Opposition vs Modi: Mission 2024 or Mission Impossible
India's political discourse is thirsting for competing ideas. The architects of Mission 2024 will need to produce a compelling alternative of what it stands for and how it will deliver.
This week more than a dozen political parties came together to forge a front to oust the Modi regime. The aggression in the speechifying which followed reflects the urge for preservation. Nitish Kumar, who hosted the jamboree in Patna, said "we have come together in national interest; those in power at Centre are against national interest". DMK chief MK Stalin called the meeting a "war cry" against a "fascist and autocratic regime". Udhav Thackeray stated the Shiv Sena joined "to save the diversity".
Omar Abdullah underlined that he and "Mehbooba Mufti belong to that part of the country where democracy is murdered". Mehbooba asserted "We can't let Gandhi's India become Godse's country." TMC chief Mamata Banerjee declared "we will fight together with the aim of ending BJP rule." Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge said "we have decided to contest together". And NCP chief Sharad Pawar proclaimed that "Just like the JP movement, our united front will get blessings from the public". The rhetoric echoed the spectre painted five decades back prior to the 1971 polls.
"Never before has a Prime Minister in a democracy entered into such open collusion with anti-national and anti-democratic forces. Never before has a clique in power treated the judiciary and the parliament with such contempt. Never before has a Government had such a dismal record of unmitigated failure in the maintenance of law and order…" The assertions are from the 1971 manifesto of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.
The battle then was against Indira Gandhi and her Congress. The battle cry now is against Narendra Modi and the avatar of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, namely the BJP. Participating entities included the Congress, TMC, AAP, NCP, Shiv Sena, DMK, Samajwadi Party, National Conference, PDP, JD (U), RJD, CPI, CPM, CPI ML and others. Missing from what Home Minister Amit Shah called a “photo session” were the BSP, the BRS, Biju Janata Dal, Janata Dal (S) and Akali Dal.
India's political geography is defined by history. Every party in the room is either an offshoot of the Congress or was created by the urge of anti-Congressism. It is verily a collection of frenemies. Shiv Sena has fought against Congress and NCP, the TMC has defeated Congress and the Left front, the Abdullahs have fought the Muftis and the Congress, and AAP is still warring with the Congress. The alliance of Mission 2024 is not without competing contradictions. For sure, the BJP may dub the alliance as opportunistic, dynastic or the coalition of the corrupt. The fact is most of the parties have partnered the BJP and the Congress – the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the JD (U) in Bihar, the NC and PDP in Kashmir and so on.
The binding glue of alliances is either conviction – for instance after the Emergency in 1977 and in 1989 -- or existential angst. Shakespeare’s character Trinculo says in The Tempest "there is no other shelter hereabout; misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows". The images from the Patna summit reflect the old cliché that politics makes strange bed-fellows. The Opposition is facing the toughest challenge in decades. The BJP's success is built around the blend of Hindutva and nationalism, organisational potency and above all the charisma of Modi.
The playbook of Mission 2024 is familiar. The Opposition alliance is scaffolded by the arithmetic of votes – in 2019 the BJP bagged 37.7 per cent of the votes polled and the hope is they can garner a bigger share of the rest. Electoral success however is more than just arithmetic and demands a curious confluence of voter-leader chemistry and "believability" among contesting claims.
Mandates and regime change in India, beyond the basic math, are powered by public trust and the magic of persuasion. In 1971 Indira Gandhi, riding the plank of Garibi Hatao, bagged 350-plus seats while the Jana Sangh landed with around 20. In 1977, the voters were persuaded in the north of India (but not in the south) of the horrors of Emergency. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi was ousted by allegations of corruption in defence deals. The Rao regime was ousted following riots and scandals. In more recent years the Congress-led UPA won in 2009 despite serial blasts and the 26/11 attacks. In 2014, the BJP highlighted corruption in the UPA raj and presented an aspirational alternative. In 2019, the Modi regime won more seats in spite of anger about demonetisation and stalling growth as voters invested in the idea of "strong India". The Congress forfeited deposits in 148 of 421 Lok Sabha seats it contested.
Politics cannot be merely an argument industry producing memes on social media. Parties sense there is a distinct disquiet about disharmony, disenchantment among sections of the middle class and distress at the bottom of the income pyramid but struggle to weave a narrative. The Congress, buoyed after the wins in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, may be onto something in their thesis of localised campaign and gauranteed freebies. However, the context of Lok Sabha polls is national and post-2014 very presidential. The question is whether the opposition alliance can evolve beyond the oust Modi slogan to engineer an idea and an identity.
India's political discourse is thirsting for competing ideas. The architects of Mission 2024 will need to produce a compelling alternative of what it stands for and how it will deliver or else Mission 2024 could well turn into Mission Impossible. It will be yesterday once more!