Is the Opposition heading for an oops moment?
If the next General Election is a sum of all State-level battles the Opposition is likely to succeed in dislodging Narendra Modi. But that’s not how it usually works
Unless my secular pundit friends are claiming that the forthcoming Lok Sabha poll is going to be a lamppost election — in the anti-Emergency wave of 1977 it was said even a lamppost would be elected if fighting on a Janata Party ticket — and there is little sign of that with even BJP-baiters conceding that Narendra Modi is still by far the most popular politician in the country, I can't see how the Opposition is going to win a much talked about famous victory come 2019. Factoring in even a visceral hatred for the ruling party, surely most sober independent-minded professionals despite our varying views on the issues of the day and differing political assessments can agree on the following:
i) The Lok Sabha by-election wins for SP-BSP in Uttar Pradesh and RJD in Bihar, which followed a spirited Congress showing first in the Gujarat Assembly poll,then upsetting the BJP in two Lok Sabha by-elections in Rajasthan and last month retaining two Assembly seats in Madhya Pradesh by-polls albeit with reduced margins are significant signs of an Opposition pushback;
ii) There is an articulation of a measure of anti-incumbency against the Narendra Modi regime on the ground and in professional/social media which was not the case six months ago. Both the Opposition’s messaging and anti-BJP groups’ cohesionhas got much better;
iii) The BJP win in Tripura and improved showing in other North-eastern States’ Assembly polls, its gains in the Orissa local bodies poll mainly at the expense of the Congress and its emergence as the, if distant, second party in West Bengal shows clearly thatthe Amit Shah-led party is not in retreat in spite of the expectation versus delivery gap being apparent;
iv) Despite the sustained and at times viciously personal attacks on the Prime Minister by those enraged at the sheer audacity of the Indian electorate which dared elect a “Sanghi” to high office, the sense one gets is that the people still give him the benefit of the doubt. His intent is not yet suspect though his Government’s less than exemplary supervision of the banking sector and other sectors of the economy are coming in for criticism given that expectations were raised inordinately high;
v) The North Korean news television channels, to use a phrase reportedly coined by Arun Shourie, are doing the ruling party more damage than good;
vi) But this is more than evened out by the supercilious, in the main shallow and entirely entitled TV stations which despite their recent attempts to break into baba-log Hindi as an imprimatur of their massy credentials are guaranteed to continue turning off the neutrals and enraging those simpatico to a nation-first worldview;
vii) Social media narratives will likely continue to be an influencer for the younger demographic with FB/Twitter/WhatsApp 75:25 in favour of the ruling combine; professional media including print and digital platforms are possibly 65:35 for the Government with the skew in Hindi and regional languages particularly pronounced.
It is in this context that we need to look, as objectively as possible, at assessing the possible outcome of the forthcoming General Election. Arithmetically, backroom players on the Opposition side know exactly what needs to be done — to ensure, State-wise, that as far as possible there is only one Opposition candidate against every BJP candidate. For this to come to fruition, the country will have to be carved up into ‘spheres of influence’ of non-BJP political parties dominant in each State which will also have the final say in their respective States. Like everything in life, this is easier said than done.
Take a minute to think about the possible outcome of any negotiation for who is to be considered primus inter pares between Mamata Banerjee and CPI-M in West Bengal; KChandrashekhar Rao and Congress in Telangana; TDP, Congress and YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh; Congress and CPI-M in Kerala; Congress and JD-S in pockets of Karnataka; Congress and BJD in Orissa; NCP, Congress and MNS in Maharashtra; AAP, Congress and BSP in Punjab; Congress, Goa Forward and MGP in Goa; Congress and AUDF in Assam; CPI-M and Congress in Tripura; AAP and Congress in Delhi; NC and PDP in the Kashmir Valley (we are assuming PDP will not go into the election in alliance with the BJP with which it runs a coalition in Jammu and Kashmir at the moment) plus Congress, NC and PDP in Jammu. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.
