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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 40 New Delhi September 22, 2018

Women Spearhead 2019 Challenge To Modi

Tuesday 25 September 2018, by Mahendra Ved

Move over ambitious, egotist men—women are leading the campaign to thwart Prime Minister Narendra Modi  and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s bid to win a fresh mandate in the forthcoming elections.

Thankfully for India’s Opposition, trying hard to match Modi’s wile and resources and meticulous planning by BJP chief Amit Shah, some men who matter are getting the message right. And they include men known for their prime ministerial ambitions for long years.

Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda has signalled a retirement of sorts by saying he would not be averse to Trinamul Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee becoming the next Prime Minister.

Recall that he had sworn “I shall return” during his angry ‘farewell’ speech in the Lok Sabha when he was ousted two decades back. His support to Mamata seems to echo what his son and Karnataka Chief Minister, H.D. Kumaraswami, said of the Opposition fight-back being led by the Congress that remains the largest Opposition party. But he did not mention Congress chief Rahul Gandhi as the likely Opposition candidate for the top job.

Rahul’s acceptability remains in doubt by the Opposition seniors who, however, respect his mother Sonia Gandhi. That brings us to another formidable, but much-maligned woman. Her Italian birth and language limitations when it comes to Hindi did not prevent her from heading the Congress for 19 years, the longest anyone has done in its century-plus history. Through ups and down—and it has been really down for the last four years—she has not given up. It was she who quietly went about forging an alliance which allowed her to race ahead of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance in 2004. The excitement she had caused by abandoning her car and walking up, albeit next door, from 10, Janpath to 12, to meet Ram Vilas Paswan set the ball rolling so quietly that few understood.

She had tried to talk, among others, to the Samajwadi Party and to Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj party, to be rebuffed. Then Samajwadi Party stalwart Amar Singh had famously called her “a political flirt” who had found no takers. He was to regret his words as after the elections, escorted by a friendly Harkishan Singh Surjeet to the Opposition meet, he was told that he was not invited.

Sonia must be credited with taking her high-and-mighty party on the road to alliance-making, something of considerable value in present times. More so, when a deal-maker like Surjeet is no more and trust-levels are low in this era of troll and social media pressures. Said to be ailing and having already passed on the party’s baton to Rahul, Sonia remains politically savvy and is playing behind-the-scenes.

She must join the ranks of ‘retirees’ or the king/queeen-makers since she did not take up the top job in 2004 and is certainly not going to do so now.

Her clasping hands with Mayawati at a political rally and greeting Mamata made for great photo-ops that also triggered political signals. Pat came stories, apparently planted by political detractors, that the photo had upset Mayawati who fears that her political support- base is being diluted.  And, that Mamata was a slippery customer for the Opposition and could join hands with Modi like Nitish Kumar of Bihar has done.

Far from this, Mayawati sacked one of her senior party officials for pitching her for the Prime Minister’s job, saying that Rahul, born of an Italian mother, would never be acceptable.

Her antipathy to the party that has ruled for half-a-century is only to be expected. If reports are to be believed, she is cold to the Samajwadi proposal to include a very weak Congress in the Opposition combine that would eventually need to share seats to be contested in Uttar Pradesh. But her action indicates a deft understanding of the ground situation in UP that necessitates maximum understanding among the Opposition parties.

Incidentally, Deve Gowda is in good company of another man with known prime ministerial ambitions, Sharad Pawar, the chief of the Nationalist Congress Party. Pawar has gone on record that he has shed those ambitions and that along with Gowda and Sonia, he wants to help forge a strong Opposition front.

Come to think of it, the trio’s working for Opposition unity signals a generational change in the offing. They may gracefully fade out or take the back seat, in the foreseeable future, but not without doing their bit.

In that group could well be Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party founder who reportedly kept away from the party meetings his son and former UP Chief Minister Akhilesh has been having as he plans a pre-poll alliance with Mayawati. Said to be ailing, Mulayam has not so far facilitated a complete power transfer to the son who had rebelled and wrested control over the party. Indeed, till this rebellion, the SP suffered from multiple power-centres.  Mulayama’s ‘sanyasa’ would help. He needs to bless his son, really and effectively, to make the party he founded truly formidable because the SP-BSP alliance has given the BJP sleepless nights.

The Opposition parties are gradually moving towards greater understanding, having decided that the issue of who becomes the Prime Minister would be sorted out after the elections. However, this would need to translate into coordination among respective party cadres that have traditionally fought each other and finally, the most formidable task of sharing the seats to avoid multiple challenge to the BJP that had won 71 seats (plus two by an ally) in UP.

Getting back to women, at the turn of the century, the playful slogan in political circles was Maya-Mamata-Jayalalithaa.  Of them, Jayalalithaa is no more. Her death has left a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu, a major State electorally. Little wonder that the State is up for grabs locally and by the BJP that aims to end the Dravidian political culture there.

Mayawati, the four-time Chief Minister of populous Uttar Pradesh, is fighting for survival, having lost two elections in the State and two in the Lok Sabha. She is doing it the best way she can by making up with her arch rival, the SP. That Akhilesh carries less of a baggage than his father and his wily uncle, Shivpal, helped.

More needs to be said of Mamata who has vanquished the Left and Congress in her State and is waging a stiff battle against the BJP. She has extended her ambit by hobnobbing with national Opposition leaders and inviting them to a rally next January in Kolkata. On the other hand, she has taken up cudgels against the moves to oust ‘foreigners’ from Assam.

Of the entire Opposition phalanx, and even among the women, Mamata is perhaps the most strident and most conscious that if she does not stem the BJP tide now, she would be out of power in 2021.

A product of the Congress culture, Mamata, who retains the Congress name in her party, is known to be friendly to Sonia.  Despite her personal dislike for the State Congressmen, she can be expected to rally the Opposition behind her. That she is not from the political ‘heartland’ may help.

Without exaggeration, this is last lap for the Opposition consolidation that, by avilable accounts, is still a work in progress. Time is running out for this alliance-making.  Mamata’s rally may be overtaken by a snap poll, advanced to between Diwali and Christmas—and she knows it.

Hopefully, so do other Opposition leaders, if they want to take on the strongest Prime Minister in decades, who has power at the Centre and in 20 States, a political manager in Amit Shah, a party that claims 90 million membership and Hindutva cadres whose numbers cannot even be estimated.

Mahendra Ved is the President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (2016-2018) A senior journalist,  he can be reached at mahendraved07[at]gmail.com

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