New opposition unity


By Inder Jit
(Released on 24 April 1984)

Now that the next general election is beginning to loom large on the horizon, fresh efforts are on to forge Opposition unity. The lead this time is being taken by the Janata President, Mr. Chandra Shekhar, in accordance with the unity resolution adopted by the party’s national conference at Patna last month. The resolution had a three-tier framework. First, unification under one party — preferably reunification work. First, unification under one party — preferably reunification of the original constituents of the Janata Party and fellow travelers. Second, programmatic alliance or front on the basis of agreed policies. Third, electoral adjustments with all the Opposition p arties without any inhibition of ideological or policy differences with a view to avoiding multiangular poll contests which have largely helped the Congress-I. The Janata leaders also gave thought at Patna to the modalities and felt it would be best to initiate unity moves through bilateral contacts. The Lok Dal was put on the top of the list of parties unity with which should be explored.
Mr. Cahndra Shekhar has had two rounds of talks with the Lok Dal President, Mr. Charan Singh. These meetings have been followed by talks between Mr. Charan Singh and the Janata leaders, Mr. R.K. Hegde, Karnataka’s Chief Minister, and Prof Madhu Dandwate, leader of the Janata Party in Parliament. Mr. Hegde and Prof Dandwate were with Mr. Charan Singh for almost an hour and mainly told him that, contrary to a widespread misconception, the sentiment in favour of unity was strong not only in the north, but also in the south and the west. Mr. Charan Singh, for his part, made one thing clear. He had taken the initiative for unity efforts in the past. This time, however, he wanted the Janata Party or, more specifically, its President to come forward with concrete proposals in regard to the basic approach and the modalities so that he could “respond positively.” He argued that since the Janata Party’s national conference had authorized its President to initiate efforts for unity, Mr. Chandra Shekhar was now free to hold talks in the matter without any constraint.
The two party Presidents are now expected to hold final parleys at an early date to clinch the issue. Happily for the two, they have the support of their rank and file. Both feel that the Janata Party and the Lok Dal have in them elements which make for natural allies. They have no issues like the one of dual membership to divide them. What is more, the priorities of both for economic development are the same. Thoughts among the Janata leaders have also turned towards the BJP. But they have had to take note of the feelings of the BJP leaders themselves. Top BJP leaders prefer to be cautious about unity moves because of their bitter experience on dual membership. Even within the BJP, the issue of dual membership has raised problems. A section of the BJP leadership is known to be unhappy over the fact that the RSS has “no longer any firm commitment to supporting the BJP candidates,” as shown by the Assembly elections in Jammu and the Delhi poll for the Metropolitan Council and the Municipal Corporation. What is more, some apprehend that the RSS might not even hesitated to support the Congress-I.
The BJP leaders also seem to have some basic doubts about unity itself. They feel that even if an effort was made to revive the 1977 Janata Party, there could be no guarantee that its relationship with the RSS might not cause a split once again. Once bitten twice shy appears to be the attitude of many. On the other hand, there is a growing feeling in the Janata Party that it is better to limit its cooperation with the BJP to electoral adjustments — to avoid embarrassment to the party at a time when the minority community ‘s support for it is growing. This support is claimed to have been demonstrated initially in the Assembly poll in Karnataka and subsequently in the election to the local bodies in the State. In Gulbarga, a predominantly Muslim constituency, for instance, the Janata Party was able to win the Assembly seat with the support of the minority community which constitutes over 60 per cent of the voters. Again in the municipal elections in Gulbarga, the Janata Party emerged as the largest party, with the Muslim League as a close second. The Congress-I came third and the BJP drew a blank.
The Janata Party, therefore, feels compelled to think twice before it decides to move nearer to the BJP. Ultimately in politics, image counts more than reality. True, the BJP has Muslim as its members and its members and some like Mr. Sikandar Bakht hold important positions. But the fact remains that the BJP is largely viewed by the minorities and the people as a whole as the old Jana Sangh with some cosmetic changes. Not many are willing to accept its claim that it stands for secularism. The Janata leaders, who favour unity among the Opposition, thus come face to face with the constraint of policy then it comes to the BJP. In the case of the Lok Dal, however, the constraint is not one of policies but of personalities and their compatibility. The Lok Dal is conscious of its trump card: its strength among the Kisans and the backward classes in the Hindi heartland, which has come to assume crucial importance in the next general election. Thus the Lok Dal leaders and their followers would like the power and position of Mr. Charan Singh to be safeguarded adequately in any scheme of unification.
