Opposition needs kingmaker to fight the king

Last week’s headlines belonged to Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao’s attempts at Opposition unity.

Published: 04th September 2022 12:51 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th September 2022 12:51 AM   |  A+A-


Bihar CM Nitish Kumar with Telangana counterpart K Chandrashekar Rao during a meeting in Patna, on August 31, 2022. (Photo | PTI)

The King is dead. Long live the kingmakers. If there is a contradiction in continuity, this metonymy summarises the paradox of the Opposition’s relevance in the fractured architecture of national ambition. Once dominated by giants, their era long faded, the Opposition today comprises a cabal of self-proclaimed monarchs confined to the geographical limitations of their charisma. Meanwhile, the imperium of Prime Minister Narendra Modi expands in strength and size. No regional political dynast or diwan has the moxie to storm the saffron citadel individually. But the seduction of power is such that they see hope in mirages, especially as the clock keeps ticking towards Mandate 2024. The Modi Monolith has brought the moment of reckoning to the Opposition leadership—a third wave will sear their political survival and silence their say in Indian democracy. As Modi’s declared aim of a Congress Mukt Bharat acquires momentum, an unwelcome side effect is an almost national Opposition-free India. Plagued by internal factions, rampant corruption and nepotism, its netas are sitting ducks for the agencies, becoming ED fodder, going to jail or simply choosing the haven of the ruling party’s conditional sanctuary. However, even on the darkest days, a little sunshine must fall. There are a few powerful regional leaders who are still in play. Divided, they have fallen. They are yet to unite to rise again.

Last week’s headlines belonged to Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao’s attempts at Opposition unity. He flew to Patna to meet his Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar who bid farewell to his BJP ally—his second adieu. Both netas like to be perceived as potential PMs, although they avoid the mentions. Ostensibly, they are concerned about the Opposition’s future, which includes them unsaid. Nitish’s new rhetorical plank is a “Main front”, whatever that means. For the past few months, Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, M K Stalin,  Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and such have been meeting in groups to explore creating a viable and credible alternative to the BJP. But the amiable platform of pan-ideological amalgamation—as it happened against Rajiv when leaders of 18 regional and national parties came together in Chennai— remains elusive.

The Opposition’s plight is best described as a hard dose of unreality. Each neta wishes to replace Modi more than to place the other at the helm. Foremost among them are Mamata, KCR and Kejriwal; the Congress party isn’t in their viewfinder. Pawar, Lalu and Stalin are pitching for a united non-BJP opposition based on the “Bhajpa Bhagao, Bharat Bachao” slogan. They are coy about naming the Prime Ministerial face to avoid fissures and division of votes. The explanation: the leader of the government will only be chosen after the election is won. Quoted is the 2004 precedent when there was scant chance of defeating Vajpayee’s BJP, but didn’t the voters switch off the lights on India Shining? Historically, the Prime Minister is chosen by players with skin in the game but aren’t in the game for themselves. Jayaprakash Narayan’s moral authority enabled him to impose Morarji Desai over Charan Singh in 1977. Chief Ministers ignored Chandrashekhar’s claim favouring V P Singh because none of them had demanded the top job. I K Gujral and H D Deve Gowda were picked by M Karunanidhi, Chandrababu Naidu and Harkishan Singh Surjeet. Political scuttlebutt says Stalin, aided by Pawar, is the only regional leader with the mojo to be the kingmaker, like his father Karunanidhi was. Since no non-BJP government can be formed without Congress’ support, he is the only bridge that unites the not-so-Grand Old Party and the non-saffron political spectrum. Ambitious pretenders who conspired and aspired to become kings have always drawn the short straw in history, with a few notable exceptions like Indira and Modi. History shows that the leader who hasn’t, at least publicly, hankered for the top position becomes the kingmaker instead of a mere king. This proxy power politics started soon after Independence when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru became the Prime Minister. He was suave, cosmopolitan, educated at Harrow and Cambridge, but also a dyed in khadi Congressman. He was the perfect PM candidate for the Congress party’s Brahminical and elitist leadership. Though Acharya Kriplani was the party President then, it was Mahatma Gandhi who had the final say in choosing his protégé as India’s Prime Minister.

After Panditji’s death in 1964, many senior Congress leaders vied to replace him, but a South Indian leader who couldn’t speak proper English or a word of Hindi influenced the selection of the next two Prime Ministers—Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. On October 2, 1963, K Kamaraj, the three term Congress Chief Minister of the Madras province, resigned and became the Congress president to spearhead the Kamaraj Plan. Nehru was already ailing, and he was running the party. When Nehru died in May 1964, Gulzarilal Nanda became the interim PM. However, it was Kamaraj’s Machiavellian mechanism that made the short statured Lal Bahadur Shastri the legatee of the tallest Congressman of the time, Nehru. Kamaraj succeeded in imposing his wish on Desai, Jagjivan Ram and others because he wasn’t a PM aspirant himself. When Shastri died in Tashkent a year later, Kamaraj pulled out his chess board again. He opposed anyone in the Old Guard succeeding Shastri. He backed Indira, thus acquiring the tag of the kingmaker. However, the Congress queen was to oust the kingmaker soon. It was the second double role for the Nehrus, both as monarch and kingmaker.

Almost two decades later, the kingmakers were back in action after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. When Sonia refused the party’s reins, it wasn’t a usual suspect who got the sceptre. Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, N D Tiwari, et al. were eyeing both the party presidency and the Prime Minister’s chair. K. Karunakaran, an old fox from Kerala and fervent Gandhi loyalist, convinced them to accept PV Narasimha Rao as the Congress president. Incidentally, Rajiv had sent Rao into the political desert by denying him seats in either House of parliament. Rao remained the King but couldn’t become a kingmaker, having been unceremoniously ousted after the Congress lost the elections. Sonia became the kingmaker and continues to hold the bridle of the party, which doesn’t have enough soldiers to fight for even a notional political kingdom. The law of averages has forced average leadership to prevail in Congress. Yet an alternative without it is a non-starter. But the Opposition, which includes the Congress, needs a king who can unify the smaller kingdoms. To find a match for Modi, the united Opposition must first choose the kingmaker and then the King. Only then can it overcome its fatal leadership conflicts and declare that the Opposition is dead, long live the Opposition.

prabhu chawla
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

India Matters


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    The Dishonest people must get destroyed for the good of common people
    9 months ago reply
  • Giri

    Yet another monumentally corrupt family is the last thing India needs! Get KCR and his mob of corrupt khandan out of power even in TS must be the battle cry!
    9 months ago reply
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