For all the hoopla over the Opposition gaining ground for the crucial 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the perception battle is still heavily loaded in favour of the BJP. If the BJP loss in byelections in some states and the failure to form a government in Karnataka despite being the single largest party were indicative of a limited trend reversal against the BJP, the ignominious defeat of the combined Opposition in the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha and the latest wins in two Maharashtra civic body contests — Sangli and Jalgaon — signify a movement away from the Opposition again.
In a country so vast and diverse as India, these are too small to come to any conclusion either way. But they indicate in a limited way which way the wind may be blowing. Increasingly, the people are seemingly perceiving that Opposition unity is nothing but a mirage and that when it comes to deciding who would lead the Opposition pack, there would be many claimants and many discordant voices.
While in Sangli it was the Congress-NCP combine that was mauled by the BJP, in Jalgaon it was the enemy in friend’s clothing the Shiv Sena that was roundly beaten. The most glaring lacuna of the Opposition is that it has no alternative programme and seems to survive on negativism with a shrill anti-Modi campaign its sole focus. In terms of perception, the message that goes out is remove Modi and then we will decide what we do with the country. Clearly, this makes a mockery of the people and credits them with much less intelligence than they actually have after decades of experience of polls.
The leadership question is a major stumbling block for the Opposition. While on one hand, in the BJP there is a clear, unchallenged leader in Narendra Modi, in the Opposition there is a plethora of leaders, each thinking he or she is the best suited. The Congress has anointed Rahul Gandhi as its choice for leader as opposed to Modi but it is in a blind alley on who else is in the queue from among the regional leaders. The stormy petrel of West Bengal politics Mamata Banerjee is apparently in the race and perhaps so is UP’s Mayawati but if either of them were to be announced as the Opposition nominee, the Opposition consensus on putting up a joint front against Modi would fade away.
On Sunday, Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar mooted the idea of he, Sonia Gandhi and H D Deve Gowda touring the country and mobilising consensus against the BJP but while he said none of them will be a candidate, who will they mobilise support for is the key question. An Opposition without a common leader would be a non-starter. Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao made it known after a meeting with the prime minister that he could decide on an arrangement with the BJP after the parliamentary elections.
Talking of perception, the Congress can hardly wipe off the stigma of being a corrupt party after the experience with the scams during the UPA regime. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, the noose is tightening around some Congress leaders but the perception of a witch-hunt is not strong enough to dent the Modi government’s credibility. It is yet too early for Rahul Gandhi to be seen as a knight in shining armour who will rid the party of corrupt elements. His image is essentially of a status quoist who is tied to the coat strings of his mother Sonia and her band of dubious advisers, with a sprinkling of a few new bright, young faces recently empowered by Rahul.
The Congress is not viewed as a party in which the dynamic young have taken over the reins from the decadent old guard. The other related strand in perception is that the Congress is a party of dynasts. Adding to the biggest dynast Raul Gandhi who is the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family are the likes of Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora, Sandeep Dikshit, Sushmita Dev and countless others, some of whom may be talented, but they adorn positions primarily due to their ancestry.
Another major perception that has got strengthened in recent years is that the Congress is a party of minorities appeasement and is essentially anti-Hindu. That feeling has grown in recent years and for good reason. As rightly emphasised in the AK Antony report, this “perceived” minority appeasement by the party was one of the reasons that led to the Congress’ rout in the 2014 general elections.
Dr Manmohan Singh fuelled that feeling when in 2006 he said that plans for minorities, particularly Muslims, must have the “first claim” on resources so that benefits of development reach them equitably. And then in 2007, when the UPA government filed a controversial affidavit on Ram Setu in the Supreme Court, denying the existence of Lord Ram, it marked the beginning of the party’s decline.
Though Rahul made feeble attempts to reach out to the Hindus during the Gujarat and Karnataka assembly polls, Rahul Gandhi’s meeting with Muslim intellectuals and activists sparked another controversy where reports were rife that he claimed the Congress to be a Muslim party. While the Congress denied the reports, the damage was already done. The confused Congress stand on illegal Bangladeshi immigrants has added to the pro-Muslim, anti-Hindu perception of the people of Assam as elsewhere. Through all this, the BJP has exploited the Congress’ increasingly pro-minorities sentiment to the hilt.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.