The BJP and the Shiv Sena were once seen as ‘natural allies’ but life for the original saffron alliance is not quite the same in the age of Narendra Modi. Last week, when the picture of Modi replacing Mahatma Gandhi on the khadi and village industries commission calendar stirred a controversy, it was a Shiv Sena-backed union that first raised the red flag. A Shiv Sena MP went on TV to describe it as a ”sin” to replace the Mahatma with the prime minister. Ironically, the Shiv Sena has never been an admirer of Gandhi: Sena founder, the late Bal Thackeray, once said, “Nathuram Godse was not a hired assassin, he was genuinely infuriated by Gandhi’s betrayal.”
So has the Sena suddenly discovered a love for the Mahatma, or is their aversion to Modi’s style of functioning greater than any regard for Mahatma Gandhi’s brand of non-violent politics? In the answer to that question might lie a truism of contemporary Indian politics: The glue that increasingly binds the Opposition outside and even some critics within the government is Modi’s persona. Then from a Mamata Banerjee to a Mayawati to a range of parties that are now coming together as a ‘Maha-gathbandhan’ in UP, Modi’s seemingly narcissistic approach is uniting varying shades of opponents. Only Sharad Pawar, Naveen Patnaik and now Nitish Kumar to some extent from among prominent Opposition leaders have chosen to keep the peace.
It isn’t as if this Opposition is purely ideological. The Shiv Sena is, after all, the flag bearer of militant Hindutva, Mamata has been part of BJP-led governments in the past while Mayawati has allied with the BJP. The Opposition this time instead is sharply personal, driven by a deep fear and mistrust of the prime minister’s individualistic attitude. Indeed, the language used against Modi is abusive and hate filled: A senior Trinamool MP went ballistic in describing the prime minister as a ”son of a rat”. Arvind Kejriwal has already called the prime minister a ”psychopath”, but now even Rahul Gandhi has attacked Modi as someone who lies about his yoga skills.
The coarse and offensive discourse suggests that the Opposition has run out of fresh ideas to mount an effective challenge to Modi. A tit for tat politics has instead become the favoured option. After all, Modi too hasn’t minced his words in ridiculing his opponents. Remember his constant targeting of Sonia Gandhi for her Italian origins or disparaging references to Rahul Gandhi’s qualifications to be a leader? But while the Gandhis may have reason to hit back as they have in the past (recall Sonia Gandhi’s Maut ka saudagar remark during the 2007 Gujarat election campaign), why should the non-Congress parties get so aggressive?
Perhaps when politics ceases to be about ideology, then individual battles take over the narrative to fill the vacuum. Mamata is a classic example. Post-demonetisation, her rage towards the central government has acquired a furious energy that is uncommon even by her standards. The arrest of two more of her MPs in a chit fund scam appears to have panicked her enough to spread the word that this is a case of personal vendetta. Mayawati too seems to be incensed by the tax raids on her relatives. It is almost as if Modi has shaken the cosy relationships that are seen to exist at the highest level in Indian politics. That Modi has even threatened the social base of some of his core supporters with moves like demonetisation may have spurred a ”gang-up” against the prime minister.
The “Modi versus all” rhetoric perhaps suits a prime minister who likes to project himself as a “victim”, an outsider who is taking on the “Lutyens establishment”, synonymous with the perks and privileges of the power elite. As Modi grandly announced at a recent election rally, borrowing an old Indira Gandhi slogan, “woh kehte hain Modi hatao, mein kehta hoon corruption hatao”. Indeed, by making himself the centre of the Opposition campaign, Modi may well believe he is trapping his critics into only responding to an agenda set by him rather than shaping one of their own. There is a certain vacuousness in the Opposition campaign that has prevented the anti-Modi groups from offering a solid and consistent alternative politics to the Modi model of governance. It is, after all, one thing to keep harping that the emperor has no clothes, but what is the Opposition offering by way of a new wardrobe? Surely, opportunistic alliances are no substitute to a coherent agenda for governance?
And yet, elections in particular are about arithmetic before chemistry, and if Modi’s adversaries come together in “grand alliances”, then it does threaten the dominance of an individual. We’ve seen its impact in Bihar, now the “maha gathbandhan” model is sought to be replicated in UP. While the Opposition needs to offer a big new idea to check the Modi juggernaut, the BJP too should worry if Modi becomes a magnet for the entire Opposition to stick together in the run up to the 2019 general elections. Grand alliances have worked in the past: 1977 and 1989 are two examples. Will 2019 also see a political realignment with the sole purpose of defeating Modi? What Bihar and UP have done today, the rest of the country may see tomorrow.
Post-script: An SMS joke best highlights the Opposition predicament in coping with a monopolistic Modi model : first, Modi took away the jhadoo from AAP with his black money campaign, then he took away Gandhi from the Congress with Swacch Bharat, now he has taken the Charkha away from Gandhi!
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.