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MasterChef INDIA: The Cooks Gather, but Where’s the Storm?

Its signature ‘broth’ is to defeat the BJP. The problem lies with their differing, and at times, competing recipes.

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“Too many cooks spoil the broth” has been a referential proverb attached to the INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) bloc since its formation. It stems from the complexity that many of these parties have for the longest time been each other's enemies, and circumstantially continue to remain so.

While the bloc’s signature ‘broth’ is to defeat Modi and the BJP, the problem lies with their differing and at times, competing recipes.

The fragrance of such recipes were once again in the air at the Loktantra Bachaao’ rally in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan on 31 March. Several prominent political cooks from 17 Opposition parties of the INDIA bloc gathered to stir the Indian political pot. Although, this time, it seemed unclear which broth was to be cooked in the pot and whether the recipes in hand were appropriate. 

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What’s on the Menu: Kejriwal, Democracy or Self-assurance? 

“INDIA's mega rally in Delhi against the arrest of CM @ArvindKejriwal ji,” tweeted AAP’s Gopal Rai, on 28 March. On the morning of the rally, the party’s official handle further reiterated Rai’s tweet. AAP’s attempt to keep Kejriwal at the centre of this rally was contradicted by Congress’ Rajya Sabha MP and media chief Jairam Ramesh who said that the rally will not be centred around any individual but focus on several issues, particularly saving India’s democracy and the Constitution.

Despite this, Kejriwal remained the top item on the menu for the AAP and its leaders at the rally. AAP’s Brigade de Cuisine was led by Kejriwal’s wife and an ex-IRS officer, Sunita Kejriwal who called her husband a “lion” whom the BJP ‘will not be able to keep in jail for too long’. She then proceeded to read Arvind Kejriwal’s draft of “Six Guarantees of the INDIA alliance” for the whole country. These guarantees were borrowed from AAP’s Delhi model of governance focussing on affordable and accessible electricity, education and healthcare, MSP to farmers, and full statehood for Delhi. This read as AAP’s manifesto more than INDIA’s which was substantiated as Sunita Kejriwal followed up with Kejriwal’s apology to fellow alliance partners for having “unilaterally declared the guarantees”.

Other Opposition leaders focussed on the larger theme of safeguarding India’s constitution, the federal structure and the democracy at large. “We are not here for the election campaign, we are here to protect democracy,” said BJP’s erstwhile ally Uddhav Thackeray. The Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) Rajya Sabha MP Sagarika Ghose blamed the BJP government for trying to “finish the federal structure” referring to the alleged non-release of funds meant for the welfare of the poor in West Bengal. Rahul Gandhi accused the Centre of “trying to fix the polls” and emphasised that the upcoming election was “not ordinary” in nature as India’s democracy and constitution were at stake. 

Amidst the focus on Kejriwal and safeguarding democracy, the strongest undercurrent through this rally was reinstating the assurance within and outside the alliance that all is well between them through a show of strength event. This was the bloc’s third gathering in March following the Patna (3 March) and Mumbai (17 March) rallies which were comparatively low on the strength of leaders.

The bloc’s complexity has been on display primarily during the seat-sharing talks in different states such as West Bengal, Punjab, Maharashtra etc. This complexity has led to no seat-sharing agreement in the state of West Bengal and intense bickering in the states of Punjab and Maharashtra between the alliance parties leaving a sword constantly hanging on the future of INDIA.

Thus, the need for internal and external self-assurance was felt the strongest by the bloc. TMC MP Derek O’Brien on behalf of the absent Mamata Banerjee asserted that his party “was, is, and shall remain a part of the INDIA alliance”. Congress President and INDIA chairperson Mallikarjun Kharge was quite forthcoming on this issue and said, “First we have to learn to stay united and not to think of breaking each other. This should be our policy.” 

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A Flaw in the Recipe? 

The broth remains uncooked because the recipes remain flawed due to the absence of three key ingredients: flawed narrative, absence of cohesive action and weak optics. One way to build public sympathy for Kejriwal would have been for the AAP and the bloc to lay out all the details about the liquor gate scandal and create a narrative about Kejriwal’s innocence. Instead, AAP’s Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann pushed the rhetoric of “Arvind Kejriwal is the name of an ideology”. A rhetoric which slyly attempts to pitch Kejriwal against Modi which is already a skewed attempt. The remarks in the rally from the leaders of other parties did not help either wherein they only questioned the timing of the arrest and not the substance of it. Instead, they suggested that Kejriwal could have been arrested after the elections thus leaving doubt in their belief about Kejriwal’s innocence. 

All talk and no play makes INDIA a dull alternative. The glaring absence of cohesive action has been a constant feature of the alliance. In an attempt to give a certain constructive structure to the rally, Priyanka Gandhi laid our five demands that encapsulate all the key issues mentioned on the dias:  level-playing field in the elections; state-led forceful action against the Opposition; Soren and Kejriwal’s release; attacks on Opposition finances; an SIT to probe funds raised by the BJP through electoral bonds. Two questions arise: By when do these demands need to be fulfilled and what happens if they are not? Nor did Priyanka attach a tentative timeframe for the fulfilment of these demands and nor did any leaders convey a possible plan of action if these demands are not fulfilled.

Once again, the optics seem to have been a nemesis of the INDIA bloc. There is no novelty in viewing this rally as a successful show of unity anymore. Since its formation in July 2023, this has been the primary USP of all the bloc rallies. Things could have been different this time around.

First, it took the alliance 10 days after Kejriwal’s arrest to get together thus losing a lot of initial momentum. Second, one wonders why former Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren’s arrest by the ED on 31 January on the allegations of land corruption did not rile up the Opposition so strongly. In the aftermath of Kejriwal’s arrest, Soren seems like an afterthought. Third, the overall optics since the beginning and especially after Kejriwal’s arrest could have been different. A simple show of strength rally is not sufficient to portray the seriousness of the bloc’s big-ticket accusations against the government such as corruption (electoral bonds), unlawful use of government agencies, political detentions, and the threat to the constitution and democracy amongst others.

Good old ground protests have shown their utility and impact in the near past on the issues of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and farmer protests. A mobilised Opposition unity on the ground should have been ready to serve the broth by now, but instead, the Opposition chefs have gathered once again and have failed to cook up a storm.  

(Ashutosh Nagda is a German Chancellor Fellow at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) in Berlin and researches and writes on India’s foreign policy and domestic politics. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

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