New Delhi: The just-concluded winter session of Parliament stood out for two reasons: One, the washout of the session, the worst in the tenure of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Second, a determined effort by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to claim the limelight in the opposition’s politics of obstructionism.
It is the latter that is preoccupying most analysts. Not only did he consistently stay on the message against demonetisation, he was also uncharacteristically aggressive in making insinuations of corruption against Prime Minister Narendra Modi—something he has not backed up with evidence as yet.
But the big question is whether this is sufficient for Gandhi, as No. 2 in the largest opposition party, to install himself as the rallying political voice for the opposition.
Analysts say, not yet.
According to them, all the hard work was undone when he sought and obtained a meeting with Modi on the last day of the winter session to make out a case for a relief package, including a debt write-off, for farmers. In their view, it sent out confusing signals.
Friday’s meeting with Modi came just hours ahead of a scheduled meeting of a delegation of Congress and other opposition parties with President Pranab Mukherjee.
The meeting with Modi, which lasted around five minutes, irked other opposition parties so much that several of them skipped the meeting with Mukherjee.
Key absentees included the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK), Janata Dal (Secular) and the Left parties.
“None of the opposition parties have full faith in Rahul Gandhi’s leadership and that was evident during the president’s meeting. Most senior opposition leaders are not confident of him and so the approach is very half-hearted,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, a New Delhi-based political analyst.
The disquiet extended to even within the Congress, though the dissent is still sotto voce.
“There are concerns about the political fallout and optics of what has happened. But we have to be very clear that opposition unity cannot be maintained when we begin to campaign against each other. It was a political gamble that the top leadership took and it comes with its share of risk,” a senior Rajya Sabha member from the Congress said, requesting anonymity.
A bigger concern is that the fragile opposition unity will be under greater strain in the upcoming budget session—likely to be advanced to January to ensure the presentation of the Union budget on 1 February—as most will be preoccupied with assembly elections, in which several of them are pitted against each other.
“Rahul and the Congress party have been shifting focus. The opposition parties coming together is temporary and they lack a common focus or strategy. In my opinion, the opposition will be even more divided in the budget session of Parliament,” Rao said.
Gandhi’s bid to bring the opposition together came after West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee failed in her efforts to forge a joint opposition on demonetisation. She found support from only the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Shiv Sena and National Conference.
“We had coordination on the floor and even outside on the ongoing issues. For one month, all the opposition parties, including Congress, fought for the prime minister to come and hear out the opposition in Parliament, and on Friday Congress leaders themselves went to meet Modi. It is for the Congress to think now whether this meeting could have been done at a different time or not,” a senior Left leader from the Rajya Sabha said, requesting anonymity.
However, Gandhi’s supporters are unfazed.
A Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh said, “Rahul Gandhi will continue to lead the opposition from the front. Where there can be a joint programme, it will happen. But there is no formal deal that any opposition party cannot have a strategy of its own.”