For I.N.D.I.A, miles to go before standing as tall as NDA
Launching a joint campaign will require a counternarrative against the BJP’s Hindutva discourse and Modi’s persona as the purveyor of muscular nationalism. But it’s not impossible
In the end, the coalition exercise came down to seeking the middle route, intersecting grammar, message, syntax and semantics. Were the structures set up by I.N.D.I.A to straighten out the contradictions inherent among 28 parties—each with their own self-interests, angularities, strengths and weaknesses—by regrouping under one banner about to overwhelm the message of defeating the BJP-helmed NDA? The banding together of a large Opposition spectrum before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls is the most significant development in a political landscape that has remained stagnant since 2014, though one can hear cynics scoffing (with justification) at the ambition of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance to displace the BJP at the Centre. Past coalition projects came unstuck for various reasons, not the least being the egocentricity of the party in the driver’s seat: the Congress.
After ruling at the Centre for decades, the Congress has learnt its lessons the hard way during the nine years that Narendra Modi has been in power. The Congress’ leadership realised that dealing with the formidable Modi-Amit Shah duo was not the same as fashioning a relationship with the Vajpayee-Advani team in the NDA’s early avatar. Despite the rhetoric and acrimony over then-Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s “foreign” origin and the dodgy defence acquisitions in the Rajiv Gandhi era which the BJP used in its campaigns, Vajpayee and Advani were more flexible in accommodating the Opposition’s interests. The present dispensation, however, is unprepared to grant its rivals, more so the Congress, leeway to settle down in and outside Parliament. The Congress’ fate hangs by a thread which swings perilously as the Central investigative agencies and lower courts pursue cases against its leaders.
The Congress and the Gandhis are in the same plight as the regional leaders they have fought at various points, like Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati, or befriended, like Lalu Prasad, Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar. Self-protection before consolidating their politics is the glue that cemented I.N.D.I.A against the backdrop of its constituents’ collective fear that a third term for Modi could annihilate the Opposition.
The coalition’s recent conclave in Mumbai—the third such get-together after Patna and Bengaluru—was important inasmuch as the leaders sought common ground to foster their objectives while attempting to identify and narrow down their differences. Handy shibboleths of the past like fighting “authoritarianism” and “communalism” are useless because these labels mean little to most voters. Better to confront the differences head-on in the early days than allow these to amplify and pull the parties apart in the days leading up to the elections.
Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress Party chairperson, said at the Mumbai meet that a joint campaign could not kick off without achieving unanimity over contesting one-on-one against the NDA in a majority of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, a ballpark estimate being 400. Ironically, the figure did not include the seats on her own turf, where an intransigent Left Front will not brook the idea of a joint fight against the BJP even if the Congress played ball with the TMC. On its part, the TMC signalled willingness to cede to the Congress the seats it won in 2019. If the BJP is the most powerful party in the country, the TMC is its equivalent in West Bengal. A splintered Opposition suits the BJP countrywide. The TMC stands to gain if all the anti-Mamata votes do not fall into the BJP’s catchment. An adversarial Left Front can help split the anti-TMC votes.
While alliances are broadly in place in Bihar, Tamil Nadu and even Maharashtra despite NCP leader Sharad Pawar’s enigmatic remarks, the state to watch out for is Uttar Pradesh, which remains the BJP’s strongest terrain after Gujarat. The Samajwadi Party and Congress are fighting the Ghosi Assembly bypoll together on September 5. It’s essentially Akhilesh Yadav’s election to win or lose because the Congress has minimal political capital left in UP. As in every UP poll, caste alignments will determine the winner.
That brings one to the issue of conducting a caste census which the BJP has put off for no valid reason. The socialists in UP and Bihar insisted that I.N.D.I.A must pass a resolution in line with their demand to hold the census but Mamata, whose politics is governed less by caste and more by Hindu-Muslim relations, put her foot down. The non-BJP politicians of the Hindi heartland are convinced that a census alone can disabuse the BJP’s idea of the Hindu identity overriding caste divisions. It could prove that the BJP’s core base of the upper castes are in a hopeless minority as against the overwhelming number of backward castes and Dalits. The Socialist leaders, sworn to Mandalisation, can revive their project of reworking social alignments to counter the notion of a pan-Hindu constituency and open up a larger space for the empowerment of the backward castes and Dalits.
The Mumbai meet did not tread into the slippery terrain of leadership, something the BJP wanted to happen. Had Rahul Gandhi been named the convenor, it could have catapulted him into a leading position and transformed the election into a Rahul-Modi face off, in which the coalition would stand no chance.
In talking of the Opposition, it must be emphasised that although crucial regional players such as the BSP, BRS, BJD and YSRCP remain unattached, when the BJP was short of numbers while passing bills in the Rajya Sabha, these players invariably helped. Therefore, I.N.D.I.A’s hopes of stepping into the BJP’s shoes have already hit a wall because the numbers that the non-aligned bloc could bring would be substantial.
Launching a joint campaign will require a counternarrative against the BJP’s Hindutva discourse and Modi’s persona as the purveyor of muscular nationalism. But it’s not impossible, considering how issues against the Modi government tumble out every now and then. Crony capitalism exemplified by the State patronage to the Adani conglomerate, pandering to the rich, promptness in addressing middle-class concerns while ignoring agrarian distress, lack of jobs and inflation—the skill lies in tapping into the well of discontent and anger of the marginalised groups and translating these feelings into lucid, fathomable messages instead of an anodyne slogan like “Judega Bharat, Jeetega I.N.D.I.A”. Remember the Congress’ 2004 slogan, “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath”? It was a dead-on hit at the BJP’s “India Shining” excess.
Columnist and political commentator