"Revival of G-23", "wake up call for Gandhis", "effort to unite the Opposition" – these are some of the ways in which Congress leader Kapil Sibal's post-birthday dinner with Opposition leaders on Monday, 9 August, has been described.
All three tags do capture parts of what happened.
Yes, almost all the members of the so-called G-23 did attend the dinner, indicating that this grouping is far from disintegrating, despite some of them having been accommodated in one committee or the other in the Congress. But does that mean they are actively working against the party leadership, specifically the Gandhi family? Not entirely.
Yes, the Gandhis were criticised at the dinner. SAD Rajya Sabha MP Naresh Gujral said that the Congress needs to be saved from the clutches of the Gandhis for it to survive. But does that mean it was an anti-Gandhi gathering? Not quite. Had that been the case, loyal Congress allies like DMK or RJD or a non-G23 Congress leader like P Chidambaram may have been forced to publicly distance themselves from it.
And, yes this was an effort to unite the Opposition, which is evident from the guest list – according to Sibal, leader of every major Opposition party barring the BSP were present at the dinner. But it would also be wrong to say that it was done at the behest of the Gandhis or, as Sibal claims, to strengthen Rahul Gandhi's efforts against the BJP. It was as much an effort by Sibal to stay relevant in the Opposition space. It's no coincidence that he has legally represented many of the Opposition leaders present at the dinner.
The dinner needs to be seen in the context of the churn within the anti-BJP space in the run-up to the state elections early next year and later the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
It is clear that much of the Opposition recognises that no non-BJP formation is possible without the Congress and the Grand Old Party on its part also understands that it isn't strong enough to take on the BJP on its own or even with its existing allies.
This realisation on both sides has so far thrown up two possible anti-BJP formations, Sibal's dinner may just have opened up space for the third.
FORMATION 1: UPA PLUS LIKE-MINDED PARTIES
This would be a formation dominated by the Gandhis and may mean having either Rahul Gandhi or someone of his choice as the face of the anti-BJP coalition.
The core of this formation would be a restructured Congress with Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi having an even greater say than now. The support of key Congress allies like DMK, RJD, NCP, JMM, IUML, NC and smaller United Progressive Alliance (UPA) constituents is taken for granted.
In addition to the existing UPA, this formation can also count on the support of the Left which has allied with the UPA in Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Assam and works in close co-ordination with it at the national level and the Congress' Maharashtra ally Shiv Sena.
The hope is that eventually, the UPA would also get the support of like-minded parties like TMC and Samajwadi Party, which regularly support Congress-backed efforts at the Centre and are often signatories to Sonia Gandhi-initiated letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Most of these parties also responded positively to Rahul Gandhi's recent outreach in Parliament.
This possible formation is broadly like the 2004 UPA coalition. And for it to work, the Congress may have to reach roughly its 2004 tally of 140-plus seats, which is a gain of nearly 90 seats from its present number of Lok Sabha MPs.
FORMATION 2: THE MAMATA BANERJEE AXIS
At the core of this possible formation is West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress. To an extent, this is also the sphere of influence of Banerjee's strategist Prashant Kishor, who has been advising the YSRCP and DMK, besides the TMC.
This possible formation would include all the parties that are part of the 'UPA-plus' arrangement above. But it would also include parties which may not be comfortable with a Congress-led or at least a Gandhi-led anti-BJP coalition but wouldn't mind one led by Banerjee or a non-Gandhi Congress leader.
A hint of which parties Banerjee considers part of this prospective coalition can be in her letter to 8 Opposition leaders during the Bengal elections: Sonia Gandhi, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, DMK leader MK Stalin, RJD chief Tejashwi Yadav, Maharashtra CM and Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray, Delhi CM and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal, Andhra Pradesh CM and YSRCP leader YS Jaganmohan Reddy, and Odisha CM and BJD leader Naveen Patnaik.
Banerjee's vision for the Opposition isn't anti-Congress and not even anti-Gandhis. In fact, her meetings with the Gandhis last month make it quite clear that she recognises the importance of winning their support. But it is clear that she is pushing for a formation in which players like TMC, NCP, Sena, DMK, RJD and SP would be in a more dominant position than in the model discussed above. This model may be possible with a lesser Congress tally than the one above.
FORMATION 3: INITIATED BY SIBAL'S DINNER
Sibal's dinner saw the participation of some new players who had so far kept away from the UPA-led Opposition moves against the government: YSRCP, TRS, TDP, SAD, BJD and AAP.
Some of them, like AAP, YSCRP, TDP and BJD, have a decent equation with Mamata Banerjee and may want to work with her but not the Congress.
But despite this, none of the other parties have taken positions against the government, barring AAP and now SAD after the farm laws.
But if in Sibal's dinner, these parties also admitted the need to come together to defeat the BJP, it is no small achievement.
In an interview with India Today, Sibal disclosed that one of the attendees at his dinner said that the Opposition should try and ensure that in at least 400 seats, there's only one major non-NDA candidate.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, non-NDA parties competed with each other in a number of states such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, Delhi and Haryana – all states with a significant NDA presence.
A similar proposal – to have only one non-NDA candidate in each seat – has earlier been put forward by former BJP minister Yashwant Sinha, though he didn't mention a specific number.
Sibal's dinner may have initiated this process but it is still a remote possibility. For one, Sibal isn't like Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi who wield a great deal of influence in their respective parties, therefore he may not have the political heft to take this process forward.
And even if it does happen, it would involve a great deal of compromises from the Congress and regional parties like BJD, YSRCP, TRS and SAD, which are probably more anti-Congress than anti-BJP.
In that sense, this formation could well mean the sidelining of the Gandhis, as they are the object of antipathy for many of these parties.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
Though the meetings that are taking place are important, one must hedge ones bets until they lead to something concrete. This is true of Mamata Banerjee's Delhi visit, Rahul Gandhi's outreach in Parliament, and now Sibal's dinner.
However, through these meetings the Opposition is giving a signal that it recognises the exceptional circumstances that the country and that it is trying to put forward some kind of a challenge to the BJP's might.
This signal is meant not just to voters but also to big corporate entities who continue to be firm backers of the Modi government. It's the Opposition leaders' way of telling corporates and much of the big media houses not to back Modi for "lack of an alternative" as an alternative can emerge if given a chance. Sibal is an interesting entity in this respect as he has good relations with a section of corporates, media, and the judicial fraternity.
In the end, a great deal boils down to the Congress.
As The Quint had written earlier, in around 160 seats, the NDA's main challenger is the Congress. States like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, much of Karnataka and Assam, Jammu region and a number of Union territories and are by and large two-way contests between the NDA and the Congress. Together these account for 162 seats, out of which the NDA presently has 150, the UPA nine and others three.
No Opposition arithmetic is possible unless the Congress performs well in these 160 odd seats. The second and third formations may still be possible even if the Congress doesn't do spectacularly but still a significant improvement would be required.
All the Opposition's efforts are likely to be tested in the state elections next year. On one hand, there could be pressure on the Samajwadi Party and Congress to form some kind of an alliance to prevent a division on Opposition votes in Uttar Pradesh and in Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur, the Congress would need to prove its strength in a direct contest with BJP. The Congress' challenge will continue in Gujarat and in HP later next year.
Punjab is an entirely different case as the contest is between three non-BJP parties, all of whom were represented in Sibal's dinner: Congress, AAP, and SAD.
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