The leadership impasse
Taking cues from the 1977 General Election, the opposition must formulate a robust common minimum programme to successfully oust the BJP from power.
Can the opposition leadership impasse be solved? That is the biggest question thrown by the BJP today. Ok, fine, there are challenges with this government, but whom do we bring in? Who among the opposition leaders? The young, untested, unproven Rahul Gandhi? Or, any of the regional satraps who do not have a national perspective and are often squabbling among themselves! Do any among Naidu, Pawar, Lalu, Stalin etc have a clean record, robust policy-perspective, and national reach to don the mantle of the Prime Minister of 130 crore Indians? From a Modi-bhakt on the streets to the editorial columns of dailies and right-wing spokesmen in TV studios, these questions are being asked ad nauseum.
Let us examine a few facts from the recent past, in India.
Between 2001 and 2013, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was a quintessential regional satrap, talking about Gujarati Asmita and setting the state's narrative as unique to himself, even differing at times from the BJP at the Centre. But, between 2013 and mid-2014, he emerged as the national leader of the BJP and eventually its PM candidate, finally winning. Before coming to Delhi, he was neither a central minister nor an MP ever.
In 1977, Indira Gandhi was the undisputed leader of the Congress and India, until an amorphous loosely organised Janata Party, with a galaxy of leaders (like Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Jagjivan Ram, Chandrasekhar, et al), challenged her without a PM face and in the absence of any coherent national agenda. The electorate focused on the excesses of the fateful Emergency and the dictatorial image of Indira Gandhi – ultimately voting her out. They were voting against the Congress; the winner was incidental.
In 2004, when PM Vajpayee sought re-election riding the wave of a Shining India campaign, there was the Congress in front, with no strong leadership (except that of Sonia Gandhi who is not a natural citizen of India). Further, even the Congress was not in a position to gain a majority on its own and was dependent on a host of regional parties. Vajpayee was voted out of power and the electorate sought change from a hyped-up growth with no concomitant development on the ground. There was no larger than life leader in front of Vajpayee and, in fact, the slogan that Congress used was, Congress ka haath, aam admi key sath, projecting no leader. And, it was an instant hit (comparable to Achhe Din slogan of Modi led BJP nationally in 2014 and Paanch Saal Kejriwal slogan of AAP in Delhi in 2015 with regards to their immediate electoral impact).
If we take the Indira example further, in the mid-70s, the political mood in the media, as articulated by the-then Congress President Debkanta Barua was, "India is Indira; Indira is India". But, by the mid-term of Indira Gandhi's government, say around 1974-75, the opposition parties had started uniting against her. The Congress (O) leaders proposed a National Democratic Front (NDF), which also included the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Swatantra Party and the socialists at the state level. Modi is facing a similar challenge from the opposition parties today when the dominant mood in the BJP camp is that of 'Modi is India and India is Modi'.
The NDF's formula was simple - One Seat One Candidate - so that Indira Gandhi's Congress could be given the toughest fight. Now, in the opposition, the Congress is aiming for a similar political arrangement with the other parties. The opposition bloc has already tasted success on a trial basis in the bypolls in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP had earlier won an overwhelming majority of seats in both the Lok Sabha elections and the Assembly polls. But, a united opposition pinned the ruling party down onto the mat.
In 2014, the National Democratic Alliance won a sweeping victory, taking 336 seats. The BJP won only 31 per cent votes, which is the lowest share for a party to form a majority government in India since Independence, while NDA's combined vote share was 38.5 per cent. BJP and its allies won the right to form the largest majority government since the 1984 general election, and it was the first time since that election that a party has won enough seats to govern without the support of other parties. That means that at least 60 per cent or more votes were of the various other parties who currently constitute the opposition in the country.
Thus, if there is a one-to-one contest today, as during the 1977 General Election in which Indira was defeated, the Modi-Shah led BJP may stand to be defeated in the next LS polls. Arithmetic is there with the opposition, but chemistry may be with the BJP. And, the chemistry is hinging on this position of BJP: 'There is No Alternative', a tall man of 56 inches chest against an army of political dwarfs; and, no personal corruption of Modi as against the motley group of corrupt forces. The image built assiduously by the new BJP narrative is about a united Hindu-led India versus a motley group of casteist and communal forces, etc. The crux here is: there is no face of the united opposition.
When India became independent, there were many strong leaders to rule the nation, Nehru and Patel being the top two. But, the single leader whom they and the nation heard most was Mahatma Gandhi, with a focus on freedom and nation-building. When the united opposition challenged Indira's regime post Emergency of 1976-77, there were many leaders in front of her, but the one leader all heard and the nation revered was JP, Jaiprakash Narain, and his focus was to see the end of Indira's dictatorial regime. When the India Against Corruption movement erupted in India in 2011-13, there were many faces in it, and BJP was not sure of its PM face initially, but the only person the nation listened to then was Anna Hazare, and his focus was on the fight against corruption and for Jan Lokpal.
So, when a united opposition is emerging today to challenge the perceived authoritarian regime of BJP, it needs a similar veteran face, who is not a candidate for governance leadership just as Mahatma Gandhi, JP or Anna Hazare were not. To my mind, the former finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, is best suited for this role with his origins from the Hindutva stable, his legacy of civil services and governance, his acceptability among diverse and divergent opposition forces, his bitter critique of the Modi regime and, being an octogenarian, he is not a political threat to anyone. He speaks the language of conciliation, Constitution, welfare for the masses rather than the classes, and can also take up issues close to the traditional Hindu heart, like those of the dying Ganga and falling cattle quality in India.
Half the question of the opposition's PM face goes off then. And, for the other half, the best strategy is to pit the common man against a perceived authoritarian leader saddled with power. So, the agenda has to be positive for the opposition putting forth an alternative political (respect federalism and weaker sections including minorities) and economic vision (putting forth agrarian upheaval, NPA control, SME focus, uniform GST, public health and education investment, etc). If the positive agenda of a common minimum program is synergised with the strategic multimedia campaign of common man against alleged communalism, authoritarianism, crony capitalism, et al, with the contest being limited to a single opposition candidate against the BJP/NDA candidate, there is a serious contest in hand and anything can happen thereafter. If and only if the united opposition crosses 274 seats, can they sit and elect any leader as PM-designate, in the true spirit of the Constitution.
But, is the Opposition listening?
(The author is a noted media academic and columnist, and former Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities. The views expressed are strictly personal)