Rashtriya Janata Dal president Lalu Prasad Yadav, dressed in a black t-shirt, looking healthy and cheerful despite a long spell in prison and hospital, and relentless harassment of his family by the Enforcement Directorate, greeted former Congress president Sonia Gandhi warmly on Monday, July 17, in Bangalore. His jovial mood is a trend-setter of sorts and reflects a joyous shift in the smiling faces of most Opposition leaders.

At the Patna Conclave in June, most Opposition leaders, including West Bengal chief minister and All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) founder Mamata Banerjee, had headed straight for his residence once they landed in the city. Earlier, in a style so reminiscent of ‘Vintage Lalu’, and very seriously, he had asked Congress leader Rahul Gandhi about his perennial bachelor-status, chiding him for troubling his mother. This was followed by much bonhomie and laughter in the gathering.

Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge set the optimistic tone of the grand two-day Opposition meeting of 26 parties at the Taj West End Hotel in Bangalore which started on Monday. “Like-minded opposition parties shall closely work together to foster an agenda of social justice, inclusive development and national welfare. Well-begun is half-done,” Kharge said.

After the meeting on Tuesday, addressing a joint press conference, he said, “this was a very important meeting to save democracy and the Constitution in the interest of the people of the country… We have come together and discussed various points. With one voice, people supported the resolution adopted today…Our alliance will be called the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA).”

An 11-member coordination committee will be set up in the next meeting, which, significantly, will be held in Mumbai.

Interestingly, Mamata Banerjee, is reported to have referred to Rahul Gandhi, as “our favourite”. In her combative manner, she said, “BJP, can you challenge INDIA? We love our motherland, we are the patriotic people of the country, we are for farmers, Dalits, we are for the country, for the world… INDIA will win, our country will win and BJP will lose.”

“The priority today is to safeguard the secular, democratic character of the Indian republic which is under multi-dimensional assault. For that, it is essential that those who are doing the assault must be kept away from controlling the government and State power," CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said.

“I am absolutely delighted that 26 parties have come together and have decided to work together to fight against the powers and forces that have taken India in a direction which the Constitution makers never thought of," said Rajya Sabha MP, Kapil Sibal.

Chief Minister of Delhi, national convener of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Arvind Kejriwal, too, joined. “Some people are thinking that we are fighting for the family, but the country is our family. The fight is against dictatorship. Earlier, when we met in Patna, there were 16 parties, this time it is 26, good that the clan is increasing.

“Modi had the opportunity for nine years, but there is not one sector that we can say had progressed. Railways used to work fine 5-6 years back, but now it has been ruined. They have sold everything to their people. Everyone is disappointed today, youths, farmers, traders, women,” Kejriwal said.

Former Maharashtra Chief Minister, Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Uddhav Thackeray said, “we want to assure, don't be scared, we are here. One man or a party can't be an entire country.”

In terms of realpolitik, the half-done has been replete with strategic moves. There seem to be no half-measures either, as this meet, hosted by the Congress this time, follows the Patna conclave, which was convened by Chief Minister of Bihar, Janata Dal United leader, Nitish Kumar.

Significantly, the meeting was postponed for a few days because Kharge and Rahul Gandhi were not able to attend it, in the first instance. This itself reflected a change in political equations, after the massive success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, and the equally massive victory of the Congress in Karnataka.

The Karnataka victory, literally, rubbed the BJP’s nose into dust, even as the Prime Minister, characteristic of a certain grandiose illusion he harbours about his eternal charisma and electoral pull, converted an Assembly poll into yet another ‘me-versus-them’ public spectacle.

His one-dimensional rhetoric, with lacklustre public enthusiasm, the trumpeting of ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’ in a region where the Monkey God is not really so ardently worshipped, raking up Islamophobic propaganda based on a fake narrative, as in the film ‘Kerala Story’ – all turned out to be desperate straws in the wind.

The Modi-defeat in Karnataka, as in Bengal earlier, was written on the wall. Only that, like so many other things haunting the conscience of the nation, like a ravaged Manipur, or the hounding and stalking of our world champion women wrestlers and their fellow sportspersons, he has chosen to remain mum, as if his silence is eternally golden.

No wonder, even as Rahul Gandhi made a peace-voyage inside the conflict zones of Manipur, and its interiors, with the bitter reality of the dead and the displaced still etched in mass consciousness, trying to heal wounds of all the communities in the Valley and the hills, while sharing a humble meal with little kids in the refugee camps, Modi chose to travel abroad, gathering sundry awards from all concerned.

