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Strange bedfellows trying to cobble up anti-Modi unity

| | in Usual Suspects

If the talk in the Central Hall of Parliament is anything to go by, the unceasing slogan shouting by Congress MPs during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on the President’s address had the direct blessing of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Far from subduing Modi — who never shies away from a good political scrap — it led to the Prime Minister delivering one of his most combative parliamentary interventions. The unseemly slogan shouting in the Lok Sabha also produced a tit-for-tat response from the BJP benches in the Rajya Sabha during the Budget debate which was very unfortunate.

The verbal brawl, however, has brought into the public arena what is plainly apparent in political circles — that the campaign for the 2019 general election has begun in right earnest, more than a year before the actual vote. The aggressive conduct of Rahul, very buoyant after the better-than-expected performance in Gujarat and three by-election victories in Rajasthan, is a clear indication that the Government will find it very difficult to push through any legislation in the Rajya Sabha, where the Opposition is present in sizeable numbers. Even non-contentious legislation such as the much-needed Motor Vehicles Act may end up as a casualty.

The Congress is not the only party that has begun its mobilisation for the 2019 war. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has not lost any occasion to threaten the BJP with political oblivion, and not merely in her own State. Having stymied nearly all the Centre’s schemes, and appropriated a few under different names, it is likely that Mamata will encourage all other non-BJP State Governments to stall programmes such as the Ayushman Bharat scheme targeting nearly half the population of India.

Mamata sees herself as playing the role of a political catalyst and bringing all the Opposition parties together in a Grand Alliance to defeat the BJP. She even had the impishness to send out feelers to the Shiv Sena whose anger at having been upstaged by the BJP in Maharashtra is palpable.

Last Thursday, the Congress matriarch Sonia Gandhi jumped into the fray by announcing that she will take a personal interest in ensuring Opposition unity. Already there are new bedfellows in the offing. The Congress is being relentlessly decimated by the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and its remaining stalwarts encouraged to join Mamata. At the Centre, however, there is visible camaraderie between the Congress and the Trinamool, despite Mamata’s own misgivings over the leadership potential of Rahul Gandhi. The Rajya Sabha even witnessed a strange bonhomie between the Congress and the newly-elected Aam Aadmi Party MPs, even as the local leadership of the two parties fought it out in Delhi.

Too much need not be read into these contradictory responses. The battle lines for 2019 are still blurred and there are important contradictions both inside and between the major parties. The CPI(M), for example, is in the throes of a vicious internal battle involving the West Bengal and Kerala units — not to mention general secretary Sitaram Yechuri and former general secretary Prakash Karat — over the question of how best to ensure the defeat of the Modi Government in 2019. Likewise, the two main Dravidian parties appear to have kept all options open for 2019, not least because they perceive — the AIADMK more than the DMK — a big threat from a political party that emerges from the Rajnikant Fan Clubs.

Despite the buzz in a section of the Old Establishment in Delhi that Modi’s time is drawing to a close and that there is just no way the BJP can cross the 220 mark in the Lok Sabha, the game is still wide open. The forthcoming State Assembly elections, beginning with Karnataka in the summer and ending with the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh after Diwali will set the tone. If the BJP manages to wrest Karnataka from the Congress, the dream of a Grand Alliance will suffer a big setback and give a fillip to Mamata’s hopes of a Federal Front, a partnership of equals that won’t necessarily involve projecting Rahul Gandhi as the alternative to Modi. Similarly, the BJP has to hold on to at least two of the three States that go to the polls after Diwali if it is approach 2019 with a measure of self-confidence.

However, all these calculations assume that 2019 will, like many general elections in the past, be an aggregation of many State polls. The real argument against this happening is Narendra Modi. It is generally acknowledged that 2019 will be fought over the Prime Minister — his leadership, his record and his projection of the future. On his part, Modi will try and ensure that 2019 becomes a de-facto presidential election where the electorate will be asked to choose between his continuing leadership and a hotch-potch coalition Government.

The extent to which stability will influence voter decision after five years of stable Government is unknown. For all that we know, the electorate may buy the argument of the dispossessed power-brokers that a weak and fragile Government is the best way forward for a diverse society. But this is by no means an assured conclusion. All the opinion polls that have been conducted since 2014 indicate that Modi’s personal popularity remains dizzyingly high and could even exceed the lofty heights of 2014. In that case, the BJP will have to run a campaign that is centred entirely on Modi. It will also mean that apart from the intellectuals, the media and the dregs of the ancien regime, the rest of the electorate don’t have any reason to feel exceptionally angry over development in the past five years. Every tiny bit of optimism could translate into a vote for Modi.

 
 
 
 
 
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