Amidst the hotly contested Bengal assembly polls, chief minister Mamata Banerjee shot off a letter to the opposition parties urging them to come together “for a united and effective struggle against the BJP’s attacks on democracy and the Constitution.” Given the declining democratic space and a creeping turn to authoritarianism, opposition unity to check the BJP’s growing hegemony is welcome. But for any broad based alliance to taste electoral success against the BJP’s formidable election machine, it must refrain from committing the sins made in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Firstly, an anti-BJP alliance has to go beyond anti-BJPism. It must lend itself to a cause larger than safeguarding each other’s immediate political interests. Instead of being fixated on one individual, focus should be on connecting the larger issues – record unemployment, stagnant economic growth, social divisions, blows to cooperative federalism, misuse of central agencies and colonial era laws, among others- and explaining how that individual is a part of the problem. The Democrats in the US, for instance, were careful not to make Donald Trump the sole rallying point of their narrative. Rather, it were the multiple crises, both at home and abroad, which had their origins in Trump’s
incompetence and lunacy that the Democrats successfully highlighted and swung the mandate in their favour.
Secondly, the battle is as much ideological as it is electoral. And while the BJP wears its ideology on its sleeve, the opposition is a confused lot. It does not know whether to oppose the abrogation of Article 370 and risk backlash by the majority, or support the move at the cost of alienating the minorities further. Similar dilemmas over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue hobbled the opposition. It becomes imperative then to shed these ideological ambiguities in favour of an articulate and unequivocal support to values and ideas it is wedded to. The opposition’s commitment to liberalism and secularism may risk a rout given the rising acceptance of majoritarian impulses but here it must learn from the BJP. The latter remained in political wilderness for the first three decades after independence but eventually made the journey from two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections to 282 in 2014. This is no longer about one or two elections and, therefore, ideological clarity will prepare the opposition for the long haul.
Thirdly, at a time when voters comfortably look beyond regional parties during general elections, the role of regional satraps like Mamata Banerjee or Arvind Kejriwal in stalling the BJP’s march remains unclear. The heavy lifting, therefore, has to be done by the grand old party which itself is suffering from the twin crisis of leadership and talent drain. It is leaderless, directionless, and simply does not have the appetite of a Modi-Shah BJP to win elections. The Congress is undoubtedly the elephant in the room. And it is this elephant’s performance that counts the most. In the 186 seats in 2019 where it was locked in a one-on-one battle with the BJP, it managed to secure a victory in only 16. Rahul Gandhi, although sharp and incisive on Twitter, is no match to the Modi-Shah duo who are full time politicians. The Gandhi family’s grip over the party means that room for others is bare minimum. Whether the Gandhi scion makes room for others and risks political wilderness will determine to a large extent the shape and form an anti-BJP alliance takes in 2024.
However, even if the opposition pulls out all the stops and knits a formidable alliance, it may still fail miserably unless its message is rooted in a new political vocabulary. While talks of saving the Constitution and the liberal-secular ideas it espouses may attract a lot of traction on Twitter, it does nothing to change the minds of ordinary Indians who are anyway hooked to the make-believe worlds of WhatsApp groups. A pushback through tweets will only take the opposition that far. It may cite Covid-19 for its failure to be on the ground but the truth is it was nowhere to be seen in the pre-Covid era either.
Three years is a long time in politics and much can change during this period. Results on May 2nd may add fresh impetus to the opposition’s efforts to present a combined challenge to the BJP. However, the latter isn’t a sitting duck either. It would happily utilise every trick in the book and even invent new ones to ward off any threat. But as Bismarck said, “Politics is the art of the impossible”, and Indian democracy has had a penchant for the impossible. Its time the opposition pulls off one.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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