Adversity does produce strange bedfellows. After the mind-numbing shock from the recent Assembly outcome, the Opposition seems to have become desperate. It may be already hurtling towards a patchwork unity—only to break up in pieces soon afterwards when voters once again spurn it. The search for an instant solution to end its growing misery has seen the hitherto bitter enemies cooperate with one another, both inside and outside Parliament.
The fear of a rising Narendra Modi, who has established a bond with the ordinary voters, has so gripped the Opposition that the Samajwadi Party and the BSP are beginning to work together. Mamata Banerjee would be ready to shed her antipathy towards the Left, which is fast losing ground to a more assertive BJP, to stitch together a seat-sharing arrangement for the sake of checkmating Modi at the national level. In Odisha, BJP’s recent successes in the local bodies’ elections have already exposed the deep fault-lines in Naveen Patnaik’s shaky facade. He may consider tying up with the Congress to repulse the Modi threat.
As for the Gandhis, they cannot even begin to identify themselves with the poor before they are dismissed as charlatans, staking claim to power on the basis of pedigree. Lalus and Mayawatis and Akhilesh Yadavs come from the same socio-economic milieu as Modi, but they were sucked into the corrupt and criminal political order, while Modi has managed to stay untainted. Communists are too insignificant to matter in a national election.
The battle for India is always fought in the Hindi heartland, with the South and the Northeast virtually going along with whoever emerges the winner in Delhi. As of now, the rival DMKs will compete to sup with Modi. So will the few Congress Chief Ministers, who owe their jobs to their own popularity, rather than to the Gandhis. And Karnataka is all set to fall in the lap of the BJP regardless of the certain alliance between the Congress and the JD(S) in the coming Assembly elections.
But such opportunistic combinations without any programmatic unity, without an actual meeting of hearts and minds, can prove counterproductive. The argument that the Bihar Mahagathbandhan had stopped the Modi juggernaut fails to appreciate the fact that the BJP in the state was never a major force, its core support-base having been hived off into a separate Jharkhand state. In the event, contrary to the popular impression the BJP did well in the November 2015 Assembly elections. The truism that in electoral politics that two plus two do not necessarily make four—and can in fact add up to three or even less—is as relevant today as it was back in 1971.
No lessons seem to have been learned from that fiasco of a haphazard gang-up against a common enemy. At that time, despite the four-party seat-sharing pact, an ascendant Indira Gandhi had extinguished the challenge most convincingly. Leaders of the four parties, who were beaten fairly and squarely by Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao” campaign, were all men of stature. In comparison, there is now an abject poverty of talent on the Opposition benches.
In sharp contrast, Indira Gandhi’s claim to fame till that watershed Lok Sabha elections was that she was born a Nehru. She had also profited from entering into matrimony with a Ghandy (Parsi for liquor trader) who became a Gandhi. The most formidable Opposition group at that time was the Jana Sangh, the previous avatar of the BJP. Balraj Madhok, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Nanaji Deshmukh and L.K. Advani, all men of stature, had dedicated their lives to the building of a credible Opposition against all odds.
The trouble is that the current Opposition neither has men and women of talent who invoke popular respect. Nor does it have a charismatic leader a la Indira Gandhi. Now, Modi might lack the stature of a Vajpayee or a Morarji Desai, but in the charisma department there is no doubt that nobody in the political firmament comes anywhere near him. Indeed, his record testifies fully that he has easily surpassed the best the Jana Sangh-BJP could achieve in terms of electoral success in the Vajpayee-Advani era.
But Modi hasn’t had to compete for votes against a Nehru- or an Indira-led Congress. Thanks to the sharp erosion in the appeal of the controlling family of the Congress and the rise of the vote-cutting regional groups, the task of BJP, virtually the new Congress, had made Modi’s task of sweeping elections that much more easier.
Modi has been able to notch stupendous success by openly embracing populism and by directly reaching out to the poor, something which other BJP leaders had pointedly refrained from doing. Modi appeals to the poor and the under-privileged, who by sheer default had hitherto rooted for the Congress and other regional outfits. The core Brahmin-Bania-middle-class constituency of the Jana Sangh-BJP even if unhappy with stringent measures meant to ensure tax honesty, had per force stayed loyal, while the accretion of new voters from the economically weaker sections facilitated the huge BJP win.
Which brings us to the original assertion about the mounting troubles of the Opposition. Had Modi not roped in the poor and the weak, there was every likelihood of the Opposition getting the better of him in the coming electoral battles. But Modi is further bolstered by the intensive organisational preparedness undertaken by a demanding party boss, Amit Shah. The duo is unlikely to loosen its grip on the newly acquired constituency of the weaker sections.
The point is that Modi holds all the aces in his hand right now. He sets the agenda, determines the popular narrative and out-foxes the Opposition at every step, by marketing his government as pro-poor and pro-reforms. The impending implementation of GST, a slew of stringent steps to force the rich to become honest taxpayers, targeted subsidy-delivery, etc., are all steps meant to make the Modi government more efficient, more popular. Under such circumstances, an Opposition bereft of a clever idea, an appealing programme, and, above all, an imaginative leader with a strong connect with the people can hardly expect to meet the Modi challenge now or in the near future.