All those interested in seeing a strong Opposition emerge as a credible alternative to the Congress-I at the national level will need to keep their fingers crossed. The Janata, Lok Dal-B, Congress-S and Jan Morcha are due to meet at a foundation conference at Bangalore today to launch their unified party to be called Samajwadi or Rashtriya Janata Dal. High drama preceded this meeting during the past fortnight and more. On occasions, the unified party appeared to be coming through. On others, its formation looked like going up in smoke. It was touch and go on Monday last week when the Steering Committee failed to meet. Hopes revived when the Committee met a day later on Tuesday. But a question mark again went up over its future by Friday night. Fortunately, Mr. V.P. Singh, backed by Mr. R.K. Hegde, Mr. Biju Patnaik and many others, persevered in their decision to hold the party’s foundation conference on October 11, birth anniversary of Jayaprakash Narayan. Nevertheless, one question remains. Will the leaders merely pay lip service to the Lok Nayak or will they truly emulate JP and put the country before self?
The problem of the unified party’s leadership has been resolved in favour of Mr. V.P. Singh, notwithstanding some unnecessary and graceless remarks reportedly made by Mr. Chandra Shekhar. Mr. Singh is undoubtedly the Opposition’s best bet today for the next general election. He is widely viewed as a fine person and a man of character and probity, unaffected by sharp Congress-I attacks on him and his policies. But he has still to show that he has vision and qualities of leadership required for guiding our huge country of over 800 million people and for providing a good government. (Remember, self-government is no substitute for good government!) Candidly, his popular image today no longer shines as brightly as it did when he founded the Jan Morcha or impressively triumphed over the Congress-I in the Allahabad by-election to the Lok Sabha in mid-June. Even his friends and known supporters are concerned, if not worried. Willy nilly, he seems at the moment to have needlessly reduced himself to the level of the other Opposition leaders, most of whom have little charisma and even less credibility.
Many Opposition leaders feel that “VP” has not shown the decisiveness and boldness expected of him as the new leader in the past few weeks. Mr. Singh, they argue, was given full authority by the Janata, Lok Dal-B, Congress-S and Jan Morcha to go ahead and form the unified party — the SJD and a Steering Committee. But the exercise has left much to be desired and, in the bargain, not only raised doubts over the unity moves but even given a convenient handle to persons who have been basking in his reflected glory during the past year to attack him publicly. One can understand Mr. Singh’s desire to carry the leaders of all the four parties with him in the footsteps of JP. I recall his telling me some time back that the real art of politics lies in the management of disharmony and not just of harmony. However, the outcome so far has been far from flattering. The Steering Committee and its composition has not inspired much confidence, apart from the fact that it has attracted avoidable flak and created an impression of superficial ad hocism and absence of a national perspective. Surprisingly, Mr. Singh failed to consult all those concerned.
The Steering Committee, intended to be the nucleus of the new party, is dominated by persons from UP and the rest of the Hindi States. True, the Hindi heartland is crucial for winning the next poll battle. Nevertheless, the Committee needed to be more representative of various regions and special interests such as the minorities, women and youth. Surprisingly, the South is represented only by Mr. Hegde and Mr. K.P. Unnikrishnan, who hails from Kerala. Maharashtra, Punjab and West Bengal, too, are unrepresented. (Prof. Madhu Dandavate has been included only as a special invitee) Equally surprisingly, women are conspicuous by their absence. Several names come to mind easily, especially those of Mrs. Mrinal Gore and Mrs. Premila Dandavate. The Committee’s strength could have been increased to at least 21 and even to 31 and not limited to 17, a figure which had no special sanctity. Advantage should have been taken of the experience and approach of the pre-independence Congress. Its Working Committee normally comprised 21 members plus some special invitees, if necessary.
