In 2004, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national executive, held on January 11-12, decided to advance General Election that year by six months (from October to April-May), the Opposition at that time was in much deeper trouble than it is today. The stature of the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi, a political novice then, was no match to that of the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had 50 years of long experience in electoral politics. At least Rahul Gandhi today is more vocal and lethal in his attack on the government than her mother then.
Yet, when the election results came on May 13, 2004, the hurriedly cobbled-up opposition alliance knocked down the formidable war machine of the BJP. No opinion or exit poll had predicted such an outcome. Independent political observers too were taken by complete surprise when the results started appearing on television channels. The saffron party rank and file initially refused to believe it.
Similarly, when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi on January 19, 1977, announced the parliamentary election, the Opposition was virtually nonexistent. All its leaders were still in jail. Yet, on March 24, 1977, Morarji Desai took oath as the first non-Congress prime minister of India. The apparently strong Congress could not win even a single seat in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay Gandhi, lost from their own constituencies, Rae Bareli and Amethi respectively.
Political pundits who are sceptical of the Opposition unity now, when the election is still a year away, need to reflect on the above-mentioned events in India’s political history. No doubt Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be a tough challenger, but so were Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Old-timers can still recall how within two months the totally disunited opposition merged to form the Janata Party and solved the issue of leadership. This was notwithstanding the fact that Jagjiwan Ram, the senior-most minister in the Indira cabinet, deserted the party and joined the opposition ranks. Still, the whole process of electing the prime minister was solved smoothly. Jagjivan Ram had been the minister in all the cabinets since Independence.
In 2004, the scene for the opposition was no less bleak. Sonia Gandhi lacked oratory skill in Hindi in comparison to Vajpayee and the company, and her Italian origin was also the subject of political ridicule. Not to speak of the BJP even, of all the persons, Sharad Pawar, along with Tariq Anwar and P.A. Sangma, broke away from the Congress on this very issue and formed the Nationalist Congress Party in Many 1999.
Barring the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Dravida Munnetra Kazagham no other prominent regional party had openly joined hands with the Congress in 2004. The Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Left Front fought the election separately, but extended support from outside after the results were out. Thus, the pre-poll scenario was not very good for the Congress-led alliance.
The Trinamool Congress, Telugu Desam Party, Shiv Sena, Janata Dal (United), Shiromani Akali Dal, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK), etc., were partners of the saffron party then. They were strong outfits in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu respectively. The Vajpayee government decided to dissolve the House six months before, as it wanted to cash in on the victories in the Assembly election in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh in December 2003.
The feel-good factor and the slogans of ‘India Shining’ and good governance did not work. Much like now, Congress at that time was in power in only a handful of states then. It was only a sincere tie-up in a couple of states; for example, Bihar and Tamil Nadu that led to the ouster of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.
In 1977 the situation was more unfavourable for the opposition. There was also a lurking fear that Indira Gandhi would not leave her post even if her party is voted out of power. The case was somewhat similar to the outgoing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a former army general. But the transfer of power went on smoothly in both cases.
Those who are sketching a pessimistic picture for the Opposition now should know that the political situation sometimes can change rapidly – within a couple of months. The mood of the voters can be appropriately gauged only when the battle lines are drawn, not when the society is dormant. It is not very easy to assess the undercurrent feeling of the masses. This mistake was committed by almost all our political experts in 2004 when they predicted an easy victory for the National Democratic Alliance.
The developments after the March 23 disqualification of former Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, have the potential to bring about a swift change in the scenario. The BJP cannot afford to overlook the softening of the stand of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Trinamool Congress (TMC), Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS), and to some extent Samajwadi Party (SP) towards Congress.
If the opposition parties go for some sort of electoral understanding – if not form a full-fledged pre-poll alliance – and if their supporters vote tactically, the result may come as a big surprise.
Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist.