An alternative politico-economic vision is essential to strengthen the united opposition
The failure of BJP to 'buy' a majority in Karnataka, unlike in Goa or the Northeast, has emboldened the opposition to conceptualise an anti-Modi force across India. They showcased their unity in Bengaluru when Kumaraswamy took his oath as the Chief Minister of Karnataka. But, this entire coming together is based merely on anti-Modism and not on policies or a Common Minimum Programme. This cannot survive the test of time when the dust settles in Karnataka.
The talk of alternative political alignment is in the air. Congress strategists are fast developing a template to give an upper-hand to regional allies in their respective states, with the Congress taking an upper-hand in the Lok Sabha seat allocation in return. The goal is to unite the 69 per cent non-BJP voters across India, since BJP, in its best show in 2014, had received about 31 per cent votes, but came to power on the first-past-the-post basis, as Opposition parties ate away into each other's electoral constituency.
Congress with its UPA partners are the first option. But, a national party with just 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha, ruling only three states, is not in any bargaining position, unless it wins in the impending Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan polls.
Second is the talk of a federal front by Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool (TMC) Chief Minister of West Bengal, in which is she is ready to bring in every non-BJP party including Congress if Rahul Gandhi is not the face of the combo.
Third is the talk of a people's front by K Chandrasekhara Rao, the Telangana Rashtra Sangh (TRS) Chief Minister of Telangana, which believes in a united opposition alliance minus the Congress.
The fallacy in all three alternatives is that they are party-leader combos minus a combination of ideas or an alternative vision for governance. They finally want to stop the seemingly larger-than-life Narendra Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah's phenomenal election machinery. They understand that another Modi government will bring an end to most of their political careers. A power-driven alternative based on multiple smaller and, at times conflicting identities, cannot fight another power-drunk ruling force which is based on one over-arching identity, that of Hindutva.
First, an alternative force, a united opposition has to be one of Congress, regional and left parties, where Congress is ready to accommodate the leadership of regional parties and willing to give them acceptable roles at the Centre.
Second, an alternative has to arise in substance or content. If not, then naturally the positioning of Narendra Modi shall be, "All want Modi out, I want corruption out and development in." The media shall build a Presidential format narrative, of one honest strong man versus a bunch of dishonest dwarfs wanting to drag India down again. The Opposition would lose even before the game starts.
Facing a severe anti-emergency backlash led by a motley group of united opposition forces, Indira Gandhi in 1977-79 bit the political dust in spite of trying to portray the 1977 general elections as "me versus they" and emphasising that "they want Indira out, I want poverty out". Modi is and will try the same tactics this time around in 2019.
Indira did not have the mastery in controlling the media, neither did she have an army of fake social media warriors, an emergency by perception and her practice was far more openly anti-people – hence, she stood defeated. Modi is stronger on all these factors.
But, the then motley opposition formed a party, Janata Party which broke up in less than 30 months on questions of leadership, policies, benefits to various pressure groups and regions, etc. And, in this very failure of the 'united' opposition against Indira Gandhi, ironically, lies Modi's biggest hope of 2019. Without a new politico-economic vision, the current Opposition will also fail.
Tracing the alternative
First, uphold the Indian Constitution. The alternative force is not just of parties, though that is a visible face. It is an alternative approach to governance. For that, Save Constitution is a good slogan for the United Opposition, which was recently started by Sharad Pawar of NCP in Mumbai and Rahul Gandhi in Delhi.
Pledge to protect the Indian Constitution and its basic tenets – commit to true secularism where the state does not negate any faith but also does not become party to any faith. Pledge to uphold our sovereignty, respecting the rights of other smaller neighbours while protecting our geopolitical interests.
Pledge to uphold the socialistic welfare economy because the marginalised, with their per capita income far below the subsistence level, cannot survive unless supported with minimum access to food, clothing, housing, public health and minimum assured education. Pledge to protect the democracy – leave media, entertainment, culture and education, to professional experts, not bureaucrats.
And, above all, pledge to protect legislatures by not short-circuiting their sessions; protect the independence of the judiciary by not interfering in their recruitment, postings, promotions and processes. Safeguarding the democracy must also emerge through police reforms, administrative reforms, judicial reforms, and electoral reforms, and through an all-out implementation of the institution of Lokpal, apart from protecting the independence of the Constitutional institutions.
Second, all communities need to be assured without being appeased that India is theirs. Hence, an alternative policy and measures need to be stated for faster socioeconomic assimilation of minorities through their reasonable participation in jobs, education, and across all walks of life. Mere reservation does not always ensure a dignified life.
If forest rights are not given to the tribal users of minor forest produce and land rights are not granted to the tillers, there cannot be any visible change in rural India.
Also, social assimilation will need distinct ways and means to empower women, ensure their security in public places, raise conviction in cases of assault on women and enhance their socio-economic participation, along with the protection of sexual freedom.
Third, uphold an alternative economic vision for India. Structural changes are needed to achieve a slew of economic measures. These will include a viable Minimum Support Price and implementation of MS Swaminathan recommendations for agriculture, forced but gradual recovery of all NPAs (specially in cases of willing defaulters), strict banking autonomy with SOPs and ensured independence of RBI. There has to be a roadmap to recover black money in land, jewellery and foreign assets, and encourage start-ups and the digital economy, apart from investments in education and health (with tax holidays and infrastructural support).
This plan shall also underline a fair share of funds between the Centre and the states, respect for federalism and execution of a truly one nation one tax system through a uniform GST. Interestingly, it is important to increase investment in education and health together by up to 25 per cent of the total budget, while reducing routine administration and defence expenses. Happy people will ensure a happier nation.
The right noise that was started about sanitation, digital economy, entrepreneurship, mass skilling, infrastructure, public health, housing, and pollution by the Modi government, many in continuity of earlier UPA policies, need to be taken to the next level of execution.
Finally, there has to be a development plan for each LS constituency with specific proposals on table in the Manifesto of the United Opposition. And, each LS constituency must be given to that non-BJP party which has shown the best political strength in it in the last five years, to take on BJP on a one-to-one electoral fight. Overall, the national leadership can be decided later based on the performance of each party.
Fourth, win the battle of perception with a new leadership narrative. Modi stands tall in the battle of the media created a perception that 'There is No Alternative' as the PM stands against an army of political dwarfs, with no apparent personal corruption. The only way to combat it is to put forth an alternative qualitatively different narrative. Like, high-handed centralising Modi versus federal front of many regional parties and Congress. NDA sloganeering versus real action-plan on goals espoused. One tall arrogant dictator versus people's grassroots leaders. The selective chasing of corruption by the Modi government while all corruption charges on BJP functionaries go uninvestigated. One religion-high caste dominant narrative versus a united India approach. Arrogant elite governance versus consensus striving for bottoms up governance.
Let a collective leadership of a United Opposition, named People's Federal Alliance (PFA), evolve with a distinct Common Minimum Programme and approach to take India to a more holistic and sensitive people-centric development devoid of an overdose of rhetoric and aggressive emotions. It has an enormous opportunity since, in the best of his times, Modi received only 31 per cent of Indian voters' support, the remaining being a fractured support to all opposition parties together.
(Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury is School Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi & Mumbai, and former Dean of Media of Symbiosis and Amity Universities. The views expressed are strictly personal)