Contours of a rainbow coalition to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began taking shape in Mumbai on Republic Day when a number of opposition parties and anti-BJP organizations joined hands in a “Samvidhan Bachao" (Save the Constitution) rally, led by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar.

Among those who attended were Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, general secretary Sitaram Yechury, Communist of Party of India (CPI) leader D. Raja, National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah, rebel Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav, Congress leaders Ashok Chavan, Prithviraj Chavan, and Sushilkumar Shinde, Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana founder and MP Raju Shetty, Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Dinesh Trivedi, and leaders of the Maharashtra-based Peasants and Workers Party (PWP).

Dalit activist and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Patidar community leader Hardik Patel, veteran lawyer Ram Jethmalani, social activist Baba Adhav, and Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, also joined the rally.

Pawar, whose party had reached out to other parties including the Congress to join the initiative, led the rally and told reporters that opposition parties would hold a follow-up meeting in Delhi on Monday to draw up a strategy. Pawar said Congress president Rahul Gandhi may attend this meeting.

Last week, Pawar also told the Mumbai Mirror newspaper that the NCP was keen on striking up an alliance with the Congress for the next Lok Sabha elections. The two fought the 2014 Lok Sabha and Maharashtra assembly elections independently.

Pawar’s overtures to the Congress assume significance in the wake of the Shiv Sena’s recent announcement that it will not contest the next Lok Sabha and assembly elections in alliance with the BJP. In the same interview, Pawar said the Shiv Sena would gain if it remained committed to this position but ruled out an NCP-Sena alliance. 

Functionaries from the NCP and Congress agreed that it was Pawar’s “outreach and stature", which had ensured the participation of so many political parties and social activists. “It must be admitted that Pawar saheb still carries a lot of persuasive powers and influence with most opposition parties. Initially, we were a bit apprehensive about joining this initiative as it looked like an NCP-led campaign. But Pawar saheb spoke with Rahulji and insisted this should not be perceived as a one-party effort and that we all needed to stand together against the BJP," said a senior Maharashtra Congress leader requesting anonymity. 

He, however, clarified that “there was much ground to cover" before one could conclude that a grand anti-BJP alliance was in the works.

“This was one initiative where we thought we should join to show the BJP that opposition parties could unite on issues. Questions like whether this is a precursor of things to come or if a grand anti-BJP alliance is being formalized are premature and such things take time," said this Congress leader.

He also referred to the joint Congress-NCP public meeting in Nagpur in December 2017 which Pawar had led. “It was a successful effort and if we hadn’t agreed to Pawar saheb leading that, the entire effort would have fizzled out and the BJP could have exploited a show of disunity," he said.

Yet, the Congress high command and the state leadership remained “watchful about possible NCP attempts to exploit such initiatives for its individual revival and raise its ability to negotiate".

An NCP functionary, who did not want to be named, said though the Congress had its reasons to have reservations about joining a Pawar-led initiative, it did not have a leader of the stature of the NCP chief who could assemble a rainbow coalition.

“Congress is always wary of any initiative which Pawar saheb is leading because they don’t want to play second fiddle to us. But they also know that even Rahul Gandhi would not have been able to bring together so many political parties and organizations. Pawar saheb has clarified so many times that he nurses no ambitions to become the prime minister and yet, the Congress remains sceptical," said the NCP functionary who insisted the Congress needed to shed its wariness in favour of opposition unity even at the national level.