today's embittered polity was understandable, it is the non-presence of the bigwigs from his own party which raises inconvenient questions.

Polite manners, if not fear of the Gandhis, demanded that the top leadership show up to wish the birthday boy.

None of the senior Congress leaders graced the occasion, even some among the G-23 were conspicuous by their absence.

Yet, Sibal gathered representatives of various regional parties, including the YSR Congress, TDP, TRS, BJD, SAD, etc.

It is, however, hard to fathom how he would reconcile the fact that all these parties bitterly fight the Congress in their respective states, while in Parliament invariably come to the rescue of the government whenever required, with the proposed anti-BJP formation.

For, in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Punjab, the Congress fights elections against the above mentioned parties.

Such imponderables could not be expected to be resolved at a convivial evening where the undercurrent was unmistakably against the Gandhis especially for their alleged obstreperousness in insisting on Rahul helming the national campaign against Modi, something even Mamata Banerjee was unwilling to concede.

Sibal might be a gracious host, but he has neither been known for his political acumen nor for his grip on the voters even in his backyard in the national capital.

Of course, there is space for do-gooders in politics also. They can always help with ideas and advice to those in command.

But to expect that they will become the catalysing agents for real change in a hierarchy-ridden Congress with the Gandhis monopolising the top slot for themselves is unrealistic.

Sibal can have the courage to speak truth to the entrenched Congress leadership, but he cannot be the spearhead of a revolt against it.

Because in all his years as a politician he has failed to build support for himself at the ground level. Even for a parliamentary ticket he is at the mercy of the party leadership.

For the truth is that despite the open show of dissidence against the Gandhis, no sitting party chief minister is willing to endorse even obliquely the well meaning call for internal democracy in the party.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who despite the Congress high command imposing a lightweight but noisy Navjot Singh Sidhu as Pradesh Congress head, prefers to keep his own counsel, unwilling to be counted among dissidents on the eve of a do-or-die assembly poll.

Prominent State-level dissident leaders such as Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and T S Singh Deo in Chhattisgarh, for example, refrain from pressuring the high command by joining the Sibal campaign for fear of pushing the Gandhis towards their bete noires Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel.

Indeed, if you consider all the 23 Congress dissidents, one thing that is common to all is that they need the blessings of the Gandhis to remain central or state legislators.

And this is true of Sibal himself.

For sure, there was near unanimity among the guests at the Sibal dinner that the country is ready for a change, that the ruling party has lost popularity due to various missteps such as the handling of the coronavirus, the spurt in consumer prices, loss of jobs in the unorganised sector and the Pegasus spying case, etc.

However in the same breath speaker after speaker lamented that without Opposition unity Modi could as well win a third successive term.

But the sense of purpose and unity on display in ousting Modi did not extend a wee bit to the leadership question.

Some of the guests minced no words in pointedly holding the Gandhis as the main and only stumbling block in the emergence of a commonly accepted leader.

But without Mamata Banerjee coming on board -- and why should she unless projected as the prime ministerial candidate -- and Sharad Pawar's ambition for the second-best post as that of the President of India being conceded, Sibal can throw as many lavish dinners as he wants.

But Opposition unity will remain a chimera, eluding them all.

Modi can carry on unbothered by the Opposition contretemps over unity.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/