With just about 12 months left for voting in the 2019 general election to commence, it is only natural that political activity is getting more and more frenzied. It is also natural that the opening shots of this long and gruelling election campaign are being fired by the opposition. Being in government and having control over the state, the ruling party has the relatively non-glamorous work of governance to focus on. Since the opposition has no such luxury, its emphasis on grabbing the headlines at any cost—even if it means doing the political equivalent of streaking across the pitch during a tense IPL game—is perfectly understandable, if simultaneously both disruptive and disruptive.
The demands of being noticed often necessitate polemical excesses and even adventurism.I guess adventurism was inherent in the notice for the impeachment of the Chief Justice of India that was submitted by Congress and Left MPs of the Rajya Sabha. The champions of impeachment were fully aware that there was little chance of the Rajya Sabha chairman giving a green signal to the proceedings, more so since the charges against Chief Justice were based on suspicion rather than established fact. Nor did the clutch of lawyer-MPs, linked to the erstwhile political Establishment, really believe that the impeachment motion had the slightest chance of being passed in the Rajya Sabha by a two-third majority. The real reason was to fish in the troubled waters of an intra-judiciary dispute and make the highest court of the land dysfunctional by crippling the Chief Justice.
Maybe it also had something to do with delaying a verdict on the Ayodhya dispute beyond the general election or possibly it had something to do with securing the appointment of an interim Chief Justice. Whatever the motives, there is little doubt that this was political adventurism in full play. The second half of the Budget session had been totally non-productive, thanks to the sustained disruption of Parliament by MPs from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and the Congress and Trinamool Congress. Had yet another pillar of the state been involved in an unseemly controversy, Indian democracy would have been engulfed in an almighty crisis which in turn would have affected governance and, by implication, the standing of the Narendra Modi government.
India would have experienced the sort of political paralysis that used to be the hallmark of neighbouring states such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. From a narrow political perspective, the determination of the Congress to create a national crisis would have been understandable had there been evidence that the BJP government was badly faltering. That, however, does not seem to be the case. There may be hiccups in some sectors but the overall economic growth that India has been experiencing remains unaffected. The disruptions caused by demonetisation and introduction of GST are fast being ironed out.
Even the growth in new jobs is encouraging. Most important—apart from a few by-elections—there is nothing to suggest that the BJP election machine is in disarray. The party is giving the incumbent Congress government in Karnataka a run for its money and the outcome on May 18 may even bring smiles to the faces of Modi and Amit Shah.Had the Congress’ adventurism been an extension of widespread mass discontent and a movement that resembled, say, the JP movement of 1973-75, Modi would have reasons to be seriously concerned. However, both the disruptions in Parliament and the attempted palace coup in the Supreme Court were substitutes for mass action. They were undertaken precisely because they involved no popular participation.There are two discernible reasons for the Congress overplaying its hand at this stage.
First, within the Opposition ecosystem there is as yet no clarity on the battlelines for 2019. Ideally, all the parties would love to put up a single candidate against the NDA in each constituency. That possibility should not be entirely discounted. However, there is still a big gulf between the proponents of a Federal Front where the lead is taken by the regional leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, K Chandrasekhar Rao, N Chandrababu Naidu and M K Stalin and a Congress-led front that posits Rahul Gandhi as the alternative to Modi. The Congress is clearly looking to pitch Rahul as the alternative to Modi in an election that could be quasi-presidential. However, since the support for the Congress is unevenly spread across India, such an election strategy may lack penetration.
The present shenanigans were aimed at demonstrating that the Congress, and only the Congress possesses the ability to inject politics with extra fire power.Then there is the growing desperation of the old Establishment that is finding itself edged out of positions of power and influence. Beginning from those who once held grace and favour appointments and extending to the influence peddlers in business, academia and media, there is profound unease over the possibility of Modi securing another term. The projection of Rahul Gandhi as the alternative to Modi was not an organic process that was a consequence of stirrings from below. It was a manufactured exercise involving a grudging acceptance of the third best weapon available—after the attempts to project Arvind Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar came to nought. It is also a risky venture that doesn’t have the ability to bear short-term setbacks. This explains why old fashioned electoral politics and the more modern battles on social media had to be complemented by manipulation of some strategic institutions. In democracies, the will of the people is just one input into politics. The importance of elite manipulation should not be discounted. India is at present witnessing an overdose of a small number of people plotting their return to power and prominence. The voters are passive observers.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.