The Opposition leaders have none but themselves to blame if their image has slumped and fresh doubts have arisen about their ability to provide credible alternative to the Congress-I. Far too many among them have been speaking out of turn — often at cross purposes. Far too many meetings have been called without adequate preparation. Far too many important people have been handled tactlessly, leading to avoidable heart-burning. A case in point is the meeting of the Steering Committee, which failed to be held on October 3. It should have been convened only after differences had been ironed out and ground work completed. Failure to hold the meeting only tarnished the image of the Opposition at a time when it desperately needs to win friends and influence people. Mr. Singh should have striven to ensure that there was no confusion over the Jan Morcha’s stand in regard to the basic issue of unity, leading to messy situation in which Mr. Ram Dhan felt emboldened to publicly attack Mr. Singh as well as the entire leadership of the Janata, Lok Dal-B and Congress-S and denounce it in astonishingly strong terms.
Not a little of the blame must go to Chandra Shekhar. Undoubtedly, Mr. Chandra Shekhar is a man of ideals and has not a few other admirable qualities which made JP choose him as the youthful President of the Janata Party in 1977. Sadly, however, he has allowed his unrequited ambition to run away with his better sense and the ideal of selflessness advocated by his mentor — JP. Instead of helping the Opposition parties to come together in response to a popular demand, he has been dragging his feet and seems to have left no stratagem untried to block unity and “VP”. Mercifully, he did turn up at the Steering Committee meeting on Wednesday last even if he was late by an hour. He also agreed at the persuasion of Mr. Singh and Mr. Hegde to head the Sub-Committee set up to draw up the SJD’s policies and programmes. But his attitude at the meeting and subsequently has left on observers the clear impression that he has been out to “delay if not sabotage” the birth of the unified party at its foundation conference on October 11. At one stage, he even wanted it called only the “sponsoring conference”.
Mr. Chandra Shekhar was theoretically correct when he said some weeks back that the Opposition should seek to provide an alternative to the Congress-I and Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and not merely a substitute. He, therefore, insisted that the proposed unified party and its policies and programmes were more important than Mr. Singh as the new leader. But this stand ignored certain practical realities in a country like India which continues to be soaked in feudal ethos. What ultimately counts here is the individual who leads a party and not the party and its policies and programmes. Nothing illustrates this more than the great success which the Congress achieved under the charismatic leadership first of Mahatma Gandhi, and thereafter under Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. The Janata Paty, too, won its great victory in 1977 because of JP and his leadership. Equally illustrative is the dismal failure of the CPI and CPM to make any great impact. The CPM has, no doubt, continued to achieve remarkable success in West Bengal. But the credit for this goes mainly to the personal popularity of its top leader, Mr. Jyoti Basu.
In retrospect, many wish that Mr. Singh had heeded the advice of some of his trusted friends and founded a new party, instead of taking on the sticky job of unifying the Opposition. He could have transformed the Jan Morcha from what Mr. V.C. Shukla smartly described as “a transit lounge” to a full-fledged party with a constitution and a policy. He could then have invited individual members of the Opposition as also intellectuals, academicians and professionals to join the new party. Alternatively, he could have invited the Opposition parties to merge with the Jan Morcha. In other words, he could (and should) have called the shots. There is little doubt that most of the rank and file of these parties would have gladly jumped on to his bandwagon, leaving their leaders high and dry. Mr. Singh could have thereby saved himself the trouble of having to knock time and again on the doors of Mr. Chandra Shekhar, Mr. Bahuguna and some others. In essence, he would have taken over the Opposition armies and forced their Generals either to surrender or take retirement.
Popular opinion increasingly favours a strong Opposition. Even those who continue to stand for Mr. Rajiv Gandhi feel that such an Opposition would be in the best interest of the ruling Congress-I and the country. Much ultimately will depend upon the quality of leadership Mr. Singh is able to provide and the success with which he and his supporters can neutralize the mischief of those who are unreconciled to his leadership and are certain to prevent him from functioning effectively. Bangalore could help resurrect JP‘s dream provided the Lok Nayak’s not remembered only ritually. He needs to be followed in practice and in action, in sharp and distressing contrast to the happenings after the Janata Government came to power in 1977. As we all know, JP died a sad and disillusioned person. Mr. Chandra Shekhar, Mr. Bahuguna and several others owe it to the Lok Nayak to give the country a credible alternative to the Congress-I, having failed to prevent the collapse of the Janata Government in 1979. It is time for them and other veterans to see the writing on the wall and, like Mr. Devi Lal, make way for the younger leaders — and the new heroes.