It is unnerving indeed that the Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana this month and in Delhi in January next have evoked so much apathy and indifference. After the steamroller win of the NDA in the Lok Sabha elections, the Opposition has manifestly lost the will for a good fight.
For a nation fatigued by the Lok Sabha elections, the drubbing that the Opposition got has left the electorate dumb-founded. The battle has proved completely unequal on a battleground in which the Opposition and the ruling dispensation were on seemingly even keel at some stage.
It does not speak well of the maturity of our democracy that the current State polls are being fought not so much on bread and butter issues as on national governance with the backdrop of ‘there is no alternative’ to the present dispensation at the Centre led by Narendra Modi. Considering that these are assembly elections, one would have expected the Government to be put on the mat for poor civic amenities, lack of investment, rising unemployment, inflation and much else. Yet, the Fadnavis government has escaped virtually unscathed.
There are no local failures that the Opposition is exploiting to rake up public sentiment. There is a virtual policy paralysis in the Opposition just as there was in the second term of the Manmohan Singh stewardship when corruption skeletons were tumbling out of cupboards. The Opposition has caved in virtually without a fight, showing that it just did not have the mettle and the leadership to pose a formidable challenge that it once dreamed of. It is small wonder then that the recent exit polls have shown the voters en masse on the side of the BJP-led coalition while the Opposition seems nowhere in the reckoning.
For the BJP the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was the dominant poll plank, as if there were no local issues to fight about. The BJP has beaten the issue to pulp, damning Pakistan conveniently at every step and projecting the Congress as being soft towards the recalcitrant neighbour.
The Opposition on its part looked rudderless and devoid of energy, making one wonder what all that brave talk about displacing the Modi government at the Centre was all about only a few months ago when Opposition leaders were thundering about the need to give the country a new model of governance.
Unemployment and farmers’ distress were spoken about but the Opposition narrative lacked punch, direction and conviction. The whole thing, the whole poll ‘tamasha’ looks so unreal and devoid of logic.
With the Congress having won three crucial northern states a few months before the general elections, the slide in morale and such defeatism were not to be expected. The debacle should have been taken in its stride and the Opposition should have shown gumption and nerve. But devoid of real leaders as it was, the flanks of the leaders were exposed to the core. Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the largest Opposition party, the Congress, showed poor ability to fight back and the party’s other leaders couldn’t care less.
In the Lok Sabha polls, Rahul Gandhi had been punished, among other things, for his irresponsible utterances calling Prime Minister Modi a ‘chor’ (thief) in the Rafale deal without any evidence to support him. But, far from learning any lessons, Rahul repeated the same cheap rhetoric in his recent speeches. He seemed to be living in his own world at a time when he should have been garnering the resources in his party and building up the environment for a renewed fight.
The Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut seems unstoppable if the Opposition challenge is to be so feeble. There are those young turks in the Congress party who could build up the party afresh if given a free hand. These include Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Milind Deora, among a few others but they lack the spine to challenge the party high command.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati are busy protecting their own turf while Chandrababu Naidu who was so vocal against the BJP high command including Modi has gone into a shell after his party was decimated in the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls.
At this rate, the Modi government would start considering itself invincible, and accountability, which has always been a casualty, will erode further. While a strong government is necessary, a strong Opposition is as much essential to keep the government on its toes.
Loose accountability detracts from giving the country its due governance. There ought to be healthy but sharp debates in Parliament and assemblies for governments to feel the pressure to deliver results. For this, it is imperative that new leaders emerge from time to time and old but promising leaders be groomed for better deliverance.
There is no denying that the country sorely needs electoral reforms. But in the absence of pressure from a well-organised Opposition, such demands would fall by the wayside.
The move for simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha, all State assemblies and even panchayats would be potent if there is a well-oiled system in place. There would be little point if local issues slip into the background and be dominated even more than today by national issues which have little relevance to local needs.
The writer is a political commentator and columnist.
He has authored four books.