As the countdown begins for Parliament's monsoon session, the Opposition can be granted its enthusiasm. After two successive parliamentary sessions in which deft floor coordination and penetrative interventions by Opposition leaders managed to paint the government into a corner, the political challenge to the UPA has finally moved from the legislature to the rough and tumble of 'real' politics. The Bharat bandh of July 5 may have been state-sponsored in parts of the country, it may have had an element of coercion and may ultimately be self-defeating in its appeal to 1970s-style populism. Even so, it got certain traction. In the end, the Congress had a bigger frown on its face after the bandh than before.
In the monsoon session, once more the issue of rising prices will provide a weapon to the Opposition. This will add to perceptions of corruption in certain ministries such as telecom, drift and underperformance in agriculture and, overall, the impression of a government that has not quite lived up to its strong mandate of a year ago. All this will no doubt satisfy the BJP, the Left and the other Opposition parties. Is it adding up to something bigger?
It is here that the story gets sobering. Consider the precedents. Contrary to claims, the July 5 bandh was not the "first time in the history of India's politics that almost all political parties came together” against a Congress government. The previous occasion this happened was on August 30, 1989, at the height of the Bofors drama. A call for a general strike was supported by the BJP, the CPI(M) and the gaggle of Janata parivar parties.
It met with a popular response. In the heart of Lutyens' Delhi, the Union government felt compelled to ask civil servants to stay back in office overnight to ensure their presence on bandh day and to defeat the strike.
Nevertheless, July 5, 2010, was not August 30, 1989. In 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi government was in its fifth year and had run out of steam. Thanks to economic and broader social challenges, there was a mood of widespread pessimism in the country. More important, there was a face to the anti-Rajiv campaign in the form of V.P. Singh. All of those factors are absent in 2010. The disquiet over inflation marks the first signs of discontent against the UPA government. There is a long way to go before this matures into full-fledged mass anger, if it does at all.
For these reasons, it is difficult to immediately envision that the grand constellation that delivered the Bharat bandh — from the right to the left, from the Janata Dal (United) to the Telugu Desam — will convert itself into an electoral alliance. At the bare minimum, the BJP and the CPI(M) have to find a candidate they both agree to work with. Unfortunately — perhaps fortunately, given the man's subsequent history — there is no V.P. Singh character around. Nitish Kumar may fancy his chances but first he has to win this winter's election in Bihar and then spend two years selling himself nationally. It is all very hypothetical.
Other than personalities and party hang-ups, there is also the matter of positioning. The Bharat bandh of this month's opening Monday may have shut down more shops and offices than it hoped for, but it also swung the entire Opposition rhetoric towards a type of leftist populism that is obsolete and, other than in West Bengal, a voter repellent. It is all very well to say that a party in Opposition can't preach deregulation and liberalisation — the Congress didn't between 1999 and 2004, and the BJP hasn't since — but the quest for the poverty vote has to be balanced with an appeal to the growing aspirations of middle India.
The Congress has been defeated in four general elections in the past 21 years. In three of them — 1989, 1998, 1999 — the middle classes, those segments frustrated by economic bottlenecks, rallied around the Congress's principal challenger. This is not a sufficient vote, but it is a necessary vote. After close to a decade of robust economic growth, with the constituency for the market-facilitated creation of economic opportunities having expanded, this section has acquired more numbers and its vote greater criticality.
Consider the timetable for the 2014 general election. The Indian economy is just about beginning to recover from the slowdown. Companies are getting rid of inventories rather than augmenting capacities, squeezing margins in the process and not quite creating jobs. It is broadly expected that in about two years, demand will rise sufficiently for Indian business to set up new production lines, and a new phase of a genuine boom to begin. If this prognosis is correct, then the next Lok Sabha election could happen bang in the middle of an economic surge. No mainstream Opposition party or alliance will be able to completely ignore the urges and sentiments that this phenomenon will throw up.
That is the reality the BJP must be mindful of. True, in Opposition it cannot speak the language of Milton Friedman. Yet, it cannot surrender the entirety of the sensible economic space to the Congress either.
Ashok Malik is a political commenator. The views expressed by the author are personal.