Leaders of 12 Opposition parties on Wednesday, 12 May, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, laying down nine steps his government must take to tackle the COVID-19 second wave and provide relief to Indian citizens amid the pandemic.
The steps include Central procurement of vaccines, stopping construction of Central Vista, spending budgetary allocation of Rs 35,000 crore for vaccines, among others.
This is the second such letter these leaders have written this month.
From a political point of view, the coming together of these 12 Opposition leaders to write these letters is in itself important.
This article will look at three aspects:
Which are the parties represented in the letter?
Which Opposition parties are missing?
What is the significance of this exercise?
The Parties Behind the Letter
The 12 signatories to the letters sent on 2 and 12 May are:
Sonia Gandhi, Congress president and UPA chairperson
HD Deve Gowda, former PM and Janata Dal (Secular) president
Sharad Pawar, NCP president
Uddhav Thackeray, Maharashtra CM and Shiv Sena president
Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal CM and Trinamool Congress president
MK Stalin, Tamil Nadu CM and DMK president
Hemant Soren, Jharkhand CM and JMM leader
Farooq Abdullah, former Jammu and Kashmir CM
Akhilesh Yadav, former Uttar Pradesh CM and Samajwadi Party president
Tejashwi Yadav, Leader of Opposition in Bihar and RJD leader
D Raja, CPI general secretary
Sitaram Yechury CPI-M general secretary
The first letter written on 2 May – which was focused mainly on demanding a free mass vaccination programme – also had BSP chief Mayawati as a signatory. However, her name wasn't there in the second letter but the other 12 names were the same.
Why Is This Important?
The letter does indicate a certain degree of coordination between these Opposition parties. Some of these parties are rivals at the state level — such as the Congress' competition with the Samajwadi Party in UP, Left in Kerala, and JD(S) in Karnataka the Left and Congress' opposition to TMC in Bengal. However, it does appear that these parties are willing to work together at the national level.
This coordination is the result of many small steps in the past.
For instance, after the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, the leaders of 12 parties had written to the President of India demanding the repeal of the law. These parties included the Congress, DMK, Samajwadi Party, RJD, CPI, CPI-M, AIUDF, IUML, RSP, JKNC, and Sharad Yadav's JLS.
The TMC and Shiv Sena have since become part of this collective exercise.
TMC chief Mamata Banerjee also took an important step during the West Bengal elections, by writing a letter to 15 Opposition leaders, appealing them to unite against BJP and save democracy. These 15 leaders included: Congress president Sonia Gandhi, NCP president Sharad Pawar, DMK president MK Stalin, Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackaray, Telangana CM K Chandrashekhar Rao, Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, Andhra Pradesh CM YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, RJD chief Tejashwi Yadav, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, NC chief Farooq Abdullah, and PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti.
The appeal was partly successful as leaders like Pawar, Thackeray, Soren, Tejashwi Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, Kejriwal, and Stalin backed Banerjee in the Bengal election, some of them openly and some tacitly.
The common cause against the government on the pandemic is a culmination of all these different efforts of trying to achieve some kind of Opposition unity.
Of course, in terms of numbers they may not be in a position to challenge the BJP as of now.
Together these 12 parties are in power in eight states — Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Kerala, Jharkhand, Punjab, and Chhattisgarh. Together, these states account for 214 out of India's 543 Lok Sabha seats.
In the Lok Sabha, these parties and their associated smaller allies account for 143 seats out of 543. In the Rajya Sabha, they have 82 out of 245.
Who Are Missing?
The letter doesn't include all non-NDA parties.
BSP chief Mayawati, a signatory to the first letter, is missing from the second.
Several other non-NDA parties like Biju Janata Dal, YSRCP, Telangana Rashtra Samithi and Aam Aadmi Party aren't signatories to the letter.
It is not known whether this is because no one reached out to them or that they refused to be part of this exercise. The reasons of each of these parties may be different.
BJP and YSRCP:
Parties like BJD and YSRCP have time and again voted with the Modi government on a number of issues such as the Triple Talaq Bill, the Farm Bills, and reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir.
They have consistently tried to keep a good equation with the Centre and haven't confronted it on any issue.
Recently, YSRCP chief and Andhra Pradesh CM Jagan Mohan Reddy criticised his Jharkhand counterpart Hemant Soren on Twitter after the latter took a dig at PM Modi.
These parties are often called an extension of NDA and not exactly the Opposition.
The TRS and AAP have been slightly more selective, opposing the Triple Talaq Bill and the Farm Bills but supporting the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill.
This may stem from the diverse base they appeal to in their respective states — they get sizable support from minority voters on one hand and a sizable chunk of Hindus who voted for Modi at the Centre, on the other.
AAP is also competing with the Congress in Punjab, where it is the main Opposition party. It is also trying to emerge as an Opposition force in Goa, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand. In all of these, it is being alleged that their rise could be at the Congress' expense.
AAP has gained more traction among Catholics in Goa, Patidars in Gujarat and Kumaon region in Uttarakhand, all of which are said to have been tilting against the BJP.
BSP, too, has been selectively supporting the government on occasions, abstaining on a few and opposing it on some issues. This stems from the party's track record of keeping its options open and keeping its own interests first.
In Uttar Pradesh's political landscape, BSP is the only major party that can do business with any of the other three parties — the BJP, SP, and the Congress.
The Telugu Desam Party until a few years ago was part of this Opposition axis but this has changed since it lost power in Andhra Pradesh. The party has supported the NDA on most of the key legislations such as CAA, Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill and the Farm Bills.
Can They Challenge the BJP?
In terms of numbers, the BJP is completely secure in the Lok Sabha. But in the Rajya Sabha, the Opposition parties can give it trouble if they manage to bring fence-sitting parties like TRS, YSRCP, AAP, and BSP on board.
Besides continuing to put the Modi government on the mat on its handling of the pandemic, this conglomeration of parties could also potentially help revive the farmers' agitation once the pandemic ceases. Many of the Kisan union leaders did come to Bengal to campaign against the BJP in the elections, indicating a certain common ground with the Opposition.
More than numbers as of now, unity between these 12 Opposition parties can help taken on the Modi government on the one aspect that it prioritises most — control over the narrative.
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