"THEY say Indira Hatao, I say Garibi Hatao”. With these eight simple words, Indira Gandhi vanquished the Grand Alliance of opposition parties in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections. That 'Mahagathbandhan', if we would like to call it by a term that has now become popular, had been forged among the Indian National Congress (O), Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP), Praja Socialist Party (PSP), Swatantra Party and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. It had heavyweight leaders such as K Kamaraj, Morarji Desai, S Nijalingappa, Minoo Masani, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Some of these leaders had been active in national politics, and also in the Congress party, for much longer than Indira Gandhi.
Furthermore, the Congress party had suffered a vertical split just two years earlier in 1969 ─ between Congress (O) and Congress (I), ‘O’ standing for original and ‘I’ standing for Indira which meant, she was not the sole leader of the Congress; many party stalwarts had come together to challenge her bid for power.
Yet, all of them together were no match to Indira Gandhi. She led her faction of the Congress to a massive victory with 352 out of 518 seats. The Grand Alliance won a mere 53 seats.
Grand Alliance 2.0
Fast forward to 2024, and we now have a new version of the Grand Alliance of 26 opposition parties, which just concluded its third meeting in Mumbai.
Unlike the previous one, it has given itself an attractive name INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance). If one listened to the speeches of the leaders of all its constituent parties, it was clear that their principal agenda was to defeat Modi in the next parliamentary elections.
This begets a question: Are we going to see Modi borrow a line from Indira Gandhi’s electoral lexicon and counter the current Grand Alliance with his own variant of the slogan ─ “They say Modi Hatao, and I say …… Hatao”?
That is unlikely. Also unlikely is Modi achieving the scale of Indira Gandhi’s success in 1971.
Part of the answer to this lies in the difficulty Modi would have in filling the blank space in the above-mentioned slogan. For what can his slogan replace garibi (poverty) with? Will he tell the voters: “They say Modi Hatao, I say Bhrashtachar (corruption) Hatao”? “They say Modi Hatao, I say Parivarvaad (dynasticism) Hatao”? “They say Modi Hatao, I say Tushtikaran (appeasement) Hatao”?
Remember, in his Independence Day speech this year, Modi identified ‘Bhrashtachar’, ‘Parivarvaad’, and ‘Tushtikaran’ as the three malaises our country must get rid of.
Modi Improvising on Indira’s Slogans or Line of Action Won’t Be a Similar Hit
The problem with any of these variations of Indira Gandhi’s slogan is that ‘Bhrashtachar Hatao’, ‘Parivar-vaad Hatao’, and ‘Tushtikaran Hatao’ in 2024 will not have the same emotive power to influence the voters that Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ had in 1971.
She had caught the imagination of the people by nationalising banks in 1969. She had promised to abolish privy purses to the rulers of erstwhile princely states. Later in 1971, she would lead the nation in the war against Pakistan, which led to the latter's partition and liberation of Bangladesh.
Modi’s popularity today as a ‘strong leader’, a lot of it due to media management, pales before that of Indira Gandhi fifty years ago.
(Let me take a short biographical detour here. As a 14-year-old school student in a small town in Karnataka, with no family background in politics, I was so super charged by the then Prime Minister’s promise of eradication of poverty that I joined the chorus for the victory of the local Congress–I candidate, which he achieved handsomely.)
After being in office for ten years, and now seeking a third term, Modi cannot sway the voters by his promise of eradicating corruption. His own party’s compromises on the issue of corruption are well known to the people.
He surely has a point when he says that our country’s politics should be free from family-controlled parties. But Modi is not going to get yet another mandate on the basis of this promise because our voters still don’t see it as such a big issue.
Yes, the promise of putting an end to '(Muslim) appeasement politics’ is resonant, but it resonates only with the BJP’s committed voters. The over 60 percent of the voters who did not vote for the BJP in 2014 and 2019 are not going to vote for it in 2024 because of this promise.
Therefore, Modi’s pitch to the voters will have to rest on the successes of his two-term government, and a promise to enlarge and further consolidate them. No doubt, India has made solid progress in some areas since 2014. Our economy is doing much better than other large economies. Our infrastructure has been modernised and expanded in ways that are visible to the people, even though India is still far behind China in this respect.
Our network of world-class highways is much bigger than before. Even though the recent rail accidents are tragic, the sight of Vande Bharat trains has given a new look to Indian Railways ─ and this has not gone unnoticed by the aspirational section of the middle class, whose size is growing.
India’s global profile has gone up considerably, and this too will act as a big plus to the Modi government. In addition, as far as the BJP’s core Hindutva vote base goes, it will continue to be swayed by his politics of communal polarisation.
INDIA Alliance’s Impressive Show in Mumbai
The moot question is: Is this enough to guarantee a renewed mandate to Modi? To frame the question in a different way: even if the BJP wins, will its mandate match what it got in 2019 ─ that is, 303 seats ─ or come anywhere close to that number? As of now, the answer to the first question is: most likely. The answer to the second question is: highly unlikely.
The BJP itself is showing signs of jitteriness for it too knows that there are two gaping holes in its government’s economic performance ─ failure to control prices and failure to generate adequate jobs for the bulging youth population.
Furthermore, at least a section of the voters who supported Modi in 2014 and 2019 ─ not to speak of those who did not support ─ are disenchanted with the government’s attacks on democratic institutions.
Most importantly, what swung the election decisively in Modi’s favour in 2019 was the terror attack on Pulwama just three months before polling and India’s swift cross-border strike on Balakot in Pakistan. So far at least, no development has taken place to create comparable nationalist fervour in favour of the BJP.
There is yet another crucial difference between 2024 and the previous two parliamentary elections ─ opposition unity. Neither in 2014 nor in 2019 had the anti-BJP parties shown as much cohesion as they are doing now.
With each new meeting of these parties ─ first in Patna on 23 June, then in Bengaluru on 17-18 July, and now in Mumbai on 30-31 August ─ the Index of Opposition Unity appears to grow stronger.
The INDIA Alliance passed an important resolution at the Mumbai meeting: "We resolve to contest the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections together as far as possible. Seat-sharing arrangements in different states will be initiated immediately and concluded at the earliest in a collaborative spirit of give-and-take."
NDA’s BJP-Defeating Strategies Need a Thrust
If the Grand Alliance can convert this resolution into action and field a common candidate against the BJP in a maximum number of seats, the BJP could lose a big advantage it had enjoyed in the previous two elections ─ namely, fragmentation of opposition votes.
None elaborated this more persuasively than Rahul Gandhi, who said: “Our alliance represents 60 percent of India's population and if the parties come together efficiently, then a win for BJP is impossible. I can see that there is flexibility among all the leaders in the way we are approaching things.”
The NDA Alliance will need that flexibility in several critical states. The presence of Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav, and Aam Admi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal is surely a morale booster for the alliance. However, it is not going to be easy to conclude a seat-sharing arrangement between the Congress and these parties in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab/Delhi respectively.
If they can clear these hurdles ─ which will require the Congress to understand the ground reality in these states, their collective challenge to the BJP could be formidable.
In two short months, the INDIA Alliance has made impressive progress. Its strength and self-confidence could grow further if Assembly Elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram are held on time, for the Congress looks poised to do well in these states.
(After the Modi government’s move to examine the issue of holding parliamentary and state assembly elections simultaneously, there is now a degree of uncertainty about these elections taking place as scheduled before the end of this year.)
(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)