Credibility more than unity

By Inder Jit
(Released on 22 December 1981)

Opposition unity is in the air again. Everyone is talking about the Janata Party’s recent decision to “bring together the Opposition forces” and revive the 1977 spirit —notwithstanding the cold water poured on the proposal by some leaders of the ruling party and several political pundits. More and more people are again beginning to realize that a strong Opposition is vital for good government and the well-being of our democracy. In fact, the Janata Party’s public image has improved following its Ahmedabad conclave. Not a few persons, including Congress (I) supporters, feel that both Mr. Morarji Desai and Mr. Chandra Shekhar deserve a hand for resolving their differences and taking a timely initiative. There is widespread disenchantment with Mrs. Gandhi’s Government today. Even prominent Congress (I) MPs concede this and are deeply concerned. However, they feel reassured on one score. There is no alternative to Mrs. Gandhi at present. A nationwide opinion poll is almost certain to favour her continuance as Prime Minister by an overwhelming majority.
Many among the Opposition understandably question this view and argue that there are many alternatives to Mrs. Gandhi. But the truth is that most of them have destroyed their credibility and public image by their unprincipled and opportunistic actions. Only three party leaders can be said at present to have something of a national standing and enjoy a wide measure of respect — outside the narrow confines of communal and caste politics. They are: Mr. Morarji Desai, Mr. Chandra Shekhar and Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee. All three are in demand and draw big crowds, although Mr. Vajpayee’s appeal is still largely limited to the urban areas and some rural pockets where the RSS cadres have worked quietly and earned popular goodwill. At the same time, none among the three is strong enough individually to pose a challenge to Mrs. Gandhi’s leadership and provide a credible alternative. Consequently, there is desire all round to see the Opposition leaders put country before self, reassess the national situation and find ways and means of tackling it effectively.
Considerable surprise has been caused by the decision of the Janata Party and the Lok Dal to join hands and work for the unity of the Opposition forces. But there is really no occasion for it. The Lok Dal adopted a resolution on the subject in October. The Janata Party, for its part, has come a long way from Sarnath when, in February last, it decided to rebuild itself as “a viable and desirable alternative” to the Congress (I). It then clarified that it would not seek to do this “merely by merging with the other parties or seeking summit alliances or soliciting the support of individuals who seem to be adrift from their former moorings, particularly those who have taken a leading role in bringing down the Janata Government.” But a new pragmatic approach was adopted by the Party’s National Executive first in Bangalore in May and then in Hyderabad in August. It cleared the decks for seeking cooperation from and extending support to the other Opposition parties for the furtherance of struggles against “authoritarianism, injustice and exploitation.” No party or leader was to be treated as an untouchable.
Simultaneously, the idea of meaningful opposition unity has been pursued on several fronts —quietly and publicly. Following the Janata’s Bangalore conclave, Mr. Chandra Shekhar held a meeting of 12 Opposition parties on electoral reforms. (An agreed report is expected at an early date.) Not long thereafter, Mr. Devaraj Urs, as the Congress (U) President, informally proposed a merger of the Janata, Lok Dal and his own party. Both Mr. Chandra Shekhar and Mr. Charan Singh reacted coolly. However, Mr. Urs persisted and eventually got the two to agree to a quiet meeting of the four Presidents, including Mr. Vajpayee of the BJP. The meeting was held on August 4. But Mr. Charan Singh failed to come as his pulse was missing a beat. Instead, he send Mr. Madhu Limaye, who acted like a bull in a China shop and played havoc — first in the meeting itself through some astonishing proposals and then by unauthorisedly disclosing in Bangalore on August 9 that the four parties had decided to merge. This was untrue and caused several explosions all round.
Mr. Chandra Shekhar and his close colleagues did not allow this to dishearten them. They quietly pressed forward with their ideas of unity in action, ultimately culminating in the Ahmedabad resolution. Happily, for the party and for all those interested in having a strong Opposition, Mr. Desai and Mr. Chandra Shekhar, who met quietly for 40 minutes during the conclave, came to agreed conclusions and the draft resolution was adopted unanimously after a few changes. (Contrary to many stories, the draft resolution did not propose merger.) At one stage, it looked that Mr. Limaye might once again succeed in playing the arch splitter. Prior to the Ahmedabad meet, he wrote “a nasty” 11-page letter to Mr. Desai, which could easily have put the former Prime Minister’s back up against having anything to do with the Opposition. However, Mr. Desai and others at Ahmedabad saw through “the conspiracy” and refused to do anything which might break the Janata and enable the Lok Dal to take it over, together with its name, which is today widely coveted among the Opposition parties.
