For much of the 70 years since Independence, Indian politics has presented a picture of lively contestation. One side or another has invariably prevailed in electoral battles but this outcome was preceded by fierce encounters that were principally aimed at trying to secure converts from the other side. In other words, both sides—whether in government or the opposition—were clear that persuasion through democratic means was at the heart of politics. Both sides kept their doors open for new arrivals and, by implication, for departures. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the Congress was enriched by the entry of those who had earlier been associated with the socialist politics of Jaya Prakash Narayan and Acharya Narendra Dev.
The party also bolstered its radical credentials when, in line with the policy of ‘entry-ism’ many Communists joined it in the hope of creating a revolution from within. Conversely, the Congress also experienced the departure of pro-marketeers and kisan populists in protest against Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist tilt. And after serious electoral setbacks, all political parties have witnessed expedient desertions.
The past three years have witnessed a familiar churning process in Indian politics. The BJP, which had overshadowed other anti-Congress parties after the Ayodhya movement, continued its forward move. Having found an inspirational leader in Narendra Modi it overwhelmed a dispirited Congress in 2014 and won a majority of Lok Sabha seats on its own. Thereafter, despite two electoral setbacks in 2015, it has continued its political journey by consolidating itself in the Hindi heartland and making gains in non-traditional areas such as Assam and Manipur. Last month, in an audacious coup, it regained control over Bihar and momentarily Opposition hopes of a grand anti-BJP alliance in the 2019 general election.
The process of political domination was further strengthened by the handsome victories of BJP-endorsed candidates for the posts of President and Vice President of India. In both the contests, the BJP secured support beyond the membership of the National Democratic Alliance. In the election for Vice President, there are suggestions that a significant number of MPs from regional parties such as the Trinamool Congress and Biju Janata Dal voted for M. Venkiah Naidu. Maybe all the calculations weren’t fulfilled in the recent Rajya Sabha election where Sonia Gandhi’s close associate Ahmed Patel beat of a determined BJP challenge by a whisker and technicalities. However, it is important to remember that the challenge arose because the Congress in Gujarat was imploding.
The factors behind the apparent and uninterrupted growth of the BJP has no doubt received attention—although there is excessive emphasis on Amit Shah’s machine politics rather than the silent social revolution being brought about by governance. What seems to have been less analysed is the corresponding decline in the fortunes of the Congress, the Left and some of the regional parties.
That the anti-BJP forces were left stupefied by the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh election was evident on counting day. They were also left fumbling for answers when Nitish Kumar decided that the demands of probity demanded he scuttle his alliance with Laloo Yadav and re-establish his links with the BJP. The surprise element in both UP and Bihar contributed immeasurably to the sense of dejection and demoralisation in the opposition ranks. This desperation showed when the Congress used the aftermath of Bihar and its fall from number one position in the Rajya Sabha to go in for a campaign of parliamentary disruption—egged on by the Trinamool Congress whose supremo is busy fighting a no-holds-barred battle against the BJP in West Bengal.
The reality of decline appears to have belatedly sunk into the anti-BJP forces, particularly the Congress. However, the awkward question that is not being asked is: why did the opposition get it so wrong? It is possible that the tide of public opinion was flowing strongly with the Prime Minister. The flow was possibly even irreversible at this juncture. For the opposition the real miscalculation lay in being so out of tune with the public mood. From the day of demonetisation till the Bihar U-turn of Nitish Kumar the anti-BJP forces proceeded on the specious assumption that Modi was heading for a mighty fall and that it was riding the crest of anti-incumbency against the Centre. This assumption was based entirely on anecdotal evidence and media inputs.
Blaming Rahul Gandhi for his casual approach to politics is not a sufficient explanation. If the mood was indeed anti-BJP, Rahul’s uninspiring leadership wouldn’t have made any difference. The issue the opposition seems wary of addressing centres on the deficiencies in their information systems. There is an entire eco-system that has been built and nurtured on the assumption that the people don’t relate at all with Modi’s plans of disruptive change and that the BJP’s success owes entirely to creeping authoritarianism. Consequently, the steady erosion in Congress support and the steady trickle of departures from the party have been attributed to high-handedness. This, for example, was at the heart of the opposition narrative in Parliament during the Quit India movement anniversary debate. There is also a corresponding belief that arithmetical aggregation can resolve all problems.
The opposition, it would seem, has become a prisoner of its own narrative. If the government is indeed as clumsy, regressive and anti-people as is projected, how did a significant number of opposition MLAs and MPs silently but wilfully side with the BJP at the presidential and vice presidential elections? Why did the Janata Dal (United) MLAs in Bihar not revolt against Nitish Kumar if his decision was indeed as crassly opportunistic as is made out to be? Why are senior Congress leaders deserting the party in state after state?
The real problem confronting the opposition is that it is now inclined to shut out uncomfortable voices from the ground in favour of contrived good news. It is living in a ghetto built on visceral hatred of Modi. Alas, as of now, it is a House of Cards.
The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha