In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, the biggest question is — can a depleted I.N.D.I.A take on the might of the Narendra Modi-led BJP? The I.N.D.I.A alliance started off on a high note when it held its first meeting in Patna. Then Nitish Kumar was the initiator of the Opposition grouping and it was believed that if the Opposition could come together then the BJP would have a tough time in the 2024 general elections. The Patna meeing was followed by two more meetings, one in Bengaluru and another in Mumbai. It seemed that the Opposition was gaining momentum and the BJP was defensive.
The BJP, which probably did not expect that the Opposition grouping would be so smooth, came into action and overnight organised a meeting of 38 political parties, compared to I.N.D.I.A’s 28. This was a sign that the NDA was not confident and it was rattled by the Opposition’s unity efforts. This was also the time when Congress had humiliatingly defeated the BJP in the Karnataka Assembly elections despite Prime Minister Modi’s blitzkrieg. This was the time when the narrative was in favour of the Opposition. Meanwhile Assembly elections in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh along with Mizoram and Telangana were also to be held.
Political analysts, and even those who sympathised with the BJP and Modi, were of the opinion that the Congress would comfortably win MP and Chhattisgarh. In Rajasthan the BJP seemed to have an edge, and there was a tough fight in Telangana. As the election gained momentum, to everyone’s surprise, the tide in Telangana turned in favour of the Congress and the BJP which was supposed to make another breakthrough in another southern states other than Karnataka, lost the momentum and when results were announced, the BJP was nowhere to be seen. The Congress won a handsome victory in Telangana, defeating the mighty BRS, led by KCR. But most surprisingly, the Congress lost all three Hindi-speaking states. The defeat in MP and Chhattisgarh was terrifying. The Congress was stunned by the defeat in Chhattisgarh as this was the state where everyone took the Congress’s victory for granted. The December defeat proved to be the Waterloo for the entire Opposition. And the momentum which was built in favour of the Opposition evaporated overnight. Three things have gone wrong with the I.N.D.I.A alliance.
1. After the Mumbai meeting, leaders of the Opposition unity did not take any initiative. Partly the Congress is to be blamed. But leaders of the other political parties should also share the blame. The Congress was overconfident of its victories in three states — MP, Chhattisgarh and Telangana. No doubt, victories in these states would have been a great morale-booster for the entire Opposition; it would have created a winning narrative, the cadre would have been enthused and I.N.D.I.A would have gained the confidence of the people that Modi could be vanquished. The Opposition erred in not having a Plan B.
If the Congress was busy in elections, other senior members should have taken the lead and done the groundwork which was needed to keep the momentum going. Nothing was done. Leaders like Nitish rather blamed the Congress, knowing fully well that the party was submerged in an electoral battle. Leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Pawar, Kejriwal, Thackeray all just sat idle. And once the Congress lost badly, the snide remarks by the Opposition parties did more damage than the defeat. The perception grew that members of I.N.D.I.A were quarrelling among themselves.
2. Despite big claims, no effort was ever made to make an alternative vision document. Till the time of writing, no formal discussion was ever initiated to discuss what socio-political-economic policy alternative they have to counter the BJP ideology and its narrative for 2024. This was very important for two simple reasons. Unlike in the past, Indian politics today has become more ideological. The BJP led by Modi, since forming the government in 2014, has aggressively pursued Hindutva, which is the core of RSS ideology. It has consistently attacked the Nehruvian consensus which has been the guiding principle for all the governments since Independence. But now that consensus is broken and BJP has made every effort to make Nehru and his legacy irrelevant. It is no longer fashionable to be Nehruvian. An ideology can only be challenged by an ideology. To counter Hindutva, I.N.D.I.A should have invented a cohesive thought process. It has failed miserably. That has created a perception that I.N.D.I.A alliance is bereft of any idea or ideology.
Secondly, the alternative vision — shared by all the Opposition leaders speaking the same ideological language — would have presented a sense of cohesion and purpose to the people of India. Modi is no ordinary leader. To defeat him, an equally strong and formidable alternative has to be presented nationally. It was not important to have a prime ministerial face to counter Modi but a clearly defined alternative and cohesive thought process would have definitely attracted all those who don’t subscribe to Modi and his brand of politics. This failure is more disruptive than the exodus of I.N.D.I.A leaders to the BJP camp.
3. Non-election of a convenor for I.N.D.I.A was a blunder. No organisation can move effectively in the absence of an administrative head. Till today, nobody knows why a convenor was not chosen. It was widely believed that Nitish Kumar would be the ideal candidate for the job. Ever since he left the BJP, it was assumed that he would be the chosen one. But at the meeting held on December 19 in Delhi, it was apparent that there were two opinions about his name. Mamata in her pre-emptive move proposed Mallikarjun Kharge’s name as the prime ministerial face which he politely refused. But it was a clear signal to Nitish that he was not acceptable as the convenor. Kharge was chosen as the president. But the message was clear that I.N.D.I.A alliance was no longer a cohesive unit, its leaders were fighting among themselves and there was no sense of urgency and seriousness to fight Modi. Nitish Kumar deserting I.N.D.I.A was the fatal blow to the efforts of Opposition unity. It was a masterstroke in the true sense by Modi. Nitish’s exit was followed by toxic statements between Mamata Banerjee and Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury in Bengal. Akhilesh Yadav and AAP leaders were also sarcastic in their utterance on the issue of seat adjustment with the Congress. And Jayant Chaudhary too had given enough hints that he is ready to switch sides.
On the other hand, Modi had his plan ready. As the BJP won three Hindi-speaking states, it followed it up with the one-month ceremony of the Ram Mandir consecration. It awarded Karpoori Thakur the Bharat Ratna to lure Nitish Kumar and the most backward communities among the OBC block. To further consolidate its Hindutva vote it conferred the Bharat Ratna on L K Advani. To assuage the feelings of angry farmers, Charan Singh was chosen for another Bharat Ratna. The announcement of the names of Narasimha Rao and M S Swaminathan for Bharat Ratna were also aimed at the voters of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
It is sad but true that today, the I.N.D.I.A alliance looks disjointed. The Modi-led NDA is riding high. In this context, to assume that I.N.D.I.A will be in a position to seriously challenge Modi is a distant dream. It is unfortunate for democracy. Democracy not only needs a strong government but also a strong Opposition. A weak Opposition is not a good sign for the health of Indian democracy and the republic.
The writer is Editor, SatyaHindi.com, and author of Hindu Rashtra. He tweets at @ashutosh83B