India bloc needs a slogan, not a leader

The chastised party was now willing to listen to even junior outfits, mentally prepared to make sacrifices to save its identity as India’s second largest party after the BJP.
Shekhar Yadav
Shekhar Yadav

The bridge between India and Bharat is not merely cultural and social. In today’s rhetorically-charged times of attrition, it denotes a political chasm of class, caste, community and conscience. This chasm has deepened the fissures within the INDIA alliance; last week, divided they stood again. The knot is ambition for the prime minister’s chair—a standoff between elitist Rahul Gandhi and the rest of the opposition. Last week, a phalanx of opposition leaders met in New Delhi for the fourth time. Their objective: to dethrone Narendra Modi by trouncing the BJP in 2024. The outcome: no agreement on the One to be fielded against invincible Modi. The decision: meet again.

The meeting was a wordfest of desire disguised beneath discord. Barring Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, every leader worth their salt arrived to make speeches. It was evident from the tenor of all speeches that they were devastated by the political humiliation of the Congress in the recent assembly polls. But the Rubik’s cube of opposition politics is not alignment, but colour blindness; the Congress defeat was a blessing in disguise for its colleagues. The chastised party was now willing to listen to even junior outfits, mentally prepared to make sacrifices to save its identity as India’s second largest party after the BJP. With barely less than eight weeks left for the national election campaign to start, the opposition is yet to evolve a cohesive and credible narrative to Modi-led BJP. This characteristic confusion has left many questions up in the air.

Is INDIA stronger than NDA?

It is, both numerically and geographically. However, its two dozen members stretching from Kashmir to Kanyakumari are mostly caste- and family-run organisations. The BJP has avoided signing up any ally of consequence except minor players in UP and Bihar. The INDIA quandary is that barring the Congress, none of the other 20-odd parties can collectively win more than 125 seats across the country. Only TMC, DMK, Shiv Sena (UT), NCP (Pawar) and SP can rake in double digits. Moreover, being a marriage of convenience, not conviction, INDIA is not homogeneously woven together with a common ideology. It comprises individuals for whom power and relevance commands political premium. For example, there is nothing in common between Marxism and Dravidian statecraft. But they will go for a seat adjustment in Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, partners BJP and JD(S) in Karnataka lack contiguous identity. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress’s alliance with DMK is only to keep the AIADMK-BJP alliance out of power. Yet, DMK embarrassed the Congress by bashing ‘sanatan dharma’.

Can INDIA win a majority?

Very difficult, but not impossible. The Congress has to capture at least 140 seats. For this, it must trounce the BJP in the North, Assam and Karnataka. Its strategy is to try to manage direct fights against the BJP in about 450 constituencies; the Congress will have to surrender some of its northern seats to its INDIA partners to get extra seats in other states. At the last opposition meeting, Rahul underscored the importance of even tiny caste- and cult-based parties to win in 2024. He blamed senior leaders in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh for not accommodating regional parties. It is another thing that he himself did not walk his talk. No Gandhi parivar member engaged in dialogues with regional and smaller outfits, preferring Kharge as the communicator who doesn’t have the final say. It took four months for the party to constitute a committee to discuss a seat sharing formula with other INDIA participants.

The Congress must accept the reality that it doesn’t exist in UP and Bihar, and therefore cannot demand extra seats. It must yield to smaller parties, too. Its major challenge is to win back at least 75 of the 180 seats it lost to the BJP. INDIA can form the government only if the Congress gets around 140 seats and the BJP is restricted to 225-240. In the North, the Congress was decimated in the last two general elections. It nurses hope in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. With both TDP and Chief Minister Jagan Reddy-led YSRC angling for a strategic alliance with the BJP, the Congress can mobilise the anti-incumbency votes.

Does the opposition need a leader?

It does, but it can’t have one. INDIA is a collection of netas who see themselves as the PM candidate. It has no mesmerising mass connect slogan either. With no visible anti-incumbency feeling against the Modi government, INDIA requires a powerful slogan to grab headlines and mindspace. They must confront the ‘Modi Ki Guarantee Caravan', which is crisscrossing the country with the message that Modi is the only guarantee for national development.

Empirically, elections aren’t won on an anti-leader narrative. For example, Indira Gandhi won more seats when the opposition yelled ‘Indira hatao, desh bachao’. It is settled that a negative campaign against Modi will not yield INDIA votes or seats. Indira lost her own seat and the government because of Emergency excesses. But the South stayed faithful. She returned with a massive majority riding a potent slogan: ‘Elect a government that works’.

Vajpayee was considered invincible in 2004. The BJP went for an early election under the slogan ‘India Shining.’ Though opinion polls gave NDA a two-thirds majority, it garnered less than 180 seats. Sonia Gandhi had crafted victory with a cohesive alliance. There was no anti-Vajpayee wave or a better alternative to him then. The 2009 Lok Sabha election was fought not in Manmohan Singh’s name, but on UPA’s performance. The BJP pitched L K Advani, then 80 years old, for PM. He was a non-starter. In 2014, the BJP got an atomic combo of a leader and slogan: ‘Abki baar, Modi sarkar’. The visible anti-Congress wave against corruption and infirm leadership boosted Modi and his well-defined agenda.

Now a section of INDIA wants to position another 80-year-old warhorse, Mallikarjun Kharge, against Modi. Reason: he is a South Indian Dalit with huge political experience. Perhaps the opposition thinks SC voters who aren’t aligned with the BJP, and Muslims, could play a decisive role in over 150 constituencies in North and West India. Moreover, the strategy behind the Mamata-Kejriwal proposal was to force the Congress to announce that Rahul wasn’t in the PM race. INDIA partners feel they don’t need a face but an announcement that no Gandhi will stump for premiership. The gains Rahul acquired with his Bhrat Jodo Yatra have vanished; he is planning BJY-2.

INDIA leaders know the indispensability of the Gandhis. But they want to minimise the family's role in joint campaigning. Modi has enchanted the urban middle class and women. INDIA can pose a serious challenge by shifting its focus from Modi to 'Roti, kapda aur makaan’. This cannot happen without bridging the gap between INDIA and Bharat.

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