In the aftermath of the 2014 general election debacle, I asked a senior Congressman how his party would now battle the Narendra Modi juggernaut. “Not to worry, we have time on our side,” he claimed rather confidently. The message was that with Rahul Gandhi still in his early forties, five years out of power wasn’t an issue. Now, almost three years later, the 2017 electoral verdict in Uttar Pradesh and beyond has only confirmed that time is rapidly running out for the Congress and the Opposition. The prime minister has already made his intentions clear: He wants to see a “new India” emerge in 2022, underlining his determination to be in office for 10 years and beyond.
How then does a dispirited and fragmented Opposition combat a consummate 24X7 politician like Modi who seeks to monopolise the entire political narrative with his larger than life persona and astute communication skills? Today, Modi claims the “nationalist” space (surgical strikes against Pakistan), the anti-corruption plank (the “war on black money” rhetoric), the aspirational mood (the Start Up India idea), the pro-poor agenda (with schemes like the LPG-kerosene ujjwala programme) and the kisan vote (soil health card scheme). What then is left for the Opposition to claim as its own idea when even UPA schemes like Aadhaar are now linked to Brand Modi?
First, the Opposition needs to hold Modi accountable for his mistakes but end its blind hostility to any and every move of the central government. For example, the demonetisation step deserved a serious, bipartisan debate but ended up in screechy name-calling. If only the Opposition had chosen to intelligently expose the government with hard facts and figures instead of disrupting Parliament, they might have at least won over the middle classes.
Second, Modi’s opponents need to look beyond the 2002 Gujarat riots “maut ka saudagar” script, which only consolidates the BJP’s growing Hindu constituency. The riots are a grave and permanent blot on the prime minister’s reputation but simply recalling the bloodstained imagery of communal violence won’t work any longer. Entire generations of millennial Indians who are now of voting age have no memory, visual or otherwise, of the riots. The challenge posed to a multi-religious society by the gradual spread of political Hindutva which excludes minority voices is genuine, but it cannot be done in a manner that a political party is seen to only prey on the fears of one community.
Third, while the idea of a “mahagathbandhan” that brings together all anti-Modi forces may appear electorally attractive, it fails to realise that chemistry matters just as much as arithmetic in a highly-competitive political arena. The Nitish-Lalu-Congress combine worked in Bihar not just because of its numerical advantage, but also because Nitish Kumar had a certain credibility as an effective chief minister. On the other hand, the ‘UP ke ladke’, Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, just didn’t carry the same credibility quotient to match up to Modi’s pan-Indian appeal. Opportunistic alliances are no substitute for a convincing common programme of governance or for a trustworthy leadership.
Fourth, parties like the Congress need to shed their high command culture, which prevents autonomous decision-making and the emergence of strong regional leaders. The Congress, for example, achieved success in Punjab because they empowered Captain Amarinder Singh to lead the party’s campaign in the state. Unfortunately, a “national” party like the Congress has very few such regional satraps left in its ranks: The fact that mass leaders like a Mamata Banerjee achieved success when out of the Congress cocoon is a sign that the party needs to look beyond its Delhi durbar to match the BJP’s organisationally robust model.
Finally, the Opposition needs to redraw the vocabulary of Indian politics to appeal to a younger demographic that wants education, jobs, equal opportunity. In the age of media 360, this age group has no time for the hypocrisies of the old order. A Mayawati cannot mouth social justice platitudes even as her family blatantly self aggrandises itself. The Yadavs cannot claim to stand for “secular” values when Muslims are killed in Muzaffarnagar but the celebrations in Saifai carry on uninterrupted. Similarly, if the Yadavs are given preference in government recruitment, then it is an example of brazen casteism, which will invite a backlash. And if Rahul Gandhi’s scriptwriters resort to B grade dialogues like “khoon ki dalali” when our soldiers sacrifice their lives, then the “nationalist” India First rhetoric will get even more ammunition.
Yes, time does matter in politics. Eventually, Modi too may fail to deliver on his tall promises and get felled by anti-incumbency. The crude attempt to capture power in states like Goa and Manipur may also trap the BJP in its own smugness. But till then, the Opposition is better advised to get its own act together rather than be in a constant reactive, wait and watch mode. Or else, as National Conference leader Omar Abdullah has warned, be ready to live with the spectre of Modi in power till 2024 at least.
Post-script: So when was the UP election lost to the Opposition? My sense is that the day when Akhilesh and Rahul tied up, the endgame was clear: You can’t say “27 saal UP behaal” one day and “kaam bolta hai” the next. The Indian voter does get swayed, but can’t be taken for granted.