Options for Opposition

By Asit Manohar

While we’ve been fretting over our political discourse going into the gutter with “Clown Prince”, “Chowkidar chor hai” and “bird-dropping”, a rare but predictable conviviality has broken out in the playground where the real political game is on. The smiling pictures and alliance between the Telugu Desam Party and the Congress is just one example.

Sworn enemies are hugging. Old friends are cruising, looking for new dalliances. If the political space now looks like a kind of singles bar, you know what kind of election 2019 is going to be.

Indian political history tells you that a powerful leader, especially one with a majority, is never—at least not yet—defeated by a challenger. Only that leader has the power to defeat himself. Or herself, as was the case with Indira Gandhi in 1977. People were not voting for someone in preference to her. Except in the South, they were voting against her, to punish her for Emergency excesses.

If Indira Gandhi defeated herself in 1977, so did Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. While VP Singh led the campaign in the heartland, he was by no means a clear prime ministerial candidate or rival to Rajiv. It was Rajiv’s missteps, from the Shah Bano case to Bofors and then Ayodhya that made his party’s most committed vote banks leave in anger.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in 2004, was a popular leader, though he didn’t have a majority. There was no combined opposition against him, and no challenger for his job. He lost because of his party’s arrogance in claiming victory too soon: Advancing elections, exaggerated ‘India Shining’ claims, losing key allies and getting others (Chandrababu Naidu, for example) wiped out because of his inability to respond firmly to the Gujarat riots of 2002. To that extent, Vajpayee also defeated himself. These three elections in the 1977-2004 years teach us that the so-called TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor is a formidable reality, but not the only one.

What is this unique sadomasochism of the Indian voter that she sometimes decides to throw out a powerful leader even when an alternative is not available? It cannot be explained as anti-incumbency, as governments have won second terms, even coalition governments twice in recent decades (Vajpayee, 1999, and Manmohan Singh, 2009). One way of explaining this could be that the voter is guided by the TINA factor even they are dissatisfied. But if they get angry, they just wants to boot out the incumbent. Never mind who comes to power.

The question we are asking is, is the Modi government at that point yet?

Let’s not seek that answer from pundits, but examine what opinion poll data is available. All reasonably serious polls, led by India Today’s, indicate a common trend: A steady decline in the Modi government’s popularity, but it is very gradual. Overall, the numbers are still way ahead of the opposition. You can, therefore, rule out at this point the possibility of, let’s call it, a ‘Rejection Vote’, as in 1977, 1989 or 2004. A second term then would be likely, although possibly without a majority and in a BJP-led coalition.

There is one way it definitely won’t change, and two ways it could. Presenting another prime ministerial choice, whoever it might be, from Rahul Gandhi to Mayawati, is not going to defeat Modi. It will guarantee his victory. He will make it a one-on-one presidential election. No opposition leader is ready yet to take him on in frontal combat. So that is ruled out. Along with it, the idea of a grand alliance remains what it always was: A fantasy. You cannot have a grand alliance without a leader.

Here are the two ways Modi could be defeated. His popularity, opinion polls show, is not rising (unlike UPA’s in 2008-09), but slowly depreciating. Can the opposition build this discontent into anger in the next six months? It is possible, but unlikely. Rafale still isn’t becoming Bofors, although some of the mistakes the Modi government is making in responding to it are like Rajiv Gandhi’s.

There are farmers’ issues and fuel prices, but reasonable inflation, especially in food prices, counters this. There is no Jayaprakash Narayan or VP Singh to build this into an angry election. Rahul Gandhi isn’t achieving this yet. One reason his allegation of BJP’s nexus-with-Anil Ambani-and-corporate-cronies campaign isn’t finding sufficient traction yet is that the Congress itself is known for its proximity with the same corporates, especially the Ambanis. We can rule out a ‘rejection vote’ today.

The second strategy is to not fight Modi in one national election with one general at the head of one opposition ‘army’, but to engage him in many small, state-level (not regional) battles, against strong local leaders and limited local alliances, where psephological sense overrides ideological contradictions. That’s what Chandrababu Naidu and Rahul Gandhi are doing in Telangana and likely, going ahead, in Andhra Pradesh. Remember, besides the Shiromani Akali Dal, TDP has been the most anti-Congress regional party in India. In 2013, Naidu had famously accused Sonia Gandhi of dividing Andhra Pradesh with the only (ulterior) motive of making her son the prime minister. Now he’s hugging and smiling at cameras with him. There is no better unifier than a common enemy you fear.

The BJP isn’t a big factor by itself in Andhra-Telangana, but without an ally in the two states which account for 42 seats, it will suffer a disadvantage. The BJP will also find it difficult to make this a Modi-versus-Rahul contest rather than Andhra Pradesh-versus-the-BJP. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP is at a disadvantage yet, as its default ally is the unpopular AIADMK. But that die isn’t cast yet. The next tussle for a regional alliance will be in Tamil Nadu. You cannot rule out the BJP dumping the AIADMK and winning back the DMK. Remember, we said this is a predictably convivial political season. If permanent adversaries like TDP and Congress, SP and BSP can come together, there is nothing to stop DMK and BJP, who’ve been allies in the past. But if it doesn’t happen, the Congress/opposition strategy of fighting the BJP in many small, state-level battles, will move a step forward.

Of the bigger states, Maharashtra, Bihar and West Bengal have their politics pretty much cemented. Karnataka, you can never be sure, so it is open. In the heartland, the SP-BSP deal isn’t done or certain, but it looks logical and likely. Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan could be straight Congress-BJP contests but again, where BSP and some smaller, ethnic parties go will make a difference.

Both the Congress and BJP will seek out these allies for marginal advantage as they would in Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Assam — where the BJP-led government is in coalition. Prafulla Mahanta’s AGP is chafing at the differential treatment BJP wants to give Hindu and Muslim “foreigners”, as identified by the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In Punjab, the BJP will be at a disadvantage as it will still be Congress versus Akali Dal and not Modi/BJP. Is a Congress-AAP arrangement in Delhi and Punjab possible? Unlikely, but after TDP-Congress, who knows.

This seems the most likely course of politics. There may not be a grand alliance, but many state-level alliances. Through these, the opposition will be able to engage the BJP in many smaller battles, against popular local leaders. The Modi-Shah strategy would be to deny the opposition this flexibility and yank the process to a presidential contest with Rahul. That is how 2019 is set up. The opposition has made the first move in Andhra-Telangana.