Yes, a BSP-SP alliance in Uttar Pradesh and a RJD-Congress alliance in Bihar does seem on the cards but, especially in the case of the former, it is unlikely to be for all seats in the State. The just concluded Rajya Sabha polls in Uttar Pradesh provide an early pointer to the number of problematic areas Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati will have to deal with despite the surface bonhomie.
Also, do remember that regional parties which are keenest on allying with long-standing adversaries in their States of operation are the ones not in power and so have no monies to keep their party relevant in the elaborate web of public exchequer-funded patronage which includes largesse to kinship groups and the like which has been their hallmark. An SP, BSP or DMK may, for example, be keen on such an arrangement as they have been out of power for five years or more but the same cannot be said of, say, a BJD, TDP or TRS. Lastly, apart from its ideological foes like the Communist parties or a Mamata Banerjee who governs a State where the Muslim population is large and electorally very significant, most of the other parties have no deep-seated ideological aversion to the BJP; in fact, many of them have been NDA constituents at some point or the other. Ergo, they will be free to choose which party and/or alliance to support post-poll.
For a real challenge to the BJP to emerge, it is the Congress which will have to revive and radically reinvent itself as the second pole of Indian politics. To do so, it must necessarily engage with the notion of a non-supremacist Indian exceptionalism and our nation-state’s Indic/Hindu civilizational ethos, address the issues of an entitled leadership and a lack of organizational meritocracy, and come up with an economic plan that works. Suffice it to say even in the unlikely event the Congress does as is being suggested, its efforts are unlikely to bear fruit before 2024.
It could gainfully occupy itself in the interim with coming to terms with the fact that a presidential, broadly two-party/alliance systemis a more effective democratic system of governance for India than the Westminster parliamentary model. But those who look at the nation's interests safely ensconced in their rent-seeking, ideologically blinkered positions, shifting their stance depending on who is in power or more pertinently whom they want to keep out, have refused to engage with the issue seriously till now. They are likely to have five years more to think about it, provided the Modi-Shah combine has the nous — and indications are it certainly does — to work out its weaknesses, ensure the index of Opposition unity is not too high, focus on delivery of development initiatives and explain much better the need for the structural reforms initiated and those yet to come.
The BJP will also have to pursue with far more finesse and less virulence then it has hitherto exhibited the project of providing an ambient environment in which an Indic cultural consciousness flourishes while simultaneously a folk multiculturalism — modes of prayer, sartorial choices, culinary preferences et.al. of bona fide Indian citizens — is celebrated without a de facto differential citizenship model such as the one we were quite casually slipping into pre-2014. Equally, curbing growing lumpen anti-intellectualism within the fold is nothing less than a categorical imperative in the construction of a modern state wherein individual rights are never trumped by group rights. Put the BJP Marg Darshak Mandal to some use, perhaps? Its members certainly have the credentials and experience to make a go of carrying out this balancing act leaving the Government to focus on governance.
At any rate, a lot can and will change over the coming year. But on the evidence available my money is on the BJP coming back. Not with 200-220 seats for itself and another 50-70 from post/pre-poll allies as the drawing room conversation consensus seems to be but with a decisive win. Either that, or it will be reduced to struggling in the 120-180 seats band which is where it was stuck in the pre-Modi era, effectively making it a lamppost election. I am convinced that an aspirational and very impatient India has neither the time nor the luxury for a fractured mandate which would inevitably give birth to an even more fractious polity than extant.
Modi remains the most popular and, something which is often not understood fully, the most recognizable politician across India.The latter is important to internalize because in a chaotic ecology sans a counter-narrative that can capture the popular imagination, the Centre tends to hold. It is more than just TINA. WB Yeats in The Second Coming is perhaps apposite on the alternative the Opposition presents as of today:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.
(The author is Consulting Editor, The Pioneer.)
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