Photo-ops are not enough

As political statements go, it was quite impressive. The sight of a galaxy of Opposition leaders on the same stage at Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in bounced off a million front pages, TV screens and mobile phones, and set up endless speculation about potential alliances come the 2019 general elections. Certainly, nobody familiar with the numbers that determine electoral results who looked at that long line-up could suppose that Narendra Modi had 2019 all sewn up. 

After all, if Modi is as dominant and popular today as Indira Gandhi was in her heyday, then surely it would take a united Opposition to bring him down, as the Janata did for Mrs Gandhi. Voters might have turned away from the Congress (Indira) en masse in 1977; but it was opposition unity that ensured the Congress (I) was nearly wiped out in the north. Even legendary sniffers of the political winds who are part of the National Democratic Alliance, such as Ram Vilas Paswan, have recently turned querulous about the Modi government’s record and its outreach methods.

Yet two things about the 1970s experience should sober up those in the Opposition feeling somewhat euphoric. Forget about that government’s swift decline into infighting; consider instead that the Janata coalition — for it was one — was able to hang together in the first place only because of the towering presence of Jayaprakash Narayan, who could be trusted to stay above the fray and play neutral arbiter. There is no such figure today — in fact, there is not even a Harkishan Singh Surjeet. Sitaram Yechury has neither the power of his 1990s predecessor nor the reputation that the CPI(M)’s long-serving general secretary had built up over years of serving as an ambassador for Opposition unity. 

And note also that 1977 was hardly the first time that Indira Gandhi had taken on a united Opposition; the National Democratic Front of 1971 brought together the Congress (Organisation), the two Socialist parties, the Jan Sangh, and the Swatantra Party. The Opposition had correctly summed up Mrs Gandhi; they described her as taking the country in an “authoritarian and anti-democratic direction”. And, on that occasion, she smashed them; they got 49 seats. Indira Gandhi won the two-thirds majority that she used to brutally seize absolute power four years later. The thought of an equivalent result in 2019 should chill all those who worry, as then, about the authoritarian and anti-democratic direction of the government in power. 

How did 1971 happen? Because Mrs Gandhi dominated the narrative. She made the Opposition, consisting as they did of bitter ideological opponents, look power-hungry, anti-poor and unprincipled. 

The sight of all those leaders on stage in Bengaluru will have sent Modi and Amit Shah back to the Indira Gandhi playbook they have been using for years. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s WhatsApp groups already know what to do — forwards are circulating showing a proud lion ringed by a pack of slavering wild dogs. To accusations of power-hunger and lack of principle Modi will effortlessly add “corrupt”. And, given his connection with the people of India, it is not easy to bet against that narrative sweeping all against it. It is, after all, the boast of the Modi-Shah BJP that electoral arithmetic is all very well, but chemistry trumps arithmetic every time.

Yes, the Opposition is desperate. This is not surprising. They face not just oblivion but an impossibly well-funded and ruthless ruling party that never ever is satisfied, never ever lets up. Every election must be won — and even if not, a BJP government must be formed. No Opposition government can rest easy; investigative agencies run amuck; governors and lieutenant-governors interfere constantly and inappropriately; and, when all else fails, there are always those useful standbys, communal tension and a tame news media. 

But, desperate or not, I wonder if they helped their case with the Bengaluru show of strength. I am not sure how many votes were won for the BJP in Bengal by the sight of Mamata Banerjee and Sitaram Yechury shaking hands, but the number will not be inconsiderable. The dangers from the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav bonhomie may be less, but still worth considering. An alliance, or even a tacit agreement that is to appear principled must work to develop a common vision for what needs to be set right in the country — something more than simply removing Mr Modi, which is a message that may not resonate with a large enough proportion of the voting public. 

The communists will not be able to take the lead in this process. Nor will Banerjee, although she is probably the strongest state leader. Nor will Chandrababu Naidu, too lately a member of the NDA. Neither do Mayawati or the Yadavs have sufficient political credibility at the moment. Which leaves the Congress. It is Rahul Gandhi and the new working committee that he is supposed to constitute who will have to develop a positive and inclusive message if the entire Opposition is to survive 2019. I do not envy the task.  
Email:; Twitter: @mihirssharma

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