If earnestness and good intent could win the majority in a large general election of a country like India, voting for 543 seats, then the newly-formed Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) would have stood a good chance of making it to the finish line. However, a general election, that too in a polity which has seen the gradual diminishing of its democratic structure and institutions over the past nearly ten years, calls for a great deal more.
From a large bank of resources and generous funders to coordinated campaigns and a consistent show of unified purpose – not unity for that would be difficult for parties in the alliance that are inherently opposed to each other – this election challenging the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi would need all this and more.
At the end of its two-day meeting in Mumbai, its third in recent months, the INDIA bloc has expanded to 28-29 political parties which include seven sitting chief ministers of as many states, formed a coordination committee of 13-14 representatives of the parties, decided on their slogan — Judega Bharat, Jeetega India — which has found resonance in the time of hate-filled public discourse and politics, and have passed resolutions affirming that they will contest the forthcoming general elections jointly “as far as possible”
For disparate political parties, a large majority of which are regional and therefore different from each other, this is no mean task. The resolutions and the press conferences send out a message of cooperation and accommodation which are badly needed among the opposition. Rashtriya Janata Dal patriarch Lalu Prasad Yadav even stated that there would be “sacrifices if necessary”.
So far, the INDIA bloc has demonstrated its willingness to set aside their differences — even contradictions such as those which exist in West Bengal between the Left and Trinamool Congress or in Maharashtra between Shiv Sena and Congress or in Delhi between the Aam Aadmi Party and Congress — with the singular purpose of unseating BJP-Modi. Much depends upon how this accommodative spirit extends into seat-sharing and making most seats into a binary contest between the BJP or its allies and the INDIA bloc candidates. It is in the alliance’s interest to not walk into the trap that this election is about reaffirming faith in one leader, Modi. Instead, it needs to speak of mudda or issues such as inflation, joblessness, economic slowdown, unbridled cronyism, national security and Chinese incursion into India’s territory.
Perhaps rattled by the INDIA bloc, the government hastily announced a special five-day session of the Parliament in mid-September during which, according to reports, it would table the Bill for ‘one nation, one election’. If this comes to pass, then the BJP would be playing its strongest suit — Modi — by fusing the state elections with the general election whenever that is held. The advantage in this, as psephologists have shown, is that national parties outscore and outshine regional parties by a wide margin; the election itself becomes a singular personality-oriented presidential-style one. If this happens, Modi has a clear advantage over the Opposition alliance and the latter’s work is likely to become even more difficult.
Yet, this obsession of the ruling dispensation with ‘one nation one election’ which translates on the ground as ‘one nation, one election, one man’ can only harm India’s federal and democratic structure. The reason for this is given as constant electioneering mode, steep expenditure, and disruption to normal life. The Election Commission of India spends approximately ₹8,000 crore — over five years — for general and state elections, in which nearly 600 million exercise their franchise. How is this expensive? The constant election mode is what Modi and Amit Shah have turned the polity into, especially in the past five years; it need not have been so. The implications of ‘one nation one election’ hardly inspire confidence that federalism and democratic polity will not be adversely affected. Regional and smaller national parties start with a disadvantage.
The next few weeks are likely to be among the most critical and decisive in India’s contemporary history, testing the strength of its democracy itself. The Opposition INDIA bloc has great responsibility to not only challenge Modi-BJP but ensure that the country’s federal democratic structure survives.