No wonder, reportedly, the Opposition meet has put Manipur as top on the agenda, while preparing to send an all-party delegation to the strife-torn, sensitive border state.

Earlier, a series of meetings were initiated by Nitish Kumar with the Congress top brass, and powerful regional leaders across the country, including Mamata Banerjee, Abhishek Yadav and Arvind Kejriwal, among others. He has been able to smoothen the rough edges perceived in a possible united alliance.

For one, the Congress showed extraordinary sagacity, elasticity and a sense of consensus by agreeing to go along with a larger consensus. This has been aptly reflected by the party officially responding to the fervent pleas of Kejriwal, and agreeing to back him in the Rajya Sabha, on the central ordinance taking away most of the powers of the elected state government of Delhi.

For one, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, and the recent addition of External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, as the solitary MP, is not going to boost its strength. Secon, the Opposition strength has increased with the addition of six MPs of the Trinamool Congress. Mamata Banerjee has strongly backed Kejriwal on the ordinance, even while raking up the old Bengal narrative of how the Centre has always treated the state with utterly step-motherly treatment.

The Congress coming out in support of Kejriwal days before the Bangalore meet reflects its maturity. This is because it had earlier stated that crucial decisions inside both the houses are taken by its parliamentary board.

This is also because a miffed Kejriwal behaved like a spoiled brat, throwing tantrums and sulking, while refusing to attend the Opposition meet in Bangalore. With the Congress taking a considered out-of-the-box position, Kejriwal is now eagerly participating in the ‘United we Stand’ meet at Bangalore.

Indeed, in Patna, Mamata Banerjee had tried to take the role of a referee and asked Kejriwal to sort the issue over tea with the Congress leadership. Besides, most Opposition leaders were of the view that while they opposed this unilateral central ordinance, the larger agenda was different.

Indeed, both Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, in bitter sarcasm, pointed out that Kejriwal had no qualms in backing the abrogation of Article 374 in Jammu and Kashmir and the army clampdown thereafter.

‘United We Stand’ is the principle logo of the meet, which was monitored by ace organiser Congress leader, D. K. Shivakumar, the Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka. The conclave deliberated on, among other issues, a name and structure of the alliance, a common minimum programme, a campaign programme, and the complex and tiring logistics of seat-sharing across the length and breadth of the country. Almost all the parties have reportedly agreed on a 1:1 fight with the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

This seemed initially a difficult task, with the fear that the Congress would, predictably, stake its claim for a leadership role and a chunk of the parliamentary seats. This too was overcome with the Congress readily giving over the reign of convenership to Nitish Kumar, and accepting to take a back-seat, because restoring democracy and stopping the rise of unbridled totalitarianism and fascism under a one-man rule, is the first priority of all the Opposition parties.

Consequent to this, a consensus seems to have emerged, which was initially floated by Mamata Banerjee. This strategic consensus was simple: wherever the regional parties are strong, they will have the say, and wherever Congress has its strength, it would field its candidates.

This clearly meant that the Congress will have to take a back-seat in Bengal, UP, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, etc, while it can play a larger role in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, etc.

In any case, as the shifting winds tell clearly, the Congress seems to be on a strong wicket in Telangana, and with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) seemingly going with the BJP, and Jagan Reddy’s Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) still in a dilemma, the stakes in Andhra Pradesh are all open.

Besides, N. T. Rama Rao’s daughter, Sharmila, seems keen to join or align with the Congress, and that will mark a headache for both Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra, and an unsure K. Chandrashkehar Rao in Telangana.

Significantly, Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), with its embryonic national ambitions having all collapsed, TDP, Asaduddin Owaisi, President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMM), and YSRCP, were not been invited in Bangalore. As Sharmila and Congress have pointed out repeatedly, Rao seems unreliable, and his BRS looks more like a B-team of the BJP in a state with a huge Muslim presence and where the Hindutva party has no support-base.

Besides, he has rubbed Sharad Pawar and Udhav Thackery the wrong way by trying to penetrate in Maharashtra. More so, the massive rally held by Rahul Gandhi in Telangana is more than a pointer that the next Assembly elections might mark the downfall of Chandrashekhar Rao.

Ironically, as tit-for-tat, and in a rather juvenile response, the BJP, till now with virtually no ally, has suddenly resurrected a dead National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It held a meeting of reportedly 40-odd parties in Delhi.

A host of unknown and riff-raff groups were supposed to join this grand gathering to counter the ‘corrupt’ Opposition, including the Ajit Pawar and Eknath Shinde groups from Maharashtra.