Most people and more especially the politicians have their impression and opinion about Mr. Charan Singh. But Mr. Charan Singh, too, has his views. He feels sore about his past experience in which he was unable to exerciser effective control over the lists of the Lok Sabha candidates, particularly in the north, because of the powers of the President under the Janata Party’s constitution. A sizable section of the Janata Party’s rank and file appears inclined to respect Mr. Charan Singh’s position in the reunified party. However, they would like institutional checks provided to ensure that no single individual, however tall, has an edge over his colleagues in taking final decisions in both organizational and poll matters. Thus, those who conduct the negotiations for unity would have to show great tact, skill and ingenuity in undertaking the delicate exercise and reconciling the personal claims and ambitions of the top leaders with the institutional requirements of the party.
Some broad ideas have emerged in regard to the best approach to the delicate matter in the light of the fact that every party has three positions of pivotal importance: President of the party, Chairman of the Parliamentary Board and leader of the party in Parliament. Whoever has any ambition of power cannot afford to keep out of the position of the leadership of the party in Parliament, firstly while in Opposition and subsequently while in power. Thus, assurance of Presidentship of the party alone cannot safeguard anybody’s ambitions in the power framework. A solution of the dilemma posed by the three positions is, therefore, as much a problem for the unified party as for Mr. Charan Singh. Mr. Biju Patnaik, Mr. George Fernandes, Mr. Karpoori Thakur and Mr. Devi Lal still remember the way they suffered arbitrarily at the hands of Mr. Charan Singh. They, therefore, prefer to see the party move cautiously and to ensure above all, that Mr. Charan Singh or anyone else is not given the power that can overwhelm and upset the democratic decisions of the party’s highest organs.
The willingness of these leaders to join hands with Mr. Charan Singh and his Lok Dal is not far to see. (A top Janata leader confided: “Notwithstanding their past bitter experience, all the four recognize that Mr. Charan Sing has a mass base in UP and Bihar.”) any coming together of the Lok Dal and the Janata Party will have one more significance from the sociological angle. It will bring the unified party close to its positions in 1977. In the context of the social composition, the success of the Janata Party in the 1977 poll lay in the fact that the minority community, the Harijans, the backward classes and the upper castes forged unbreakable unity amongst themselves, giving great leverage to the Janata Party. With the new accretion of strength to the Janata Party from minority support, the Janata Party’s unification with the Lok Dal, which has a strong base among the backward classes, will act as a catalyst and attract the weaker sections, like the Harijans, to the revived party thereby widening its base and mass appeal.
Insofar as the other parties like the Congress-S, Democratic Socialist Party, and Gujarat Rashtriya Congress are concerned, the only hurdle in the way of unity is their allergy to the name: Janata Party. The Congress-S would like the name Congress to be included in the new nomenclature of the unified party. The DSP and the Rashtriya Congress would prefer any name other than Janata Party. However, if the unification of the Lok Dal and the Janata Party materializes in the form of a revived Janata Party, the resistance to the name, Janata Party, might then get weakened and in the final process disappear altogether. Looking to all these constraints and variables, the path to unification appears rather steep. But all the leaders seem conscious of the fact that the people would prefer a unified party to a loose alliance. In fact, not long ago, the DSP sensed the mood at the grassroots and adopted a resolution stating that the people today aspire for not only a front or alliance but a unified party as in 1977 which can hold out promise of providing a good government.
Many top Opposition leaders seem to have veered round to the view that unity will have more credibility if it is under the banner of one party than under a united front. There are no illusions in the matter in the minds of the constituents of such a front. When some supporters of the move for unification of the Lok Dal and the Janata Party were asked about the Lok Dal-BJP alliance, they characteristically replied: “We will cross the bridges when we come to them.” Again, it is asked whether there is no contradictions between a united front and a united Janata Party. Top Janata leaders reply: “None.” For, when some parties in a united front unite, only the constituents of the front would be reduced. The front itself would survive. If all the constituents agree to unite under one banner, then the united front will be transformed into a united party. Ultimately, the Opposition is again working for a familiar goal: to come together and offer the people a viable alternative to the ruling Congress-I. —INFA