Oppositin unity makes headway

By Inder Jit
(Released on 19 July 1988)

Opposition efforts at forging unity and offering the country a credible national alternative to the Congress-I have made encouraging headway. Top leaders of the Janata Party, Jan Morcha, Lok Dal, Congress-S, Telugu Desam Party, Asom Gana Parishad and DMK met in New Delhi last week and carried one stage further the informal understanding reached at NTR’s memorable Mahanadu at Vijayawada on May 28. These leaders have now finally decided to form a united front to be called the National Peoples Front or Rashtriya Jan Morcha. They have also drawn up three documents relating to the structure, constitution and programme of the front. The basic approach in these documents is pragmatic. Briefly, the structure proposed is said to be workable. The constitution is expected to ensure democratic functioning. The programme is claimed to be “concrete radical with a touch of realism”. The three documents have been sent to the seven parties for their individual approval. These will be collectively adopted at the next conclave to be held in the first week of August and the National Peoples Front formally launched on Independence Day.
At one stage, the Opposition leaders did consider the possibility of setting up a national party jointly. However, the idea soon ran into difficulty when top leaders of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and DMK pointed out that their parties could not merge and give up their regional platforms as these represented regional aspirations and had enabled them to secure popular support and power. It was then informally decided at Vijayawada to set up a national front comprising the Janata, Lok Dal, Congress-S, Jan Morcha and the three regional parties and to permit all of them to retain their separate identity. Three other decisions were taken. First, to try and at least persuade the four national parties to merge into one national party. Second, to explore the possibility of getting the Election Commission to allot the front a symbol for the Lok Sabha poll while permitting the constituent units to keep their existing symbols for the Assembly. Third, to fight the Lok Sabha poll under one flag. NTR, who has been patiently crusading for Opposition unity since 1983, was unanimously requested to convene the next conclave around the end of July.
Last week, the leaders of the Janata, Jan Morcha, Lok Dal and Congress-S agreed in principle to the merger of their parties — a point strongly emphasized by Mr. Devi Lal at his meeting with Mr. V.P. Singh, Mr. Ajit Singh, Mr. Biju Patnaik and Mr. Ram Dhan at Pinjore on Friday morning. But it was decided not to wait for the mergers, which were almost certain to take time, and to go ahead with the umbrella front in the meantime. The New Delhi meeting also went into the question of the leadership of the national front. Regrettably, it was decided not to name any one person as its chief and to project him as their candidate for Prime Ministership. Instead, it was agreed to opt for “collective leadership” and allow for “the evolution of the leader in the crucible of circumstances”. Thus, the front will for the present have a convener, who would function as its chief executive. Additionally, scope has been left to name one other leader as the Chairman of the Steering Committee at the instance of Mr. P. Upendra, leader of the TDP in Parliament. Significantly, Mr. V.P. Singh gladly supported the suggestion.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the choice of a leader has invariably posed a problem whenever some Opposition parties have sought to unite or actually come together. But if the Opposition leaders are serious about offering an alternative to the Congress-I they must not miss out on a basic fact of political life in an India which is still steeped in feudal ethos. They will need to face the harsh reality and name a leader in answer to the question: “Who else if not Rajiv Gandhi?” Failure to do so would only create fresh doubts in the popular mind about their capacity to put the country before self and unite genuinely. It will also leave scope for subsequent trouble and turmoil as in the wake of the Janata victory in 1977. Initially, it led to a clash between Mr. Morarji Desai and Mr. Jagjivan Ram. Subsequently, it led to intense rivalry and jockeying for power between Mr. Morarji Desai and Mr. Charan Singh, constraining me to write a column in mid-1978 entitled: One Prime Minister, Not Two! The rest is history. Indira Gandhi exploited the situation fully and, before long, brought the Janata Government down.
