Doomsday seems to be approaching for the country's Opposition parties

United they once stood: The Opposition has been unable to construct a political narrative around issues that concern common people
It could not look any bleaker for India’s Opposition. It is not merely that the Congress, and its allies, are likely to keel over in the assembly polls that will be held in Haryana and Maharashtra a few days from now, and subsequently in Jharkhand a couple of months from now. Such is the expected decimation that Opposition leaders believe that October 24, the day of the poll results, could come to mark the day that ended all hope, at least in the near future, for the Opposition in India.

The sense of diminishing hope has emanated from repeated electoral reverses, but also from the Opposition’s inability to construct a political narrative around issues that concern common people.

In the second week of September, the Congress announced an ambitious two-phase plan to hold conclaves across India on the issue of the economic slowdown from September 20 to 30. It said it would tell people how the Narendra Modi government has messed up the economy. It said it would follow that up with countrywide protests between October 15 and 25. A week after the Congress unveiled its plan, the six Left parties held a joint convention in the national capital to announce that their cadres would hit the streets to protest the miseries the economic tailspin has caused common people.

The Congress and the Left may have hoped their call would galvanise their workers to pour out on to the streets and protest loudly, but in fact it did not trigger as much as a whimper. Neither called off their plans officially but rolled these back quietly to save funds. Leaders and workers discovered a good monsoon has meant people in smaller towns and villages are still not upset enough with the government, and the disbursals under the Prime Minister's housing and other schemes give them just enough reason to keep the faith.

Over the past month, the Congress has restricted itself to addressing one press conference every two-three days on the state of the economy. Its leaders are looking beyond October 24. The party fears the exodus of more leaders from within its ranks. Insiders expect the battle between the veterans in the party, led by party treasurer Ahmed Patel and others, and the younger lot, led by Rahul Gandhi, to soon reach its dénouement. Over the last two months, ever since Sonia Gandhi took over as the party chief and the voice of the veterans strengthened (this group started to take key decisions), several leaders close to Rahul Gandhi have quit, been sacked or been sidelined.

The case of former Tripura Congress chief Pradyot Kishore Manikya Deb Barman is symptomatic of the tussle. The scion of the Tripura royal family, and a close friend of Rahul, quit the Congress in considerable disgust last month after a spat with state in-charge Luizinho Faleiro, who looked after all seven northeastern states, over some appointments. Deb Barman was the last of the party state unit chiefs that Rahul appointed before he resigned as the party president.

Rahul intervened to have Faleiro removed. The party appointed Gaurav Gogoi in charge of Tripura. According to sources, Rahul reached out to Deb Barman to take back his resignation. Faleiro met the veterans instead. Within 24 hours of the previous announcement that he would no longer supervise party work in that state, Congress president Sonia Gandhi reinstated him as Tripura in-charge.

In Haryana, former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, with help from Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad, got the Congress president to sack state unit chief Ashok Tanwar. Former union minister Kumari Selja replaced Tanwar. Hooda also secured the chair of the party’s election committee, and managed to get tickets to 52 candidates of his choice. Tanwar, handpicked by Rahul, quit the Congress when the party did not give a ticket to even one of his supporters.

In Rajasthan, friction between chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot has reached flashpoint in recent days. Rohan Gupta, considered close to Patel, pipped Nikhil Alva and Pawan Khera to the post of head of the Congress social media team. The post was vacant after Divya Spandana quit in the wake of the Lok Sabha poll results.

In Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is now the state general secretary and recently appointed her team, keeping out most who are older than 50. The appointment of 40-year-old Ajay Kumar Lallu as the state unit chief caused significant heartburn in the party. Priyanka is preparing for the 2022 Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, but those who have interacted with her believe the late entrant in politics needs a sharp learning curve.

“The younger leaders are getting increasingly impatient with the veterans, whose patience with Rahul Gandhi is running thin,” a party insider, who did not want to be named, summed up the crisis in the party. That another churn could take place in the party, and soon, is evident from recent statements by former union minister Salman Khurshid as well as Jyotiraditya Scindia.

Khurshid lamented Rahul Gandhi having stepped down from the post of party chief, indicating that it was time he returned. “We wanted him to continue but it was his decision and we had to respect it. If he would have stayed on it would have been better for the party. But that didn't happen, now we sense a change in mood of the country," Khurshid said. Scindia, who had wanted to be Madhya Pradesh chief minister but had to bow to pressure from the old guard, also said there was need for introspection or the party was doomed.

Bharatiya Janata Party leaders such as Devendra Fadnavis and Yogi Adityanath, in their public rallies on Thursday in Maharashtra, described Rahul Gandhi as “ranchhor”, someone who has fled the battlefield. Rahul Gandhi, who had earlier indicated he was unlikely to campaign in the two states, has now agreed to campaign for some candidates, but mostly those he either knows well or those who are not part of the old guard.

Within the Congress, the battle lines are clear. The younger leadership will attribute the impending defeats in Haryana and Maharashtra to the veterans. Circumstances are vastly different, but some in the party speak of how it is 50 years since Indira Gandhi, Rahul’s grandmother, split the party on November 12, 1969, to rid herself of the old guard at the time. There was another split in 1978 and, on both occasions, the party emerged stronger, they argue.

A split might look far-fetched given that today’s Congress is a pale shadow of what it was in 1969, with Indira Gandhi as prime minister, and the leaders of the faction she led, the Congress (R), or “ruling” as it popularly came to be known, controlling the levers of power. However, as Rahul Gandhi has told those close to him, the Congress first needs to burn down to the ground before it can rise from the ashes.

And the rest of the Opposition? The Left parties, particularly the CPI (M) and CPI, cannot agree on whether and when they should reunify. The CPI (M) has busied itself correcting its view of Mahatma Gandhi. It acknowledged the contribution of the Mahatma by inaugurating a “school” to train its cadres in the heart of Delhi on Gandhi’s birth anniversary on October 2. Its rival, the Trinamool Congress, was exultant when it ensured that not a single Durga Puja organising committee invited Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah to inaugurate a pandal in the suburb of Salt Lake. How that will help the party defeat the BJP's challenge in the West Bengal assembly polls in 2021 remains to be seen. The Nationalist Congress Party, an ally of the Congress in Maharashtra, is struggling to arrest the erosion in its support base and to explain why it should not merge back into the Congress.

The question, as opposition leaders point out, is when, if at all, will the tide of public opinion turn? Will it be on economic issues? And when it does, will the Opposition be prepared to follow the people, or will it have self-destructed under the weight of electoral reverses, lack of funds and investigations by probe agencies into alleged corruption by their key leaders?

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