The opposition needs to offer a comprehensive socio-economic agenda that is different from the BJP’s and which can form the basis for a successful electoral challenge to Modi and the NDA in 2019.
New Delhi: The ‘BJP Bhagao, Desh Bachao‘ rally, called by the Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Patna on Sunday, had assumed great significance, especially after the Mahagathbandhan government in Bihar, comprising the RJD and Janata Dal (United), collapsed last month. Projected to showcase opposition strength in the face of that debacle, it was the first such gathering of various political parties and their supporters. The grand call to “oust the BJP and save the country” at a time when the saffron party is in power in all the north Indian states, except Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Punjab, was not only viewed by observers as gutsy but also one of the the first serious attempts to launch a spirited attack on the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which has been profiting from an opposition in disarray.
By conventional metrics, the rally was undoubtedly a success. Not only did thousands of people participate but the presence of a wide range of non-NDA parties indicated a renewed resolve on their part to try and act in concert. Joined by the Congress, Samajwadi Party (SP), Trinamool Congress (TMC), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Communist Party of India (CPI), Revolutionary Socialist Party, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Janata Dal (Secular), Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM), the Assam-based All India United Democratic Front and a section of Janata Dal (United) led by rebel leaders Sharad Yadav and Ali Anwar, the rally presented a leadership that represented all corners of India. United in its opposition to communalism and the NDA’s alleged poor governance over the past three years, the rally was a sign that the opposition intends to take on the BJP on these two issues as it moves forward.
However, the question that comes up at present is whether this show of unity is too little too late. In other words, will this opposition unity prove to be sufficient in derailing the BJP’s muscular bandwagon in 2019 general election?
The question assumes importance because of three reasons.
First, in the past three years, the Narendra Modi government has consistently outsmarted the opposition. It has captured the political narrative in an unprecedented way. Talks of a united opposition has been doing the rounds ever since the BJP came to power. But none of these stray efforts materialised because of state-level impediments.
The fact is that most state-level parties are battling their own regional demons. For instance, with a raging feud between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav, the SP has its own house to clean first.
Moreoever, the RJD’s perception as a corrupt and dynastic party will prove to be a roadblock for its success. The NCP, too, has had a love-hate relationship with the emerging anti-NDA forces in the past three years. Congress, the only national party, on the other hand, is facing its worst ever crisis. Regional players like the TMC, DMK, JD(S), JMM or JVM are too enmeshed in state politics to lead the opposition struggle. The breakaway faction of JD(U) does not have any mass support to claim as its own. The Left parties, too, have to resolve their intra-party ideological debate before being seen as a credible national force to take on the BJP.
Although the success of the rally provides a way forward for the opposition both strategically and tactically, it would require a huge amount of investment for the opposition leaders to set aside their myopia and launch a concerted ideological attack against the BJP. One cannot ignore the fact the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayawati, and the biggest left force, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), chose to remain outside this show of strength.
If any oppositional impulse in the past three years has made the Modi government uncomfortable, it is the independent Dalit movements across the country and Leftist opposition in states like Kerala and Tripura. The inability of the opposition leaders to convince natural allies like the BSP and the CPI(M) to join Sunday’s rally may prove to be the Achilles’s heel of such a grand alliance.
Unlike the Mahagathbandhan, none of the parties which participated in the rally will form a formidable opposition to the BJP in different states, even if they contest together. With such low electoral significance, the parties may find it difficult to stick together if they do not unite on a common minimum agenda, which is currently missing in the scheme of things.
Second, the opposition leaders have always needed a strong jolt to act. Until the time the mahagathbandhan government won in Bihar, a large part of the opposition remained unimaginative and plagued with chronic lethargy. It was only after the RJD-JD(U) alliance won with a handsome majority that the idea of opposition unity dawned upon the BJP’s adversaries. One may recall that Lalu Prasad Yadav, immediately after winning the Bihar assembly polls, announced grandiosely that he would launch a nation-wide movement against the BJP with the help of opposition leaders. Instead, he and his would-be allies slipped into greater complacency. It took the defection of Nitish Kumar – who was being projected as the one leader who could take on Modi nationally – to shake up the leaders again.
Third, while the BJP has been campaigning to consolidate Hindu votes, irrespective of caste and sects, at the cost of minorities, the opposition leaders have not been able to think at this large a scale. Most of them still rely on their traditional caste-based supporters and are trying to forge ground level alliances on that basis. The temporary success of the mahagathbandhan reaffirmed their old beliefs; however with its failure, the opposition may have to look at other possibilities.
If the opposition limits itself to the search for tactical alliances in which a central role is played by caste and community-related issues, there is a danger that the future battle lines in Indian politics will be devoid of any real socio-economic agenda. Such an outcome may help the BJP in its agenda of Hindu consolidation, a possibility that the opposition cannot ignore if it is serious about taking on the BJP in 2019.
Despite this danger, the fact that the opposition unity project even got off the ground is likely to raise hopes among people who are reeling under the pressure of rising unemployment and higher prices. Now that the opposition appears to have consolidated this support – irrespective of caste and communitarian equations – and hopes to bring in Dalits and other minority groups into this fold, it has the task of ensuring that the unity lasts.
But for that to happen, the opposition will have to set aside its short-term political interests and re-imagine itself as a broader political alternative to the BJP’s agenda. ‘Communalism’ and ‘poor governance’ may be worthwhile themes for it to raise in its campaign against the BJP but the real challenge would be to successfully offer a comprehensive socio-economic agenda that is different from the BJP’s and which can form the basis for a successful electoral challenge to Modi and the NDA in 2019.