On Thursday, as the BJP president unveiled his slogan, "Mission 350+", for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and exhorted upon eight cabinet ministers to focus on 150 untapped seats as "catchment areas", the Opposition was engaged in a different pursuit.
Not far away from the BJP's headquarter on Ashoka Road, a convention was underway at the Constitution Club. The delegates, mostly from the middle tiers of the 15 parties they represented, barring exceptions, were extolling Sharad Yadav, the Janata Dal (United) MP, who revolted against his leader Nitish Kumar for deserting Lalu Prasad Yadav to team up with the BJP.
Yadav, who sits in the Rajya Sabha after a fairly successful stint as a seven-time Lok Sabha MP, was also a minister in a BJP-led government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. That's history he wouldn't care to recall because for him, as for some fair weather friends of the BJP, Narendra Modi and Gujarat 2002 demarcate the party into halves marked by Vajpayee's "moderation" and Modi's "extremism". Yadav achieved a mini-coup by having Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president, over to his convention named "Sanjhi Virasat Bachao" (Save our Composite Culture) against the RSS-BJP's political and cultural predation.
Yadav, who sits in the Rajya Sabha after a fairly successful stint as a seven-time Lok Sabha MP, was also a minister in a BJP-led government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Short of declaring Yadav as the "secular" Opposition's "face", the speakers said everything that the occasion merited: the CPI(M)'s general secretary Sitaram Yechury lauded him for the "sacrifice" he made by declining a cabinet berth in the Modi government after the Bihar "mahagatbandhan" (grand alliance) came apart and choosing the "path of secularism". Yechury went as far as saying that Yadav held the key to saving India's syncretic culture.
Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi's political secretary, who re-won his Rajya Sabha seat in Gujarat after a trial by fire, tasked Yadav to prepare a template for the Opposition, simultaneously implying that the proposed campaign would be "non-political" but that it was imperative for the Opposition to unite and defeat Modi in 2019.
The Opposition's celebration of Yadav, who had no issues through the years that the Janata Dal (United) consorted with the BJP even after the Gujarat violence, and its re-discovery of him as a "secular messiah", accentuated its dilemma on two scores: a fuzzy interpretation of "secularism" contributed in no less measure by the BJP's canny knack of pushing the Congress on the defensive each time the latter raised a "secular" point and the inability to find a face and a voice to confront the BJP upfront on ideology and principles.
Short of declaring Yadav as the "secular" Opposition's "face", the speakers said everything that the occasion merited
Nitish Kumar was envisaged as an answer until he returned to the BJP. Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party's president, was thought of as a candidate but he was routed in the Uttar Pradesh election and is trapped in a family battle for the spoils of power. Mayawati has dallied too frequently with the BJP to qualify as a serious contender to bear the "secular" mantle. Above all, in the rough-and-tumble of contemporary politics, more than a consummate debater, the Opposition needs an individual and a party who, to put it simply, can get the votes and challenge the BJP on its turfs, existing and prospective.
The Congress is still in slumber, counting an occasional win as a triumph. However, the Congress has a big asset in its credit-debit balance sheet in the form of three allies: Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress beat the BJP and the NDA, albeit by a whisker, thanks to the bounty poured into its vote kitty by Lalu's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the DMK. Mamata had an alliance with the BJP in that election. Congress president Sonia Gandhi set aside a history of deep differences with the DMK over its sympathy and support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. She refused to be taken in with the BJP's high decibel offensive against Lalu themed on the fodder scam and saw his political worth.
The Congress has a big asset in its credit-debit balance sheet in the form of three allies
Consider the data from the past elections. In Bihar, at its worst, the RJD has retained a vote percentage of nearly 20 percent and at its best, notched 45 percent. With the BJP and the JD(U) together again, Lalu holds sway over Bihar's Opposition space. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the BJP and the Dal(U) fought as one, the RJD was all but decimated. It got four seats but retained a vote share of 19.31 percent. It didn't improve on that tally in 2014 but its vote share improved incrementally at 20.46 percent.
The RJD came up trumps in the assembly elections held a year later in 2015, winning 80 of the 101 seats it contested and posting a vote percentage of 44.35 percent. The Dal(U), its ally, then complimented the RJD perfectly, bagging 71 of the 101 seats it fought on and getting a vote share of 40.65 percent. Even the Congress, a fringe player, secured a vote share of 39.49 percent as part of Lalu's "grand coalition". To Lalu's constituents, the corruption charges against him have never been a moral issue. If his performance dipped, it was because his voters felt he had not addressed their aspirations adequately on peril of promoting his own family. That remains a concern for the RJD.
The DMK, through its lows, never slipped below 21 percent, its cadre being its greatest strength. With the AIADMK disunited, despite the BJP's efforts to achieve tenuous peace, the DMK has its best chances of a comeback in the next Lok Sabha election.
To Lalu's constituents, the corruption charges against him have never been a moral issue
Mamata's dream run continues, unbroken, the latest being the sweep in the local bodies' elections. The BJP came a second but a distant one and has enormous ground to cover before it thinks of becoming Mamata's contender.
There's another reason why the Congress is better placed than the BJP to become the fulcrum of an Opposition coalition. The BJP's audacious mode of functioning, bordering on the brazen, on display in converting minority verdicts into majority mandates to get into power and weaning over allies by questionable means, could serve as a reality check for those entities in search of an ally.
Mamata made the Trinamool a powerful force after years of hard work. Despite once aligning with the BJP, she would not want to barter away her hard-won autonomy for securing closure of certain cases. An enfeebled Congress suits the smaller parties because their leaders can drive a tough bargain on seat-sharing and perhaps scotch the Congress's temptation to place its own leader at the helm of a prospective coalition.
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