Opposition has a leader to challenge Modi? Are you serious!
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Opposition has a leader to challenge Modi? Are you serious!

With most elections in India having become almost presidential in nature, it is essential for parties to ensure a strong, popular face. However, the Opposition, for now, does not have any such leader

opinion Updated: Sep 07, 2017 19:32 IST
Narendra Modi,Opposition,Nitish Kumar
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP president Amit Shah, New Delhi (File Photo)(PTI)

Some years ago riled by uncomfortable questions from journalists, a member of one of India’s most prominent families angrily retorted: “Are you serious? Are you serious?” repeating this rhetorical response half-a-dozen times. Since this was caught on cameras, it went viral on TV and social media and is still etched in public memory.

But if asked if the Opposition in India has found a leader who can galvanise the disparate parties and pose a challenge to the BJP and persona of its leader, Narendra Modi, people will be excused for questioning “Are you serious?” a few times over.

When Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar was toying with the idea of a nationwide mahagathbandan by bringing together the entire gamut of regional parties, it was conceivable that such an Opposition alliance could materialise. In terms of its vote share in the 2014 general election, the BJP is in a minority as against the combined votes of the Opposition.

But when he dramatically switched over to the NDA hitting out at the bundle of corruption charges facing his erstwhile ally Lalu Prasad and his family, the prospects of an all-encompassing alliance against the BJP got well and truly torpedoed.

Kumar’s party, the JD(U) is not a major player in India. In fact even in Bihar, it was junior partner in the alliance with Prasad’s RJD. But the Bihar CM’s asset was his image as an incorruptible leader and firm administrator. It is because of his image and consequent public acceptability that Prasad had to make him face of the alliance. That worked as a springboard for Kumar’s ambition to emerge on the national stage.

It is possible that he jumped the gun and jumped ship in a hurry in order to remain CM of his own state, in accordance with the ‘a bird in hand…’ principle. It is speculated that he was miffed by the refusal or delay on the part of the Congress in proposing him as leader of a future alliance. It seems he attributed this reluctance to the Congress’ persistence in pushing Rahul Gandhi as the leader of the combine.

Irrespective of the veracity of such speculation, he must have been aware that the testy relations between UP’s stalwart leaders, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati, besides the undependable reputation of several other potential members of the proposed mahagathbandhan would make the alliance’s viability questionable.

The episode, which ended with Kumar categorically asserting that none could aspire to defeat Modi in the 2019 general election, has sounded the death-knell of a possible Opposition alliance in the foreseeable future.

It hardly merits recalling that in order to be acceptable to the electorate a party or alliance needs to have a strong organisational base and also a formidable popular leader. Although best placed among non-BJP parties, the Congress’ organisational clout has been eroding steadily in recent years. It has been virtually wiped out in most of north India by powerful regional formations that have steadily taken over the non-BJP space, particularly in UP.

The Congress’ second handicap is its leadership which has failed to energise the cadre (or whatever remains of that) as well as the general public. Any political observer today will conclude that Modi remains the tallest leader with high acceptability, outstripping even his party’s popularity at a national level.

With most elections in India having become almost presidential in nature, it is essential for parties to ensure a strong, popular face. Consequently, all regional parties have become virtually family-run organisations, dependent on the popularity of the patriarch or matriarch. While there are strong regional leaders in non-BJP parties — Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, Mulayam/Akhilesh Singh in UP, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and till recently, M Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu to name just a few — they are all restricted to the confines of their respective states.

Till some years ago, the sentiment against the party ruling at the Centre was strong enough to enable relative lightweights like HD Deve Gowda to be chosen prime minister by a motley group of parties. For that matter Manmohan Singh was no political heavyweight and ruled for 10 years only because he had Sonia Gandhi’s unstinted backing, while the Congress was not in the kind of moribund state it is today.

But whenever there is a strong leader at the helm in the Centre, he or she can be electorally ousted either by fierce unpopularity as in the case of Indira Gandhi after the Emergency or by matching popular appeal. Looking at the gallery of regional leaders today, none fits the bill.

But politics abhors vacuum. Although it may take some time, a powerful leader is bound to emerge in the coming years to pose a serious challenge to the BJP and Modi. But for the present, the Opposition lacks a centre-forward and for that matter even a goalkeeper.

Chandan Mitra is editor of The Pioneer and has been two-time Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 07, 2017 18:40 IST