Laser focus on Narendra Modi, paucity of ideas, regurgitation of cynicism: Mamata's United India Rally played to BJP's strengths

There's no denying that Saturday's mammoth Opposition rally — United India Rally — in Kolkata symbolises the coming together of disparate political forces under a common platform. This has many implications. Theoretically, it could be a game changer. Not only may such a grand alliance pose a tough challenge to the BJP, it could shift the political momentum away from a pan-Indian, single-party dominated centralised polity to a more federalist structure — leading to greater regionalism, more fragmentation and revival of the coalition-era in Indian politics.

The BJP may argue that coalition politics is a return to an era of instability and uncertainty that impacts India’s growth, but this isn’t a bedrock assumption. It may be equally argued that given India’s diversity, inequality and inherent differences, a participatory democracy that relies on consensus, alliances and partnership-building is likely to be a more common feature.

Many of these implications, however, are incumbent on a few crucial conditions. The Opposition bloc of around two dozen parties need not only work together as a cohesive unit, putting aside their ambitions, disagreements and self-interests, but they must be able to float an idea that rivals the BJP’s renewed call for “decisive leadership, consistency in policy direction and a strong and stable government” in 2019.

Laser focus on Narendra Modi, paucity of ideas, regurgitation of cynicism: Mamatas United India Rally played to BJPs strengths

The Opposition’s laser focus on the prime minister has turned it into a greater presidential contest than even the BJP would have hoped for. Image/@AITCofficial

In his blog, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley poses a question. He asks should India’s prime minister be hamstrung by his/her rival aspirants who have reluctantly supported him/her out of mere dislike for a common opponent, or does India need a prime minister who enjoys a clear mandate and is in a position to “deliver growth and satisfy the nation’s aspirations”?

BJP’s biggest advantage is that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is seen widely as a mandate for, or against Modi — a prime minister whose personal ratings continue to be high and well above his rivals. The BJP has been trying to turn the election into a personality-oriented presidential contest —so that it may cash in on Modi's popularity. The Opposition should ideally have focused on issues rather than personality to fragment the polls into 543 hyper local contests, but it has ironically aided BJP’s game plan by focusing on Modi and trying to incessantly run him down.

The Opposition’s laser focus on the prime minister has turned it into a greater presidential contest than even the BJP would have hoped for.

Under the circumstances, the Opposition's best gambit would be to focus on the gap between NDA’s promises and expectations and lay a roadmap before the electorate detailing the ways in which the coalition, if voted to power, hopes to meet the gap. Some of it will likely be visible as we move closer to the date but so far, the curious band of the ambitious and the insecure have failed to provide a single positive idea beyond a negative campaign and a seat-share arithmetic.

Even if we leave aside for now the contentious issue of who will lead the amorphous ‘mahagathbandhan’ — an issue that is more important than the leaders are willing to accept — Saturday’s ‘United India’ rally could have been a marvelous opportunity to test drive some ideas before a huge gathering and national audience. But, as Jaitley has pointed out in his latest Facebook blog on Monday, “there was not a single speech reflecting the positive idea which the leaders proposed for the future. Negativism was writ large in their approach.”

We witnessed little else beside a regurgitation of the old narrative of 'secularism' and a clarion call to 'save democracy and the Constitution'. The diversity of leaders on stage was matched only by the paucity of ideas that they represented. What exactly did Sonia Gandhi (via Mallikarjun Kharge), N Chandrababu Naidu, Yashwant Sinha, Mamata Banerjee or others mean by “saving democracy and Constitution”?

Psephologist-turned politician Yogndra Yadav told news agency PTI that the “huge gathering (in Kolkata)” had no ideology. “What is your agenda? There was no discussion on that. You had no talks on the problems the farmers are facing, and on unemployment. I believe this coalition lacks vision,” Yadav was quoted as saying. He also highlighted the irony of Mamata calling Modi ‘anti-democratic’ and Sharad Pawar, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati claiming to rid country of corruption. “This is a big joke”, he said.

Yadav has a point. If paucity of ideas was not enough, the narrative that emerged was hypocritical. No sooner did Mamata accuse Modi of “crossing all limits in politics”, emerged the news that the Trinamool Congress administration in West Bengal had blocked BJP president Amit Shah’s chopper from landing in Malda — an area where the BJP is gaining in strength — ahead of Tuesday’s key rally.

An India Today report said that the Malda district administration has denied permission to the BJP ostensibly on grounds of “upgradation” and “maintenance work” but the newspaper claims to have visited the airport and “found that the helipad area and the runway was clean and devoid of construction material. This was completely opposite to what the district administration had claimed in its letter while turning down BJP's request."

Incidentally, the Supreme Court recently upheld West Bengal government’s objections against BJP’s plans to organise ‘rath yatras’ in the state but asked the Mamata Banerjee administration to ensure that BJP is allowed the freedom to organise rallies and public meetings in the state. In light of the Supreme Court’s judgement, and assuming that the news report is factual, Mamata’s charge of “saving democracy” by “ousting Modi" sounds deeply ironic.

This isn’t the first time that Mamata has denied space to the BJP or the RSS to organise rallies and public meetings. The saffron unit has been forced to knock on the judiciary on multiple occasions. (See here and here).

The moot point is the leader of a party that indulges in heavy handed tactics to stifle its political opposition is in no position to claim the high moral ground on ‘saving democracy and Constitution’. Panchayat polls, held last year in Bengal, saw large-scale violence, booth capture, rigging, ballot box burning and murders. Rival candidates were attacked, rigging was carried out allegedly by TMC goons in full view of officials, 13 political workers were killed and over 50 were injured in violence across the state.

It isn’t known how the Congress reacted to suggestion emanating from the podium on Saturday that EVMs should be junked in favour of a return to ballot boxes, but the subversive suggestion is reflective of the bankruptcy of ideas that marked the ‘United India’ jamboree.

The grand alliance may theoretically eclipse BJP’s grand strategy, but for it to work the leaders need to move beyond optics, overwhelming stress on seat-sharing arithmetic and regurgitation of cynical notions. They need to promote a policy document, foster new ideas and present a credible narrative. By that metric it is hard to classify Saturday’s Opposition a success. If anything, it ironically played to BJP’s strengths.

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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2019 14:26:20 IST

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