With the Opposition unable to counter the government, any opposition will have to come from the streets and not Parliament.

 

New Delhi: As the year turns, let’s take a look at the political markers for 2021. The one that stands out is not the three state elections due during the year, but rather a problem that came from the In-Tray of 2020: the farmers’ protests against the three reform bills passed by the Central government. While the government has tried to dismiss these off as region specific protests, the large numbers gathering at the capital’s borders must be a source of worry. Unlike the CAA protests, the Sikh farmer cannot be ignored or brushed away as anti-nationals. As the protesting farmers themselves point out, who will fight China at the borders if not the Sikhs in the Army? And who will put food on your table if not the farmers from Punjab? Countering this narrative has not been easy for the government because the protesting farmer comes armed with its own YouTube channel, tiffin box and wifi connections. It’s also a very smart protest where press conferences are regularly held to counter any spin being put forward by the government spokesmen. Although the government did realise somewhat late in the day that Rajnath Singh made for better optics than the pro-industry Piyush Goyal as a mediator, the farmers have managed to sell the Ambani-Adani angle to these bills rather comprehensively.

The larger takeaway from all this is that with the Opposition unable to counter the government, any opposition will have to come from the streets and not Parliament. We saw this with the anti-CAA protests and we are seeing it now with the farmers. These protests are as much a statement on the Opposition as they are about the government. For don’t forget that the first strike against the UPA came from the streets, when Anna Hazare led a movement against corruption in the Congress-led government. The BJP moved in soon after. Can the Congress ride piggyback on the farmers’ protests? Well it tried, but with all things Congress, it was not a consistent effort. One day Rahul Gandhi led a delegation armed with two crore signatures against these bills to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the next day he caught a flight to Milan. This is not how politics works, take a look at the protesting farmer who has left his home and brought his aged mother along to camp out on the streets, braving the cold winter evening after evening.

Hence, one doesn’t expect the Congress to mount a comprehensive attack against the Narendra Modi government. Can the rest of the Opposition unite under another leader, like Sharad Pawar? Certainly the NCP leader has indicated that he would not be averse to donning the mantle of UPA chairperson, given that Sonia Gandhi is stepping back from active politics. Certainly he has the heft and connect with other regional leaders to bring them all onto one platform as he did at a micro-level in Maharashtra recently. There is an argument in favour of a non Congress leader being in charge of the UPA and this is not a comment on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. Since the Congress is a pan India party it contests elections, along—and against—various UPA allies in each state. Hence, it may not be best placed to take the most objective decisions as to how to counter Modi. And in the past too, it is not always the leader of the largest party that has headed an alliance for there is a precedent in the case of NTR heading the National Front.

There are three state elections due this year, of which West Bengal promises to be the most thrilling, with the BJP mounting a serious challenge to Mamata Banerjee. Already Amit Shah’s road shows are getting crowds, while the Congress is still to make its presence felt in the state. In Assam too, after Tarun Gogoi, the Congress lacks a tall leader, while the BJP has Himanta Biswa Sarma. The third state of Tamil Nadu, is the only state where the BJP does not have a presence. The Congress has tied up with DMK, while the BJP is experimenting with various factions of the AIADMK and this is one state where neither national party is in the driver’s seat. Hence, this would be a good period for the Congress to look inwards and set its own house in order before the semi-finals in 2022 (the Uttar Pradesh elections). For starters, it can choose an active, full time party president.

As for the Prime Minister, with the BJP enjoying a smooth electoral run under his leadership, perhaps it is now time to fix the economy. The economy remains Modi’s biggest and most elusive challenge. In fact the first big challenge of 2021, will be the post lockdown Union Budget.

Will Modi be able to get his sums right? For, as the Bihar polls have shown, the economy is slowly creeping into the poll narrative. This was perhaps the first election in recent times that was fought on jobs and not Hindutva alone. If Modi doesn’t get jobs back on the table and the farmers off the streets, then he could face his first real challenge since he took office as PM.