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Nitish, not Congress, is the new Opposition: How long will it last?

Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar GuptaDec 22, 2015 | 17:07

Nitish, not Congress, is the new Opposition: How long will it last?

By lunch-time on Monday, it started to look as if our politics was returning to normal, or at least to some extent. Parliament was functioning peacefully and Rajya Sabha having a working day as rare lately as a bright sunny winter day in London, and three pending bills were passed in time.

At his home on the capital's Tughlaq Road, veteran socialist and now JDU leader Sharad Yadav was hosting the cream of Indian politics, his senior party men and MPs, and of course a lot of the media. Sharad, like other socialists, is extremely media-friendly and accessible. The occasion was the release, by Vice-President Hamid Ansari, of a coffee-table book that he has written.

Interestingly, it was the second such event in New Delhi within a week. Earlier, the other Sharad (Pawar) had similarly collected an audience of admirers from all parties for his 75th birthday celebrations and release of a book about himself. Mood, at both events, was happy, warm and friendly, even among people who are politically at each other's throats most of the time and kind words were spoken about the hosts by everybody, despite political differences.

But there was one big difference. The Pawar birthday was almost purely in the nature of a social event. I used "almost" because nothing in this city, not even an innocent wedding is seen to be purely personal or social if it involves politicians. Some pundits did draw the far-fetched picture of Sharad Pawar throwing in his topi in the Rashtrapati Bhavan race for 2017 - why the BJP would give it to an outsider, is an important question, but who cares when it comes to political speculation. But the Sharad Yadav event was pure politics.

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This was timed to coincide with the national convention of the JDU in New Delhi. So first of all, it was an occasion to put the entire JDU leadership, mostly from Bihar and not so familiar in Delhi - in display. There were no speeches, none at all, just a dignified two-minute group photo that included somebody from each party, although a special cheer did go up when Arvind Kejriwal was invited to come to the stage. The music was loud, and significant too: famed Sabri Brothers qawwali group singing Sufi music. This was, after all, the secular group's post-Bihar show of strength and there was no question as to where the centre of gravity this afternoon was.

It was with Nitish. He reached early and so all dignitaries who followed, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Derek O'Brien from the TMC, DP Tripathi (NCP), Sitaram Yechuri, Digvijay Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad walked up to him, greeted him and took their seats to his left or right. Only Arvind Kejriwal, with his TV warrior Raghav Chadha sat on a different sofa, almost at the same time that Arun Jaitley was visiting Patiala House Courts to file his defamation against him. In fact, urban development and parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu, the senior-most BJP leader present, left quite early, obviously to give Jaitley company in his march to the court. BJP veteran LK Advani and MP Tarun Vijay, however, stayed on.

The overall point wasn't lost on anybody. There is a new energy in the Opposition, and Nitish is widely hailed by all these parties as having been responsible for it. Nitish does not display any of the attention-seeking flamboyance of a Lalu, nor does he have the power-dripping aura of a Narendra Modi.

But you didn't have to look for evidence of his new power in his own body language. It was evident in the body language of all other opposition leaders present there. I must note though, that the presence of Lalu's party was almost invisible.

There is no missing a new mood of jubilation among the opposition post-Bihar, particularly now with the BJP insiders, some openly and some behind the scenes, attacking PM's most trusted minister Arun Jaitley. It was quite visible on the lawns of 7, Tughlaq Road too. There was much mention of Assam, which the opposition sees as the next battle against the BJP.

But the Congress will have to lead that fight, to defend its three-term record as well as to deliver one more setback to the Modi-Shah leadership. The experienced oppositionists, crawling all over the sun-draped lawns, had no doubt that Congress was in a complete disarray in that state, devoid of leaders (Tarun Gogoi is 79, and can't be expected to lead again after three terms). Some of its most talented and resourceful, led by Himanta Biswa Sarma have been stolen by the BJP which, in the past, had vacuumed out the regional AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) leadership pool too.

Nobody, therefore, had any illusion that Assam was going to be easy. The only way to do it would be to align with local parties, particularly Badruddin Ajmal's regional party so the Muslim vote isn't divided.

Nobody, and I repeat, nobody, believes that the Congress will be able to bring about that alliance. Everybody looks up to Nitish to use his new stature to achieve this.

The BJP has now become to national politics what Congress used to be: a dominant national party that unites the rest of the Opposition against it. But Congress is not about to become the BJP of the past, when the leadership of this united anti-Congress group was its own by right. I would go so far as to say that the Congress, within the Opposition universe, carries even less weight today than the BJP did after December 1984 when reduced to two seats. One reason for that is the rise of Nitish Kumar, as a new pole within "secular" politics.

(This first appeared on the writer's FB page.)

Last updated: December 23, 2015 | 13:07
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