It is argued, often justifiably, that a large section of the news media, especially prime time tv, spends far more time and energy questioning the opposition than it does the Modi government. At one level, this reflects the stranglehold of a domineering political executive that is seen to have compromised a pliant media: unlike the UPA years when a weakened political leadership almost surrendered its authority to hyper-ventilating tv anchors, the Modi government is ruthlessly determined to control the media narrative. At another level, the excessive focus on the state of the opposition does reveal the intense churning that is taking place within the non-BJP political space. At the heart of this churning is the role of the Congress party and Rahul Gandhi in particular.
After 17 years in public life, no one is still quite sure who the real Rahul Gandhi is: is he the ‘power is poison’ principled idealist who is seeking to revamp the Congress by disrupting the party’s traditional elite structures as evidenced most recently in Punjab. Or is he simply an entitled fifth generation dynast who just doesn’t have the grassroot connect, political stamina or personal charisma to lift a struggling party out of its deepening crisis. But pinning the blame on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, or lack of it, for the Congress’s decline is a soft option: it isn’t as if his possible return as Congress President or replacing him with another leader is going to miraculously alter the party’s fortunes.
The Congress’s problems (or potential solutions) do not lie solely with the steady erosion in the vote catching abilities of the Gandhi family as is often suggested. They also lie in a fundamental shift in the arc of Indian politics wherein the BJP with its aggressive brand of muscular religious nationalism and the Modi style of populist leadership has squeezed the space for a flabby organisation like the Congress with its accumulated baggage of decades in power to offer a credible alternative. Organizationally enfeebled and ideologically compromised, the Congress’s capacity to fight has shrunk along with the melting away of its social base in several parts of the country . As NCP leader Sharad Pawar rather sharply remarked recently in an interview to this columnist, ‘The Congress is run like an old zamindari still reminiscing about its lost lands.”
And yet, and herein lies the nub, despite its obvious weakening, the Congress is still the most recognizable pan-Indian opposition brand. There are still at least a dozen states where the Congress vote share is more than 35 per cent, making it either a party of power or a principal opposition. Making inroads into this vulnerable vote share is therefore a lure not just for the BJP but also simultaneously for the rest of the
opposition too, including those parties who claim to be once part of the wider Congress ‘parivar’. Like eager lion cubs on the prowl, these parties are fiercely competing with each other to take over from a fading
king of the political jungle.
Which is why a key question swirling in Indian politics in the build up to the 2024 general elections is not so much who is in pole position to be the prime minister but who will be the ‘face’ of the opposition or, as
Hindi news tv would screech, ‘kaun banega challenger’! Which is also why the crisis in the Congress doesn’t just give the BJP a clear advantage but also opens up possibilities of a political realignment within the opposition ranks. How else does one explain for example the urgency being shown by a Mamta Banerjee in riding on the momentum of her spectacular Bengal success by expanding her party’s presence not
just into the neighbouring north east states but also into relatively distant Goa? In this attempted move from east to west is a clear signal from a leader who refuses to be shackled any longer by a Bengal centric ‘regional leader’ image. Only weeks ago, Mamta was breaking bread with Sonia Gandhi at an opposition leaders conclave. Now, by weaning away Congress leaders considered close to the Gandhi family and threatening to establish a beach-head in Goa, a state where the Congress was the single largest party in 2017, the West Bengal chief minister has made her intentions clear of being seen as a national challenger to the BJP.
Another claimant to this prime challenger’s title is the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. If Mamata has the advantage of being the solitary defiant woman figure in a male dominated arena, Kejriwal’s USP is that he is a Hindi speaking bilingual, middle class anti-establishment figure whose AAP party is a political start up not weighed down by traditional regional, caste or community loyalties as yet. Not surprisingly, like Mamta, Kejriwal too is moving quickly into states where the Congress is seen as vulnerable. Should he, for example, win Punjab next year, then he too can look to spread his net far and wide. Both Kejriwal and Mamta have one big advantage over Rahul Gandhi: not bearing a famous surname, they can challenge the Modi ‘chaiwallah
to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg’ storyline with the equally evocative story of their own ascent. Their success, like that of Modi, is not based on political inheritance, which makes them more attractive to a new age voter who is
looking for inspirational heroes.
Oppositional politics though doesn’t just need charismatic leaders, it also needs a compelling narrative of change. With a Modi-led BJP firmly occupying an expanded political space that combines pro poor
welfarist beneficiary schemes with a Hindu nationalist fervour , the opposition has limited options. Rahul Gandhi for example seems to have clearly pitched his Congress tent with the hard left ideology flag bearers
: the recent entry of Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani is evidence that the party will now take its anti corporate, anti Hindutva, anti Modi rhetoric a notch higher. By contrast, both Mamta and Kejriwal, as more
astute practitioners of realpolitik, have consciously reached out to Hindu voters without abandoning their ‘secular’ ‘social justice’ pro poor plank.
The question is: will these opposition leaders eventually find common ground and unite or will they simply try to knock each other out first? Any answer to that question throws up an intriguing range of possibilities, one reason why the state of the opposition will continue to fascinate in the months ahead.
Post script: Since I started the column by raising the concern over a media eco system that rarely raises troubling questions to the party in power, let me end it with one such disquieting question that demands a
wider debate: can the Centre be allowed to get away with a rather brazenly disingenuous claim that the PM Cares Fund is not a government of India Fund and hence cannot be subject to a right to information inquiry? Maybe, one way to ensure a more level playing field is to start asking the discomfiting questions of the government that we do so routinely of the opposition?