Top leaders of 26 opposition parties, including the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and Trinamool Congress, are expected to attend the two-day brainstorming session in Bengaluru from today. One of the most important tasks at the hands of these parties is to set the ball rolling on a possible Common Minimum Programme that can help them function smoothly, address their political compulsions and the few ideological contradictions that exist among them. Congress leaders have said that a sub-committee will also be formed for the same.
The idea of a Common Minimum Programme or national agenda for governance is not uncommon in India which has seen many political alliances at the centre. A CMP is usually a set of policies and programmes that all partners of an alliance agree to abide by for the smooth functioning of the alliance, also outlining what the front plans to do, basically setting a broad agenda that is agreeable to all parties involved. The major coalitions — the United Front in 1996, BJP-led NDA from 1998 to 2004 and Congress-led UPA from 2004 to 2014 – were all post-poll arrangements with parties and all of them had a documented common agenda of sorts.
In 1994, when the Congress and its allies won only 217 seats, it had to be supported by the Left Front which had won 63 seats in that election. A CMP was then created to have one programme that all the allies would agree to and which the government can then implement. A committee under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was asked to do this. The committee also had other members, such as Pranab Mukherjee and Jairam Ramesh. In 1996, it was CPM’s Sitaram Yechury along with P Chidambaram and S Jaipal Reddy who had drafted the United Front government’s CMP, which was also integrated in the then Prime Minister Deve Gowda government’s budget for 1996-1997. The Atal Bihar Vajpayee government that consisted of over 20 parties too had an “Agenda for Development, Good Governance and Peace”. This NDA alliance was perhaps the largest coalition that brought together many regional parties who agreed to be part of an alliance with the BJP, provided the party’s core agenda like Ram Temple, Article 370 and Uniform Civil Code are kept on the back-burner. Most of the regional parties except Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samajwadi Party, RJD, and the Left were part of the NDA at one point of time or another from 1998 to 2004.
Political parties had different views on foreign policy, national security, economic policies and even social welfare. Apart from Hindutva issues, divestment or running of PSUs, foreign policy matters have been common points of disagreement between parties when it came to framing a common agenda. Most of the CMPs till now have been more of a document showing consensus to work together, high on intent but short on strategy, often falling apart over promises not kept, particularly as elections closed in.
Now that 26 parties are meeting in Bengaluru for a two-day conclave, there will be subcommittees put in place to devise a CMP and also decide on joint rallies. However, when it comes to attempts being made to foster opposition unity now in the run-up to 2024, it is the practical working of the alliance on the ground that will count, more than the ideological considerations that remain far and few between.
For instance, how will the seat-sharing work out between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress in West Bengal. The Congress is fighting the TMC tooth and nail and Trinamool has managed to wipe out the Congress electorally from even its strongholds in the state. There is also this challenge of what the Congress will do in Punjab and Delhi. There are about 22 seats where the Congress faces the AAP in these places. Will the Congress leave them for AAP? And what happens in Maharashtra is also another big question, specifically because both the NCP and the Shiv Sena have quit. But, considering it is the first time in many years that 26 non-BJP parties are engaging with one another in a pre-poll set up and also with the Congress playing a role, this is an attempt that the BJP will closely watch and push with all its might to counter.