New aspects of our national life have caused thinking democrats greater concern in recent months than the state of the Opposition. Mrs Gandhi, many have felt over the months, was lucky in getting a massive majority in the Lok Sabha on a minority mandate. But she has been luckier having on Opposition which is not only divided and in disarray, but to quote a veteran observer, is “stupid and impotent”. Happily for these democrats, the situation is beginning to change and look up. It is no longer as hopeless. After months of distressing inactivity and despair, the Opposition is showing signs of coming alive again. Moves are afoot for joint action against the Congress (I) “misrule and abuse of power” — and Mrs Gandhi’s failure to provide a Government that works. Simultaneously, efforts are on both openly and behind the scenes for forging some understanding among the Opposition parties. Unlike in the past, no one talks these days of Opposition unity or alliances. The emphasis is now on realism and pragmatism — at least in talk.
Mrs Gandhi showed between March 1977 and the end of 1979 how an Opposition leader and party could function. The 1977 poll cast her in the dumps. She was written off by almost all the party leaders, political analysts including myself, and the people at large. Even prominent Congress (I) men quietly went along with the assessment. But Mrs Gandhi determinedly rode back to power with a bang. Many were bitterly critical when following her defeat she turned up unannounced at an Arab national day reception in response to an invitation sent as a matter of courtesy. In retrospect, however, the message she put across was clear — a message which eventually helped her to win back the support of the Muslims at home. (Remember, the banquet hosted in honour of Mrs Gandhi by the Saudi Ambassador in New Delhi on the eve of the Lok Sabha poll.) Not a few ridiculed her visit to Belchi atop an elephant and her efforts to woo the Harijans. Here again she proved right and the others wrong.
Many scoffed at Mrs Gandhi’s decision to split the Congress early in 1979 and felt that this would hasten her end politically. But here, too, her strategy yielded rich rewards. Few then saw the real purpose behind her surprise move. It, no doubt, cut her strength in the Lok Sabha to less than half and ended her party’s pre-eminence as the official Opposition. But it gave her a well-knit and committed task force. (“What counts in a fight ultimately”, analysed a Congress (I) leader, “is the strength of the stick, not its length”.) Thereafter, she utilized every opportunity in Parliament to hit at the Janata Government. Mr C.M. Stephen’s disenchantment with the Congress (U) was exploited to get for her group one of the Lok Sabha’s most effective Opposition leaders ignoring the fact that he had strongly supported her expulsion from the party. Much else followed and Mrs Gandhi shrewdly got a great deal of mileage out of both the Kanti affair (thanks to the tactless Morarji-Charan Singh correspondence) and her expulsion from the Lok Sabha — and imprisonment.
The Opposition has of late started planning popular campaigns to assert its identity — individually or collectively. A six-party front has been formed at the national level comprising CPM, CPI, Forward Bloc, RSP, Lok Dal and Congress (U) for united action on three specific issues initially — rising prices, communalism and civil liberties. The state units have been left free to formulate their own programmes and also to choose the participants in the light of local compulsions. The Front has, for instance, persuaded the Janata Party to join hands with it in Maharashtra even though it has chosen to keep aloof at the national level. More than one lakh persons have courted arrest in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu to protest against rising prices. The Bharatiya Janata Party has, meanwhile, launched on its own a movement against the National Security Ordinance all over the country.
Simultaneously, efforts are on among erstwhile constituents of the Janata to revive the old party as an alternative to the Congress (I). (Contrary to a popular impression, the six parties constituting the Left Democratic Front have not come together. “We are not a front or an alliance for fighting the elections or forming a government”, EMS told me. “Haste, as the Janata experience shows, can become counter-productive. We, therefore, prefer to move slowly.”) A convention of four middle-of-the-road democratic parties — Congress (U), Lok Dal, Janata Party and the Janata(S) was held in Patna on October 7 for evolving a national alternative. An eight-man committee was formed to sound the respective party High Commands on the desirability of their merger. Significantly, it warned the four High Commands that if they failed to bring about a merger by December 31, another state level convention would be held in January to take a concrete decision.
The outcome of the move is anybody’s guess. But it should not be dismissed out of hand simply because the initiative has been taken at the state level. Important persons, who enjoy status in their respective parties, are actively involved in the new exercise. They include Mr S.N. Sinha (Janata), Mr S.N. Mishra (Lok Dal), Mr Abdul Ghafoor (Congress-U) and Mr Bhola Prasad Singh Janata (S). Furthermore, the exercise is not isolated. Exploratory talks in the same direction have taken place in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Karnataka. Similar conventions are proposed to be held in the other states. True, a section of the leaders in all the four parties is opposed to the move. Some even tried to sabotage it at the start. (Mr Madhu Limaye, for instance, got Mr Karpoori Thakur to stay away from the Patna convention. Mr S.N. Mishra and a few others, however, went ahead.) But the second-line leadership, by and large, is not averse to the idea.
Most of the younger leaders in the four parties appear agreed on the broad diagnosis of the disease. The Janata, they argue, collapsed because of the clash of personal ambitions between Mr Morarji Desai, Mr Charan Singh and Mr Jagjivan Ram. Several others played the game of the three leaders in the hope of promoting their respective interests. (Most ministerial plums in free India have gone to people on the basis of who is with whom and not strictly on the basis of merit or who can handle which job.) Things, it is said, may not have come to the tragic pass they did in 1979 if only an interesting suggestion informally made by the President, Mr Sanjiva Reddy, to the three top leaders had been accepted by them. Mr Reddy, I now learn, proposed at one stage that all the three might hold the office of Prime Minister for equal periods in turn as had been done in Japan among the members of the ruling alliance on occasions.
What of the remedy? Opinions vary. The younger leaders in the Lok Dal, Congress (U) and Janata (S) feel there should be no difficulty in their coming together with the Janata, thanks mainly to the common Congress culture, provided the “oldies” are willing to call it a day. But the latter is easier said than done. There is little likelihood of either Mr. Charan Singh or Mr. Jagjivan Ram and other top Congress (I) leaders retiring. Mr Morarji Desai alone has indicated his decision not to accept any office. This has enabled the Janata to be one up on the others and to think and plan in terms of offering itself as an alternative to the Congress (I). As a Janata leader summed up: “We have the potential, even if we lack the inherent strength today. We offer a young, collective leadership. We have a clean image. And, we are working hard to build up an organisation from the grassroots. We shall be glad to welcome back old friends and seek the cooperation of new ones on a selective basis.”
Ultimately, however, the battle of the alternative, so to say, will not be won by any fresh unity or the creation of an alliance or front. The outcome will depend upon the ability of the Janata with or without the other parties, the BJP, which has homogeneity and dedicated cadres, and the Left Front representing the Communist culture to win back credibility among the masses and to function effectively as the Opposition. Parliament offers a powerful forum for exposing the Government and influencing the people. Mrs Gandhi used it to great advantage. But the Opposition has not been able to push the Government into the dock even where overwhelming facts, as against allegations, have been laid bare in various scandals. Issue after issue is raised each succeeding day by the Opposition in the two Houses. But nothing is done to pick on one or two and follow them up effectively. Not enough is being done outside either. Coming alive is fine for the Opposition and welcome. But this by itself will not do. The Opposition must plan its strategy and tactics. It has still much to learn and unlearn. —INFA