Besides, the BJP has suddenly fished out a discredited Chirag Paswan out of the blue. They first used him to counter Nitish Kumar, who was then their ally. Tejeshwi Yadav had then cajoled Chirag to join the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar, also because Laloo Yadav was once an ally of his father, the late Ramvilas Paswan.

An eclectic Chirag refused, and made one wrong move after another, after his father’s death. Chirag Paswan was made to put up candidates against the JD(U) in the last Assembly polls, all of whom lost badly, including losing their deposits. Thereafter, he was dumped. He, thereby, vanished into the blue.

Now, he is demanding six Lok Sabha and one Rajya Sabha seat, including the Hajipur seat where his father won by huge margins all his life. The Hajipur seat is now held by Pasupatinath Paras, his uncle, who has split from his nephew, therefore dividing the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) into two factions.

The uncle has categorically refused to vacate this prestigious constituency with a huge Dalit constituency. Now, in this uncanny darkness, where and how Chirag will light his flame, only time will.

More so, something strangely bizarre seems to be continuously happening in Mumbai, like a B-Grade horror film which has more spoof and caricature than real, tangible horror. As a prodigal nephew, an ambitious Ajit Pawar, first went to meet an ailing Pratibha Pawar, wife of Sharad Pawar, in the hospital. He is reportedly very close to her, and family ties obviously come before the obsessive and insatiable thirst for power, by hook or crook.

This was followed by the leaders of the splinter group making an announced visit, and trooping in at the feet of Sharad Pawar, whom they referred to as God, etc. Contrast this with Ajit Pawar, after splitting from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), declaring that it is time that the 82-year-old leader should retire, and thereby follow the ‘margdarshak mandal’ of the BJP, led by Murli Manohar Joshi and LK Advani.

Why he missed out Modi, remains an enigma. Indeed, in a rather spoofy act, they made three such trips in just about four days!

Predictably, a wily Sharad Pawar, did a Modi on them. He chose absolute silence. On the plea that the NCP should be united under him, he adopted the no-speech therapy. However, on the third day, he is supposed to have broken his ‘maun vrat’.

So what did the great man say? He apparently spoke about the rains and the impact it will have on agriculture!

Earlier, miffed and angry, Pawar went on a tour of Maharashtra, declaring to all concerned, and especially to his nephew and the bunch of betrayers like Chaggan Bhujbal and Praful Patel, that be it 82 or 92, he would resurrect the NCP to take on the communal forces, come what may! Not surprisingly, his rallies across the state were greeted by thousands, especially by the young.

Pawar has repeatedly said that the Karnataka elections have finally proved that the BJP’s days are over, and voters across the country are looking for an alternative. Coming from a shrewd politician like Pawar, this prophetic prediction is more than a signal.

Meanwhile, after the entry of a totally untrustworthy Ajit Pawar in an alliance with the BJP, Eknath Shinde seems like a frightened child lost in a chaotic ‘mela’. Between Devendra Phadnis and Ajit Pawar, there are reasons for him to feel totally insecure, not knowing what will be the BJP’s next move.

A former auto-driver, with a limited constituency in Mumbai, and once mentored by Balasaheb Thackeray, he seems to be in an eternal Catch-22 scenario, even while Ajit Pawar seeks plum portfolios, and Shinde’s ex-Sena MLAs finding the ground beneath their feet slipping.

In all probability, political observers in Mumbai believe, the Shinde faction will implode after the disqualification of a chunk of its MLAs, and most of them would want to return to their parent-fold led by Uddhav Thackeray. As the proverb goes, when the ship sinks, the rats run for their lives.

Besides, the conspiracy theory doing the rounds is that with several top leaders of the Ajit Pawar faction under the shadow of the ED , with a potential trip to prison hanging like a Damocles sword, this is just another ploy to bide their time. In the final instance, Ajit Pawar, like in the past, might choose to be back in the sanctum sanctorum of his ‘God’ and mentor, whom he has betrayed with such shameless guile for the second time.

Besides, cynics point out that he will probably meet the fate of Y. S. Yeddyurappa, who could never finish his term as a chief minister, despite being the top leader of the BJP in Karnataka. In the same instance, Ajit Pawar, would always remain a deputy, and, never, thus, become the coveted chief!

As per reports, the NDA meet, predictably, has turned out to be a damp squib. In contrast, the 26-party conclave, with over 50 top leaders attending, seemed absolutely focused. Indeed, undoubtedly, ‘INDIA’, might mark a new, happy turn, for an unhappy India, and 2024 might take the beleaguered nation into a totally new journey, away from the fake ‘acche din’ of a fake messiah!

Cover Photo: PTI