After the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP had a resounding victory after riding on a development plank for the underdeveloped state, it was clear that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will aim at consolidating the Hindu vote. Be ready for the kind of polarization that you have not seen since independence. While Indian TV channels focused on celebrations after the UP win and avoided discussing issues that were top of the mind of many, BBC News said: “Adityanath is widely regarded as a polarizing figure because of his well-publicised anti-Muslim comments. The BJP leaders probably believe that their election formula of consolidating the votes of the Hindu majority will help them to sail through the next general elections… The rise of Hindu nationalists has already triggered concerns among India’s religious minorities and the choice of Adityanath is likely to intensify them.”
As the saffron wave continues and more and more states see BJP governments ride into power overriding political norms like we saw in Manipur and Goa, the opposition helplessly wrung its hands. Never before have we seen an opposition that has been paralysed like this unable to stand up, speak up and be heard. Many of them are just not able to even utilise the opportunities of the social media, the way the BJP had done. There were lessons for them to learn in terms of reaching out, using modern tools and technology and even strategizing with booth management. But whether they will learn and deflect the wave is something one has to wait and see and not bet on. At the moment, it is too dangerous to bet. You may go wrong.
The BJP also knows that 2019 Lok Sabha polls are going to be tougher. They will have to roll out their report card on the promises made five years ago and what they have achieved. The economy will have to be in a good shape to give a feel-good sentiment for the voter and inflation has to be pinned down. But that is not the only hurdle. They may have to fight a united opposition. In fact, Ramlal, the BJP general secretary, (Organisation) has gone on record saying that the party will have to work stronger for the Lok Sabha polls as the opposition might unite. Speaking to RSS workers, he pointed out that though the BJP led NDA had secured 42 per cent votes in UP, the opposition parties had netted 55 per cent.
The opposition is in disarray. Actually, in a total mess; confused and pessimistic.
If they have to recover, they have to re-invent themselves. Just bashing Modi and the BJP will not help as the UP polls recently showed. They all need to have a systematic plan of good governance, equal importance to all communities and castes, stress on issues like justice, employment, education, gender, economic growth, foreign policy et al. But to achieve this, would be a gigantic task which will require a leader who has both charisma and credibility and is able to use his communication and diplomatic skills to glue together various parties and make them see a common goal of once again putting India on a path of plurality, shun the politics of hatred and work together towards making India the kind of country we all want to see. They have to make the idea of India alive.
Secular values have been hollowed out and it is not easy to weave them back in. But it is for the opposition to grab this chance before it is too late and the damage is irreversible. Already, it seems a bit too late. There has to be a counter narrative to the Hindutva brand that we see today that the opposition has to draw out. Young couples walking the streets are being targeted by the moral police, meat shops are shutting down in fear, NGOs that tell the truth as it is are being denied the space they need to survive, text books are being rewritten to teach a new history, funds for researching marginalized communities are being withdrawn. It cannot get worse than this. This is not the India most of us want. Giddy with their victory in the states that went to the polls, the BJP is unlikely to do anything to right the wrong and the opposition must seize the opportunity that is crying out to be taken.
Parties will have to whip up courage to institute leadership changes. Almost all political parties need it. Look at the state of the impotent Congress which is sliding into a coma. How inspiring is its leadership? And why are its stalwarts not calling for a change? It beats logic as the Congress definitely has leaders with a better intellectual capacity than most of the others. But if they are silent and sit on the sidelines helplessly watching the slide, the party is as good as dead. The decline has been rapid and the leadership has to take the blame.
Had Mulayam Singh and Shivpal Singh not bitterly fought Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party would have done better than it did. But they have not learnt their lesson as Mulayam said after the results that his son was responsible for the rout as he tied up with the Congress. It was quite clear that the SP would be routed as there were family rifts that were orchestrated in the open. Their arrogance did not make them realize that voters were looking for an action oriented government, not family-drama. The BJP neatly squeezed itself into that space talking of change and development and a new Uttar Pradesh. UP badly needed a new government and got it.
Mayawati who banked on attracting castes, who are lower down in the Hindu order and Muslims, has also been almost eliminated at the hustings. In the last Lok Sabha poll, she did not win a single seat in UP. Politics in India is changing fast and politicians need to have the perspective to see that. When you are seen as appeasing one community, the others turn against you. She helped in polarizing the Hindu vote for the BJP.
The Left has a presence in Kerala and Tripura only and one wonders why it is not been able to look at the country with a modern lens considering that so much has changed both in India and the world. Unless they change, they have no future. Definitely, there is a space it can get into in a changing India, but when myopia is the problem, there is little hope. It is now only in Tripura that they have a solid base where they can win elections year after year. That is because of Manik Sarkar’s good governance, a fact that the media has lost out on. There is no effort by the Left to showcase him either. So, the problems are complex. The CPM has said that one of the factors for the opposition being wiped out in the recent polls was because they were not able to counter the saffron narrative on nationalism and demonetization.
A united opposition cannot afford to have petty egos or insecurities. It needs to have one vision: Work for a better India with a plan that has a character and an insurance that it cannot fail as it is thought through. The aim now should not be to just win elections, but to make a change. Modi won 2014 telling the country that he would bring in change and usher development.
Modi has also towered over all other opposition leaders with his speech, his histrionics, his actions and image management done by specialists who know their job.
If the world’s largest democracy has to flourish, it needs a strong opposition. Only that will keep any government with a brute majority in check, get them to be accountable and not steamroll the public with whatever agenda it has. We are today seeing what a weak divided opposition in parliament is worth. If the opposition is eyeing a communalized vote bank, we are doomed.
Right now, the opposition is fragmented and demoralized. They have no coherent strategy or game plan for the future but they cannot keep licking their wounds. They need to have a constructive narrative other than a lust for taking a go at power. In fact, history is giving them an opportunity to reinvent and model themselves with modern idioms and dreams. India is a throbbing democracy and we only need to look at the times Indira Gandhi ruled winning election after election. At that time, she had no opposition worth the name. They just came together in the seventies to defeat her. But that should not be the goal of the opposition now to defeat Modi. They must have a larger goal. They must hear the heartbeat of young India which would rather have a throbbing IT park rather than a temple. The Congress will have to reconnect with the people again and look at life beyond defeat.
We know what happened when Jayprakash Narayan ignited the conscience of India and got numerous parties to unite against the Congress. They did, but they did not see eye to eye, they fought over petty issues, did not seize the opportunity to build credibility and show what an alternative could be. The reason: The Congress was back, this time, stronger than ever. But when V.P. Singh became the Prime Minister, we again thought that a new era had dawned as a non-Congress government was born. We were wrong as again, they failed India. Imagine the landslide victory that the Aam Aadmi Party got as in spite of a Modi wave throughout India, Delhi showed that it thought differently. They wanted real change and the new party promised that but soon they were fighting among themselves and now we have Swaraj India with many of the former AAP workers contesting municipal elections in the capital. It will never win such a victory again as voters are deeply cynical. These are lessons that any “ mahagatbandhan” in the future has to mull about. It is not about defeating the BJP alone; it is about being a sound alternative where different political ideologies work towards building a new India. Only this can woo the young voter.
The idea of India is under attack. We will all pay a price if we do not ensure that the country is an eclectic crucible of various faiths and cultures, various beliefs and inclusive ideas. The ball is in the opposition’s court. 2019 will tell us whether they let us down once again.
#(Published on 27th March 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 13)