Pollster Mamata Banerjee is the first off the blocks in coming out with a forecast for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls before her psephologist peers can even gather and parse through the data. The West Bengal chief minister has predicted that the BJP won't get more than 125 seats in the upcoming General Election. To sound the "death knell" for the BJP's projected demise, the Trinamool Congress is organising a mega 'united Opposition rally' in Kolkata on Saturday where all Opposition leaders are expected to be present.
All except K Chandrashekar Rao, the chief minister of Telangana who advocates a non-BJP, non-Congress federal front. He will give the Opposition's "unity" rally a miss apparently because he "does not want to share the dais with Rahul Gandhi or Chandrababu Naidu". KCR was voted back recently with a thumping majority. Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik won't participate, while Jagan Mohan Reddy's YSR Congress Party is reportedly "undecided". Congress president Rahul Gandhi won't be there, neither will be Sonia. Mayawati, too, will be absent. The BSP chief, a key actor of the 'mahagathbandhan', is sending a senior party functionary. So is the Congress, that will send Mallikarjun Kharge.
It is curious that a rally that has been marked as the Opposition's show of unity will miss the participation of so many leaders. The reasons are clear. Rahul and Sonia's presence at the rally will remove the last vestiges of legitimacy that the Congress' comatose Bengal unit still retains. Both are aware that the rally serves a dual purpose for the Bengal chief minister. It is Mamata's effort to bring all non-BJP parties together, and simultaneously use the platform to launch her prime ministerial ambitions. That makes it awkward for Rahul as well as Mayawati, both of whom see themselves as prime ministers-in-waiting. Mamata is gearing up for a role in Delhi, and at the very least sees herself as a kingmaker.
KCR, meanwhile, is not interested in any having truck with the Congress, and Patnaik wants to keep his options open. Reddy, too, is keeping cards close to his chest. Much will depend on the Lok Sabha results. To sum up, the Opposition's mega 'unity rally' has become a show of disunity instead, showcasing ironically the pulls and pressures of coalition politics by regional chieftains who have nothing but "Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself/ And falls on th’other...," as the bard writes in Macbeth.
Where the 'mahagathbandhan' does work, the focus is entirely on the arithmetic. The Samajwadi Party-BSP-RLD tie-up in Uttar Pradesh, the most consequential state in Indian national politics, is a tactical adjustment between two sworn enemies to botch the BJP's chances, with the Congress playing the role of the joker in the pack. The alliance makes immense political sense in terms of vote share, caste, community and religion calculations. Both parties have no overlapping voter base and even a reasonable transfer of votes should be enough to defeat the BJP. But the overwhelming focus remains on maths. It is the same politics of calculation that has prompted the Congress to offer the chief minister's seat to the JD(S) in Karnataka so that the BJP, the single largest party, can be denied the chance to regain power.
The very fact that such alliances, tactical adjustments and unlikely coalitions are taking place ahead of the General Election point to the counterfactual — that Narendra Modi has become the most decisive factor in Indian politics. He has forced a shift in political tectonic plates and the upheavals are being felt all across India. Mayawati claims that Modi and Amit Shah will now spend "sleepless nights" but the irony — that she was forced to join hands with a party that once tried to physically assault her — escapes her. Mamata predicts that the BJP won't get more than 125 seats, yet her administration is fighting tooth and nail against the BJP's campaign plans in Bengal.
A leader confident of the TMC's chances (Mamata hopes to bag all 42 seats) need not feel perturbed by rallies or yatras — unless of course these pose a threat to law and order. The Supreme Court has asked the BJP to submit a revised plan, but rest assured we haven't heard the last of this story.
Opposition disunity at a 'unity rally', partisan postures over even basic necessities such as universal healthcare (five non-BJP states are not interested in it) and the banding together of political rivals betray an insecurity that underlines the politics of calculation. This insecurity found an apt expression in Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's statement that the 'Nawabs of Negativity' may come together, but won't carry much credibility among the people because "the premise of the Opposition is a negative one: How to get one man out".
Jaitley is entitled to make a political statement. But when he makes a distinction between policy continuity, stability, decisiveness, ability to take up challenges, and a "weak, fragile combination where survival is the priority and policy probably comes very low down in the priority", it is hard to disregard the logic.
For all their mathematical calculations, invoking of apocalyptic scenarios and charges of malign ineptitude against the Modi government, the fact remains that the Opposition has not been able to show what they stand for, except an existential need to oust one man from power. The BJP government has a report card — however failing, inadequate or successful — to take the voters and a plan for the future. Critics who still retain their balance instead of falling into the trap of partisan politics are of the opinion that "India is in a far better place today than it was six years ago if one looks at the three main indications of economic stability — inflation, fiscal deficit, current account gap" although they also point out that "some of the deeper structural challenges to economic growth are still staring us in the face".
We know the Modi government has done, or not done. Where it succeeded or where it failed. What it plans to do or does not plan to do. What we do not know is what the Opposition parties stand for. Their laser focus has been on stitching alliances to somehow prevent the BJP from retaining power. We have, till date, no idea of their political roadmaps, economic vision, policy challenges except fuddy-duddy notions of 1980s socialism and snake-oil economics.
Where the Congress, that hopes to lead the Opposition by defeating the BJP, has been in power in states, it has doubled down on the dubious policies of the BJP. For instance in Rajasthan, the new Congress government is doubling down on cow politics. The Opposition has so far, through its actions, reinforced the BJP's charge that the choice for the voters in 2019 is between confusion and clarity, roadmap and chaos, leadership and vaulting ambitions of 'Nawabs of Negativity'.
Unless caste and community calculations trump aspirations of an emerging India slowly confident of its place in the world, the upcoming election may well prove Jaitley's contentions correct, that only a prime minister with a clear mandate can put India on the trajectory of growth and stability instead of a premier who is one among many rival aspirants.
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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2019 15:17:57 IST