The conclave of opposition parties that took place in Chennai on the occasion of the ninety-fourth birthday of senior DMK leader M Karunanidhi was the second in a month. The first meeting in Delhi had been attended by Mamata Banerjee. I represented my party in Chennai for the second meeting.
The irony was that my previous visit to Chennai had been on a sad day, to attend the funeral of then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. This was a more relaxed visit and the mood was upbeat. Such is political life – or perhaps life itself.
And it was not all politics. The birthday celebrations of the grand old patriarch of Tamil Nadu evoked genuine happiness. I experienced southern hospitality at its finest, as did so many of my colleagues from other parties. We were all received with a cardamom garland, a first for me. Like at the earlier Delhi meeting, a gamut of parties, from the Trinamool to the National Conference, from the Congress to the Left, were present in Chennai. Nitish Kumar, the JD (U) president and chief minister of Bihar, emphatically declared that he had come with the good wishes of Lalu Yadav of the RJD, who couldn’t make it because of high fever. (The months between the summer and the monsoons were only a few; time enough for Nitish Kumar to turn his back on the mandate given to the Mahagathbandhan and sheepishly embrace his old ally.)
The informal buzz in the air throughout the birthday celebration was the prospect of a joint candidate for the presidency.
We, in the opposition, were keen to arrive at a choice by consensus. But to make this a reality the government would have to announce the name of its candidate first, and clear his or her credentials. This never happened. Instead, the government sent three senior ministers on a just-for-show-mission that pretended to bring the opposition on board. (Messrs M&S keep their cards so close to their chest, no one else at the table matters. So, when the BJP waxes eloquent on inner-party democracy, one can only smirk in scorn.)
A lot happens on the opposition front in the months between sessions of Parliament. Parliament was to meet next for the monsoon session. In the interim, these conclaves had become events for the parliamentary members of various opposition parties to meet and coordinate. The only party missing was the AAP, but I knew that it was with us in spirit. Arvind Kejriwal’s party is a strong voice of the opposition. (The Congress must not allow Delhi politics to get in the way, and must be gracious enough to invite the AAP when the opposition meets on a “national stage”.)
In the last week of August 2017, the third opposition conclave took place in Patna.
It was hosted by Lalu Yadav, who took the lead role. Mamata Banerjee was the star attraction. Lalu’s sons, Tejaswi and Tejpratap, have their contrasting styles but seem to have inherited the genes for connecting with the grass roots in Bihar. Akhilesh Yadav of the SP was there too. The crowd at the historic Gandhi maidan in Patna would have given turncoat Nitish Kumar more than a few sleepless nights. The BJP, too, squirmed. People have a habit of punishing you when you betray them.
The idea was to work together, especially as regional parties (even though Trinamool has now earned the status of a National Party from the Election Commission). The government is trying to write a false narrative around a ten-letter word: corruption. We, the opposition, must set the narrative right with another ten-letter word: competence. On the competence quotient (CQ), the BJP can’t win. This could be the common ground for 2019 (or, for that matter, even 2018. Don’t rule out an early election).
This is the narrative which the opposition has to set, without any distractions, so that we can present the people of India an alternative to this prejudiced and underperforming government. This common, constructive agenda would need to be communicated using different languages, different idioms, different political leaders, to ensure that the BJP is made to fight twenty-nine different elections in twenty-nine different states. I am convinced that they are beatable.
It is appropriate that the conclaves of the opposition began in Delhi, located in the north of the country, before moving south to Chennai and then east to Patna. This reflects the diversity of India that the opposition represents. A diversity the BJP can never come to symbolise.
Excerpted with permission from Inside Parliament: Views From The Front Row, Derek O’Brien, HarperCollins India.