With the big 2019 election just eight months away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi worked the phone to win over Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik - his nine MPs - for today's big test in the Rajya Sabha. The "united opposition" was exposed as a shabby group once again - the NDA's candidate, Harivansh Narayan Singh, who is a parliamentarian from the party of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, won the election for Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman 125-105.
The opposition in parliament is a vivid depiction of the gang that could not shoot straight. After his show-stopping hug of Modi a few weeks ago, Congress President Rahul Gandhi appears to have reverted to ho-hum mode. He chose the lacklustre BK Hariprasad as the opposition candidate at the last minute. And for all Gandhi's talk of being willing to move the Congress to the backseat if that's what it will take to win over parties that don't like it (the YSR Congress, for example), he did the opposite. By forcing a Congress nominee as the opposition's candidate, the TRS, which had been lobbied hard by the BJP, voted for the BJP - exactly what Modi and Shah were hoping for.
If the Congress strategists possessed some political smarts, they could have reached out to Naveen Patnaik and offered support to a BJD candidate. This would have cemented a new alliance and robbed other opposition parties of excuses of not voting for a Congress candidate.
Supposedly, K Chandrasekhar Rao or KCR, the Chief Minister of Telangana, expected a call from Gandhi seeking his support - that never happened. That may be a fig leaf given that KCR is showing every sign of siding with Modi in general. But Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also cited the silence from Gandhi as the reason for his three Aam Aadmi MPs abstaining. All this meant that the NDA candidate needed far fewer votes to win.
Gandhi's current refusal to engage with leaders like Kejriwal will hurt his own party's place in the anti-Modi alliance as other leaders in this group including front-liner Mamata Banerjee, who is very fond of her agitprop Delhi counterpart, will simply not accept the cold-shouldering. The reality is that AAP is here to stay and the seven Delhi Lok Sabha seats will have to be divvied up to allocate some to Team Kejriwal whether the Congress likes it or not.
Meanwhile, Shah has realised that the BJP is not in an unassailable position in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and is being most reasonable with Nitish Kumar who he had treated shabbily earlier. Nitish was also upset that after joining the NDA, he had not been given a single union ministry. His party man as Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha was meant to correct hurt feelings; Shah has also been making phone calls to him. All this to ensure that seat-sharing in Bihar for 2019 which was looking ominous can be handled more smoothly.
Harivansh Singh who was elected today in his earlier avatar as a newspaper editor had been hugely critical of Modi in his writings. But when Nitish proposed his name, the BJP accepted it, proving again that it will do everything required to win an election. Against this, the opposition's occasional flashes of revival could be the definitive factor of the upcoming battle of 2019.
Shah has radically softened his manner and behaviour towards angry allies like the Shiv Sena and Akali Dal. Both voted with the BJP. Clearly the trips to meet Uddhav Thackeray in Matoshree by Shah served as balm. While a clueless media speculated on Naresh Gujral of the Akali Dal being the NDA candidate, Shah and Modi were clear that in general election season, they would pick their candidate from a heartland ally.
Even Mehbooba Mufti who has been unceremoniously ejected from power by the BJP as the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister chose to abstain after initially indicating that she would support the opposition. When every vote counts, Congress leaders are bewildered at why Mufti was not snapped up by the opposition. Says a veteran Congress leader, "Is Gandhi sending a message that that he will only support Omar Abdullah and the National Conference in J&K? I doubt even Abdullah would like to give away opposition votes."
Meanwhile, the BJP ensured it delivered every vote with Arun Jaitley appearing in public for the first time after his kidney transplant to cast his vote.
Is this the big picture for 2019 then? The sidelining of the Congress to prevent it from doing more damage? Serious opposition players like Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party have already worked out a seat-share and even included Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal. The only one not invited to the party is the Gandhi-led congress. Yadav has publicly been politely dismissive of the Congress. Mayawati, arguably the toughest bargainer in Indian politics, is currently making Kamal Nath, the Congress chief in Madhya Pradesh and interlocutor in her negotiations with the Congress, miserable with her demands that an alliance in UP will only happen as part of a package deal with Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Gandhi does not want to concede an inch of political space like in Delhi but has no choice. Yadav is fully backing Mayawati on her demands.
So as Gandhi flies off again to foreign shores this week, the Congress is likely hoping that the change of scenery will provide him with some clarity.
Today's election proves it's desperately needed.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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