Collective leadership is no doubt a fashionable democratic phrase which gained great importance following the October Revolution. But collective leadership, even in the Soviet Union, has meant rule not of the Politburo or the Presidium but of one individual, presently Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev. This is equally true of parliamentary democracies, including the oldest. Time was when the British Cabinet was supposed to represent collective leadership. The Prime Minister was described as the first among equals. But this description has been reduced to a myth. Mrs. Margaret Thatcher is, for instance, today the supreme boss with a capital B. She is even said to treat her Cabinet colleagues, supposedly her equals, as no more than “domestic servants” without so much as even a mild protest from them. This is not difficult to understand. As we all know, the British electorate basically voted for Mrs. Thatcher in preference to Mr. Neil Kinnock. In the final analysis, an overwhelming majority of voters is more interested in the person who will head the Government than in the parties and their poll manifestos which few ever care to read.
The purists may feel outraged by what I have ventured to suggest. But they will do well to recognize that the prime ministerial form of government has moved more and more towards the presidential form of government the world over during the past few decades. Nehru as Prime Minister was the first among equals so long as the Sardar was there and to an extent during the time of Maulana Azad. But the situation underwent a sea change thereafter. Indeed, Nehru came to wield more power both politically and constitutionally than that enjoyed by any Prime Minister in a democratically governed state. Not a little of this power came to him since the feudal instinct of our people has found national identity in the person of the Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi first and now Mr. Rajiv Gandhi has not only succeeded to the Nehru heritage but today exercises even greater power, thanks to a massive majority in Parliament and the fact that he is Indira Gandhi’s son and Nehru’s grandson. All this makes it even more imperative for the Opposition to face facts and find their answer to Mr. Rajiv Gandhi in good time.
Perhaps the Opposition leaders are being cautious. Nevertheless, they must take the earliest opportunity to name a leader for the Front. Already, dithering in choosing a leader is beginning to revive in the minds of our people the spectre of the Janata of 1979, which floundered on the rock of personal ambitions. Not a few Opposition leaders have sought to defend their decision on the ground that Mr. Jagjivan Ram was projected as the Prime Minister in the 1980 poll but he failed to win. The truth is that the idea was basically sound. What failed was not the idea but the candidature of Jagjivan Ram. Babuji came a cropper simply because he was no match for Indira Gandhi. Furthermore, Jagjivan Ram’s own image as a Central Minister and the notoriety gained by his only son, Suresh Ram, worked against his success. The Congress-I also successfully exploited at the grassroots the fact that Jagjivan Ram was a Harijan to arouse fears among the higher castes and mobilize their support. Mrs. Gandhi thus won the poll battle more because of the lack of popularity of Jagjivan Ram and the general disgust against the Janata rule than for her own popularity.
The Opposition also needs to be clear on one other basic fact of general elections. Few parties have been voted to power by a positive vote. The history of various parliamentary democracies shows that people have time and again chosen to vote against a government or a party rather vote for a government or a party. In 1977, the popular vote was essentially against Mrs. Gandhi and her emergency government and not one in favour of the Janata or its promises. The people were fed up with Mrs. Gandhi’s new style, her growing authoritarianism and the abominable emergency, as reflected in the doings of her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, and decided to throw her out. That the Opposition was able to forge unity under the name of Janata Party no doubt went in its favour and helped matters. What however made all the differences was the personality and leadership of J.P. in the background even if he did not contest the election or get projected as the Prime Minister. J.P. was recognized as the de facto leader and one who could be counted upon to stand up for the country and its best interest.
The Opposition leaders would, therefore, do well to name their leader for Prime Ministership and to desist from loading the dice against themselves. The earlier this is done, the better for the Opposition and the country. At any rate, the Opposition cannot afford to wait until the proposed conclave early in August. It needs to devote immediate attention to the matter now that Parliament is due to reassemble for its monsoon session on July 7 and Mr. V.P. Singh’s triumphant return to Parliament has raised many expectations. Indeed, most eyes are on him since Parliament offers an unrivalled and powerful form for exposing the Government and influencing the people. The Opposition parties proposing to form the national front need to come together in Parliament immediately and persuade Mr. V.P. Singh to accept its leadership and function as the de facto leader of the Opposition. Simultaneously, these parties should seek the cooperation of the CPM, CPI and BJP to forge a truly national front. The Opposition must plan its strategy and tactics without delay. It has still much to unlearn — and learn. — INFA