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India's turn to CHOOSE

While the Opposition appears to have the arithmetic, the chemistry is brewing strongly in favour of Modi-led BJP – now, we must cast wisely

As India goes to vote this April-May, the arithmetic of possible votes is with the opposition while the chemistry of emotions is with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The numbers appear to be with the opposition, which got 64 per cent of all polled votes last time in 2014, divided among many parties, while NDA got 36 per cent. Today, though, many electoral enemies of the past are on the same side (BSP and SP together in Uttar Pradesh, RJD and Congress in Bihar, etc.).

Opposition's hiccup

The opposition has been right to raise questions on demonetisation, the falling rupee, rising fuel prices, jobless growth, fuzzing of GDP and employment figures, crony capitalism in the Rafale deal, bank NPAs on the rise, et al. But they lack will power and strategy to combat the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah firepower.

With Congress's win in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi appeared to be on the driver's seat for the 2019 LS polls. But he seems to have frittered away the gains of the wins. An absolute opposition mahagatbandhan is amiss. While BJP agreed to give almost equal seats to Nitish Kumar's JD(U) in Bihar and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, alongside tying-up with AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress has failed to strike an alliance with the ruling AAP in Delhi and neither could it bring them on in Punjab. So far, it has failed a mahagatbandhan in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and a few other states.

Second, where are the well-researched counters to the failures the opposition raises so assiduously of the Modi-Shah government? Despite questions, answers to China controlling Doklam or commodity price rise are absent. Farmers' distress is acute now and was there during the Congress regime too. While it is right to ask questions, there is no alternative roadmap to solving it beyond a temporary loan waiver. There are no answers from the opposition camp, only questions!

Third, even if some 12 or 14 opposition parties are coming together, where is the Common Minimum Program? A clear CMP or alternative governance manifesto is of urgent need to create talking points.

Fourth, even if for hype, PM Modi's hyperbole of bold aggression against Pakistan and terrorism, apart from his schemes of Digital and Start-up India, is actually creating talking points and a semblance of active governance with an apparent promise of innovation (though their existence in truth is questionable). His cyber army and a large, compromised media are both amplifying this narrative and attempting to turn this campaign into a presidential form of election of Modi versus 'who'.

Fifth, while it is right that the opposition should not highlight a single face before the elections, it must also focus on a positive agenda and not just anti-Modism, which is the opposition order today. A collective yet coherent leadership, a clearly communicated common agenda and a dogged attitude are crucial for the opposition today. None of it is really visible.

For the people

The alternative force in India cannot just be of parties, but of an alternative worldview, of a common minimum program and of an alternative approach to governance. First, pledge to protect the Indian Constitution and its basic tenets. So, commit to true secularism where the State does not negate any faith and does not become party to any faith – neither Hindutva nor Muslim appeasement. Pledge to uphold the socialistic welfare economy as envisaged in the Constitution because marginalised people, with their per capita income far below the subsistence level, cannot survive unless supported with minimum access to food, clothing, housing, public health and basic assured education. Above all, pledge to protect legislatures by not short-circuiting their sessions and protect the independence of the judiciary by not interfering in their recruitment, postings, promotions and processes.

All communities need to be assured that India is theirs. The Sachar Committee Report shows the lack of socioeconomic and educational development among Muslim minorities and their minimal representation in positions of power and responsibility. Also, if forest rights are not given to tribal users of minor forest produce as per the forest dwellers' act, and land rights are not given to tillers, there cannot be any visible change in the country-side and neither can Naxalism be brought to an end.

Focus less on the politics of minorities and more on the economics of the present dispensation and how disastrous it has been. Atrocities on women can be another loud communication point, while those on Muslims, Christians and Dalits can be more localised with grassroots campaigns.

The united opposition must promise a slew of economic measures, including a viable Minimum Support Price and implementation of MS Swaminathan recommendations for agriculture, gradual recovery of all NPAs (especially in cases of willing defaulters), banking autonomy, recovering black money in land, jewellery and foreign assets, and encouraging investments in education and health with tax holidays and other benefits.

Advantage Modi

Modi surely starts his second-term campaign with a clear advantage due to visible opposition fragmentation, a macho image post Pulwama and Balakot, three main opposition leaders not being on the same page (Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee), a highly compromised one-sided legacy media and BJP's IT cell swarming social media with its mix of truth, false and bravado.

Several schemes of the government too are being touted to draw the attention of the electorate: Jan Dhan Yojana that brought bank accounts and financial inclusion to 17 crore Indians for the first time (though deducting fines for not meeting requisite minimum balance needs); Ujjwala Yojana, which has brought cooking gas and oven to several millions of poor Indian families (there has also been a visible rise in cooking gas price); Digital India scheme, bringing affordable net connection to the hands of people at large (benefitting Reliance JIO the most); Ayushman Bharat has assured health insurance up to Rs 3 lakh per family to many poor families of India (with harsh tenets and benefitting private hospitals and insurance companies); and a recent 10 per cent reservation for the economically poor of the unreserved classes of people (the result of half-hearted reservation, over the years, is there for all to see).

Claims of the fight against corruption by the Modi government have also fallen flat – no Lokpal (Ombudsman) to check corruption in high offices had been appointed in five long years until last week, no visible gains were rung home from demonetisation of 86 per cent currency, and no substantial black money has still been recovered from banks overseas or which are hidden in land-pieces and jewellery. But these are still not a part of dominant narrative today.

So, who wins?

The answer depends on if Team Modi can turn the positive chemistry into actual votes. Not an easy task. And, on the other hand, if the Congress-led UPA and other motley groups of opposition parties can bring to the fore genuine failures of the Modi government along with an alternative people's agenda, the arithmetic of the opposition can give it some glue, some chemistry with the electorate. We will know on May 23.

It seems that India is inching towards a hung Parliament, with no alliance getting a clear majority of 273 seats in the house of 545, and there shall be another selection after the election. NDA allies may ask for a change of leadership from Modi to someone else. UPA and other opposition parties may actually come together and try to cobble up a majority. However, in the most likely event of BJP being the single-largest party, it is anybody's guess that the astute and cunning leadership of the richest political party of the world, Modi-Shah of BJP, will go all-out to "ensure majority".

It is only these periodical elections, with whatever limitations, that stop India from becoming a banana republic. And, these elections are still far better from many others in more than a hundred nations of the world.

Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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