Opposition Needs to Wake up and Smell the Coffee: Pavan Varma

An arithmetic coalition won’t work. A new leader needs to emerge, insists Pavan Varma. 

5 min read
Opposition Needs to Wake up and Smell the Coffee: Pavan Varma

As the Narendra Modi-led government turns three, The Quint spoke to Janata Dal (United) leader Pavan Varma to analyse the performance of the Opposition in the years since the NDA government assumed office.

How would you analyse the Opposition’s performance in the last three years?

I think the Opposition needs to wake up and smell the coffee. There is no dearth of issues for the Opposition to marshal its resources to make this government more accountable – on the promises it has made, and the measurable deliverables it has actually yielded.

First, I think the Opposition has a very fractured unity. Second, it has poor coordination mechanisms. Third, I think the opposition isn’t being able to present a robust counter-narrative, and fourth, I think it is reactive. In other words, it reacts to the agenda being set by the government in power rather than simultaneously also positing an alternative paradigm of politics.

Now, unless all of these things come together, I think the Opposition is missing an opportunity because in the three years that we have seen, there were several vital issues that the Opposition could have given a higher profile to.

(Graphic: Lijumol Joseph/The Quint)

Would you agree that every time, the Opposition manages to get embroiled in a sentimental argument instead of using facts to hold the government accountable?

There are two aspects here. The first is that this government has perfected – or at least, vastly improved upon earlier governments – the art of projection, promotion, publicity and hype. Even partial achievements are projected so high that sometimes, I wonder whether the Opposition itself gets mesmerised by the government’s propaganda.

There are issues which need to go beyond merely what the government is saying. For instance, I will give you two very important examples. First, the entire agrarian sector is in crisis. We have farmers committing suicide. Some statistics say a farmer commits suicide over debt every 30 minutes.

Yet, this government is celebrating its three-year anniversary when 60 percent of the people of this country have livelihoods that are linked to agriculture. In fact, the Shiv Sena, which is an ally of the BJP, questioned the need to celebrate three years at a time when so many people in our farming sector are in great distress.

(Graphic: Lijumol Joseph/The Quint)

Take the second issue that everyone is talking about – Jobs. He promised to create 2 crore jobs. We have the statistics before us. In 2016-17, only 2 lakh jobs were created – 2.13 to be precise. That’s 2.13 lakh jobs in eight key sectors of the economy, including manufacturing, construction and IT. Now, compare the promise with the results. We have a situation where lakhs of engineering graduates don’t get jobs. In a country where 65 percent of the population is below the age of 35, the promise of jobs added a great deal of appeal to Narendra Modi’s campaign. But the government’s deliverables are spectacularly different from their electoral promises.

What is the Opposition doing about it? Why do we not see nationwide protests on the jobless growth that has been brought to us? So, there are many issues on which the Opposition can coalesce, but I don’t think they have seized the opportunity strongly enough largely because of the weaknesses within. And I don’t think that they can be rectified and this is the crucial point. Therefore, the Opposition is at an existential moment of sorts in terms of what lies ahead.

I don’t think you can do it through an arithmetical coalition, which is to add up all the parties in the Opposition and somehow accommodate the sterile egos that run many political parties. We can build together a cohesive, alternative political platform which is both credible and capable of convincing people of the need for an alternate narrative. But I don’t believe we have it right now.

(Graphic: Lijumol Joseph/The Quint)

If an arithmetic coalition won’t work, what will?

I think we need to think about this question. You have to ask yourself whether you need, perhaps, a new leader, a new anchorage. You have to ask yourselves whether you need to move out from the known polarities and create a new forum. It’s happened in other countries. It has happened, for instance, in France, spectacularly – Emmanuel Macron created a new party months before the election. People from both the left and the right of the political spectrum joined it, and he won a landslide victory.

I think the Opposition needs to begin to think out of the box. The BJP has the leadership, and it has incumbency momentum. It has an organised cadre, many of whom hold an ideological conviction, whether we agree with it or not. Be it Hindurashtra or Hindutva or whatever, there is an ideological conviction that is moving them.

What is on the other side? Do we have the leadership? Do we have the grass-roots organisation? Do we have a nationwide, pan-Indian organisational structure? Do we have an ideological credo? Have you made the effort for a joint presentation of another form of politics? I don’t believe so.                        


You said an arithmetic coalition won’t work, but your own party, the JDU, is a part of the mahagathbandhan in Bihar. Are you saying they don’t work because of recent reports that all is not well? There are doubts over whether Nitish Kumar has been able to stamp his authority on the government.

I think that without sycophancy, at least I am not affected by it, I would say that the mahagatbandhan in Bihar is working cohesively. The stamp of Nitish Kumar on the government is very clear.

The agendas set before the government are being pursued and monitored almost on a daily basis, but they don’t make headlines. What makes headlines is the occasional tweet, or the occasional statement which seems to indicate that there is either a rift or some lack of cohesion within the Grand Alliance which I don’t believe there is.

I will accept, however, that it is a challenge to run a government with a three-party coalition, because often there are situations where one of the coalition partners may not be entirely in sync with the rest of the Grand Alliance, and that requires management skills.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Nitish Kumar   JDU   Pavan Varma 

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