Four takeaways from MK Stalin’s social justice conference that could chart course for a united Opposition

The All India Federation for Social Justice conference was by far the most successful attempt at bringing non-BJP parties on a single platform.

ByAnusha Ravi Sood

Published Apr 08, 2023 | 2:00 PMUpdatedApr 08, 2023 | 2:00 PM

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister speaking at the first national conference of the All India Federation for Social Justice

“Stalin, it is time to move on. Come to the national scene. Come and build the nation as you have built this state. Nation needs people who can work together,” Farooq Abdullah, president of Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (NC) exhorted Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin on his 70th birthday celebrations on 1 March.

On 3 April, Stalin seemed to have taken the first step towards precisely that.

The first national conference of his initiative, the All India Federation for Social Justice (AIFSJ), was a roaring success. It brought together leaders of non-BJP parties from across the country, with few exceptions like YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSRCP.

Even though the AIFSJ’s coordinator and DMK MP P Wilson maintained that the event was apolitical and its focus was social justice across the country, leaders like All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) MP Derek O’Brien were candid about calling it what it was — a political platform to bring parties on board to take on the BJP.

This isn’t the first time that a regional party has attempted to build a non-BJP front. MK Stalin isn’t the first chief of a regional party to implore Opposition leaders, cutting across party lines, to share a platform. The 3 April event, however, was by far the most successful in bringing a galaxy of non-BJP players on board.

Related: Stalin, Kharge call for Opposition unity against BJP in 2024

Post-disqualification unity

At a time Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been taunting the Opposition saying “all corrupt are coming together” for showing solidarity with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi after his disqualification from the Lok Sabha, it is significant that disparate parties like Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, CPI(M), CPI, NC, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), BRS and AITC — entities that rarely hide their annoyance with the Congress — came together to share a stage with the grand old party in an event spearheaded by the DMK.

While one could say the AIFSJ’s success lies in the “cause/goal” being more social than political, there is no denying that something that involves political leaders at such a large scale simply cannot be apolitical.

On the face of it, the discussion largely centered around the failure of the incumbent BJP government at the Centre in ensuring social justice for marginalised communities like Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC/ST), Other Backward Classes (OBC), and minorities, and the remedial measures required.

Related: Stalin-Kejriwal bonhomie: About politics or governance?

Four takeaways

From the tone and conversations at the social justice conference and the events that preceded it we have four key takeaways.

First, in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the narrative of social justice is set to become the glue that helps Opposition parties stick together.

If the ruling dispensation cries corruption, the Opposition will demand social justice. Demand for social justice could become the crux of a possible common minimum programme for a united Opposition. The dialogue on social justice also takes on Prime Minister Modi and the BJP’s deriding of social welfare schemes as “freebies” or “revdi” culture.

Other than its vocal political opposition, the fact that DMK has been a petitioner in the legal challenges to the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) quota, the Citizenship Amendment Bill and even the Union government’s description of welfare schemes as freebies, has earned the party the moral authority to take the leadership on social justice issues and call for Opposition unity.

It is a position that the DMK can assume more effectively than its alliance partner Congress.

Related: Former PM Deve Gowda calls for ‘alternative’ leadership for country

The caste census

Secondly, cutting across party lines, representatives at the conference spoke about the need for a nationwide caste census.

The JD(U)-RJD government in Bihar is already at loggerheads with the BJP over a caste census in the state. Parties at the AIFSJ insisted that a nationwide caste census will be a scientific and logical way to assess the representation of marginalised communities — SCs, STs, minorities and OBCs.

While the debate also revolved around EWS quota, meant for forward castes, being against the principles of social justice, the demand for a nationwide caste census is a neat way of putting Modi’s “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” claim to test. Data from the caste census can show if the slogan is a reality or mere lip service.

A discrepancy on the ground will be the first step for Opposition parties to woo back sections of the marginalised communities that the BJP has been working to consolidate in its favour as part of its social engineering strategies one election after another. Consolidation through caste identity perhaps is the only effective political counter to BJP’s consolidation on religious identity.

Related: KCR meets Nitish Kumar in Bihar, keeps suspense on anti-BJP front

The ‘Dravidian model’

The third key takeaway is the push to take DMK’s “Dravidian model” to the national stage.

If the BJP has a “Gujarat model” as its story for development, DMK has propped up its Dravidian model of social justice and development ever since it came to power in Tamil Nadu, and wants to take it national. The event made no secret of this, what with a video presentation saying it in as many words.

Social activists may point to instances of caste atrocities and excesses that violate the principles of social justice in Tamil Nadu under the DMK, but the party has a success story to narrate in terms of development indices, welfare schemes and the economy.

The “holistic” Dravidian model, with its stress on human rights and social justice, is the proposed alternative story to the BJP’s brick and mortar, infra-heavy growth story.

Related: Kumaraswamy meets Nitish Kumar, calls for Janata Parivar reunion

Role of the Congress

Lastly, the event showcased that non-BJP parties can be brought together on a single platform when the Congress isn’t playing big brother. If the grand old party cedes space, a less intimidating but authoritative figure like MK Stalin can bring the Opposition together.

Unlike the Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao-led BRS or West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s AITC, or Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) that have been pushing for a non-BJP, non-Congress “Third Front”, MK Stalin has made his stance clear — there can be no Opposition front without the Congress.

With him playing convenor, a united Opposition could be a possibility. It is for this reason that AICC president Mallikarjun Kharge is said to have dialed MK Stalin on Friday, 7 April, to initiate talks on bringing Opposition parties together ahead of 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Stalin’s advantage

MK Stalin is Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s comrade. He is friends with Telangana’s KCR. He plays the perfect host to Mamata Bannerjee. He isn’t shy of praising Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s initiatives or greeting, meeting and holding talks with Bihar’s Nitish Kumar. He is also a friend to Rahul Gandhi — so much so that the Congress invited him to launch the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

Stalin’s personal relations with leaders of other regional parties, while being thoroughly committed to his alliance with the Congress, makes him a reliable face at the Opposition parties’ table.

The bargains that the Congress — given its weakened position and uncomfortable relationship with regional parties — cannot make, MK Stalin can. The grand old party too has softened its opposition on where it would stand in a united front against the BJP.

This was evident when Mallikarjun Kharge, at Stalin’s 70th birthday celebrations, said the Congress was not adamant on picking a prime ministerial candidate, and was willing to make sacrifices for unity, resonating what Farooq Abdullah said.