Too much is being read into both the Janata’s Ahmedabad resolution and the joint statement for Mr. Chandra Shekhar and Mr. Charan Singh. Neither should be viewed in terms of an outright merger. The Janata draft resolution spoke originally of the need “to forge unity among the Opposition parties to provide an effective national alternative”. But this was changed to “bring together the Opposition forces to provide an effective and credible national alternative.” The original draft sought to authorize the President “to take all steps.” This was changed to “necessary steps.” Further, a new para was inserted to give a philosophical content to the final resolution and clarify that the approach was not opportunistic. The new para emphasizes the importance of struggle and unity of action against authoritarianism for rekindling the 1977 spirit. Significantly, the joint statement of Mr. Charan Singh and Mr. Chandra Shekhar only talks of joining hands to work for the unity of the Opposition forces. Further, it talks of not only providing a viable national alternative but also one that is credible.
What does all this mean in terms of brass tacks? Only the broad philosophy and principles have been enunciated. Mr. Chandra Shekhar and Mr. Charan Singh are now expected to appoint small committees in their respective parties to come to grips with the ways and means of bringing together the Opposition forces and rekindling the 1977 spirit. The Congress (S) President, Mr. Sharad Pawar, who boldly welcomed the Janata Party’s unity resolution, has also announced his decision to set up a committee to talk things over with the other parties. Some among the Janata leaders would have been happier if the three Presidents had not opted for committees. Such committees inevitably lead to negotiations, terms and conditions and the quota system. However, they hope that the three committees will rise above petty considerations and take a broad view in the best national interest. Further, the committees could also prove a blessing if they give due thought to advocating steps to ensure that the new unity sought to be forged again is not wrecked easily — as in 1979.
Various stories going the rounds would have us believe that the Janata’s Ahmedabad resolution on unity was adopted unanimously on the understanding that some top leaders or “party wreckers” would be kept out. Three lists of five, seven and eleven names are even mentioned. My own probing confirms what Mr. Chandra Shekhar has already stated. There is no such black list or condition and the President has been authorized fully to go ahead and bring the opposition forces together. Mr. Desai did sound a note of caution at the National Executive meeting. He had been fooled in the past, he said, and had no wish to be fooled again. If this happened once more, it would be his own mistake and he would then prefer to go home. In the National Council meeting, he expressed identical sentiment and added that if necessary he would retire from public life rather than join any other party. Importantly, he left Mr. Chandra Shekhar in no doubt at their separate meeting that he was not taking a rigid view. He was willing to accept a reasonable proposition since he had full faith in the Janata and its future.
Most Opposition leaders are now beginning to appreciate a basic point which many of us have been making over and over again. Unity and solid unity is undoubtedly important. But unity by itself cannot deliver the goods, as shown by the recent by-elections to the State Assemblies. The Opposition put up combined candidates in Masarak in Bihar and in Balapore in Maharashtra. The Congress (I) won hands down and the Opposition candidates lost their deposits. Another combined Opposition candidate was knocked for a six at Dumbani in Bihar. Interestingly, one combined Opposition candidate belonging to the BJP won from Khijri in Bihar. However, I gather that this had more to do with the BJP’s image. Much good work is said to have been done by its cadres in the area. In Gujarat, the BJP has won six of the eight recent by-elections — five to the Assembly and three to the Rajkot Corporation. Not surprisingly therefore, the BJP has no interest in losing its identity. It prefers to leave merger to parties with “single membership, not dual.” But it is prepared to have functional unity, electoral understanding and, if necessary, even join a coalition Government.
Fortunately, there is increasing recognition among the Opposition leaders of the importance of credibility. This is reflected both in the Janata’s latest resolution and in the statement of Mr. Charan Singh and Mr. Chandra Shekhar. In the past, the Opposition talked of “a viable national alternative”. Now the formulation is “an effective and credible national alternative.” (Viable, according to Chambers’ Dictionary, means capable of living, surviving, germinating and hatching!) The Opposition, as I have said before, would do well to learn from the breakaway Social Democrats in Britain. Their new party, together with the Liberals, has in a short time won the confidence of the people who are increasingly getting tired of both Labour and the Tories. This is reflected in the grand triumph of Mrs. Shirley Williams in a parliamentary by-election from Crosby, destroying a huge Tory majority. In sum, top leaders of the Opposition will have to first win back the people’s trust before they can hope to challenge Mrs. Gandhi successfully. They must come out in sack cloth and ashes for their past sins and publicly take a vow that they shall go home rather than break the party again. Credibility alone is crucial. — INFA