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Lessons from Kovind’s election: Oppn must move beyond its ‘remove Modi’ plank and recast its vision

The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine have been increasing its political dominance by the day. A united Opposition can challenge the BJP only if it is ready to learn its lessons from the recent debacles

columns Updated: Jul 22, 2017 22:41 IST
Hindustan Times
Congress,BJP,Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with president-elect Ram Nath Kovind and BJP president Amit Shah, New Delhi, June 20(PTI)

With a decisive NDA victory in the presidential elections, and Ram Nath Kovind in Rashtrapati Bhavan, it is time to look back and look ahead at the state of opposition politics in India.

Remember the Opposition had made this poll a test of its unity, and a moment to challenge what they called the BJP’s subversion of constitutional values. The result was a foregone conclusion. But their failure to put up a respectable fight, or even keeping the broad Opposition united, reveals the challenge at hand.

Nitish Kumar played a key role in encouraging the idea of a united opposition candidate to take on the NDA’s one. Indeed, ever since the success of the Mahagatbandhan in the Bihar elections in 2015, Mr Kumar has been pushing the other parties to come together. This, he believes, is the only way to take on the BJP.

But in a twist, Mr Kumar was the first one to move away and support Mr Kovind, who had served as the governor of Bihar for the past two years. Given Mr Kumar’s support to the demonetisation move, his muted criticism of the Modi government on a range of issues and the increasing gulf with ally Lalu Prasad, this was seen as yet another instance of softening towards the BJP.

Mr Kumar’s party however insisted that the fault lay with the Congress, which delayed taking a decision on the candidate, left it too late, and if Gopal Gandhi — who the Opposition had earlier considered — was picked, the JD(U) would have backed him. Mr Kumar also made a larger critique of the Opposition, and urged the Congress to find a new narrative and lead the Opposition.

Contrast the Opposition’s late and reactive decision-making process and the Congress-Nitish fracture with BJP’s smart political selection of a Dalit candidate, and its energy in mustering up as big a victory for Mr Kovind as possible. It’s no surprise that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine have been increasing its political dominance by the day.

But does this mean it is the end of any prospect of Opposition unity, and its ability to pose a challenge to the BJP? No, not necessarily. But for that, they need to learn the lessons from the recent debacle.

The first is the Opposition needs to set the agenda. The entire discourse is being set by the BJP — from the narrative of vikas to cow protection, from the narrative of India taking on adversaries to Modi rising on the world stage, from reaching out to subaltern elements within the Hindu fold to portraying the Opposition as weak and anti-national.

The merits of all these claims can be contested. But that is not the point here. What is true is that the BJP, its affiliates, and a section of the media trigger the conversation, and the rest react to it.

What is thus needed is for the Opposition to find a set of slogans, a set of key issues, a political-economic agenda that goes beyond the ‘remove Modi’ plank and then set the national conversation around it. From being reactive to becoming proactive, from being dull to becoming energetic, from whining about the loss of control over the narrative to becoming hyper communicative and pushing its own message, the Opposition has its task cut out.

If setting the agenda is one component, the second is finding the right balance between the Congress and the non-Congress parties is another component if the Opposition is to challenge the BJP.

There can be no national opposition front without the Congress. Even at its weakest, it has a national organisation; it polled over 100 million votes in the 2014 election; and in many states, it is in direct contest with the BJP. At the same time, it is also true that never has the Congress been weaker—its leadership is unable to inspire trust, its political instincts seem rusted, it is playing second fiddle in almost all states where there is a triangular contest with the BJP pitted against regional rivals, and the days of its hegemony are long gone. Now, the battle is for survival.

This grey political landscape requires the rest of the Opposition to understand the value of the Congress, but it also requires the Congress to recognise that in the current balance of power, it may have to play a supplementary role and cede space to other regional leaders who have a better track record of taking on the BJP — be it Mr Kumar or Mamata Banerjee. It is in this context that the Opposition has to hone in on a leader. Taking on Modi in 2019, while remaining a faceless clutch of disparate parties, could well mean that the battle is already lost before it begins.

The third is for the Opposition to focus on arithmetic. The BJP has carefully made caste calculations in each state. It is now in a position where even without Muslims, and a dominant caste like Yadav, voting for it in a state like Uttar Pradesh or Marathas in Maharashtra or Jats in Haryana, the party is able to win by consolidating all other sections. In each state, the Congress and the regional party concerned need to go back to the drawing board, understand the socio-economic matrix, target social groups, cater specifically to newer constituencies like women and youth who are emerging as independent voting blocs in themselves, and then get their arithmetic right.

Any democracy needs a good Opposition. The BJP may appear hegemonic but has its own vulnerabilities. In a society as complex as India, there are always ground level contradictions and discontent to be capitalised upon.

But India’s Opposition can only do this if it reinvents itself, if it finds a new agenda, if the Congress reconciles to a new role and regional parties reconcile to the Congress’ importance, and if they are able to weave together old caste calculations with newer voter aspirations. The presidential election has shown the Opposition has a long way to go, and can ironically learn some political skills from its principal rival, the BJP which is notching up one success after another.

First Published: Jul 22, 2017 19:05 IST