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With Modi 'Presidentialising' Elections, 'INDIA' Needs Cohesion on the Ground

The "seat adjustments" being talked about are vital in INDIA's intended victory march.

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If there is one sobering thought that the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) ranged against Prime Minister Narendra Modi must entertain for their own good, it is this: "Hope is not a plan. And confidence is not a substitute for strategy."

As the motley group of unlikely bedfellows brought together by the adversity of being steamrollered by a towering Modi gathered in Mumbai's Grand Hyatt this week, what we could see was a wave of optimism and some action that suggested deeper thinking.

But it is going to take much more to unseat a man who has ruled India for a decade now in a manner that has ruffled many a feather and weathered many a storm.

We may look at the history of previous opposition alliances against the once-dominant Congress party as a clue to what could happen, even as we pause for a moment to digest the irony of the Congress itself being in the shoes where Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) once stood.

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Flashback: The Forerunners to 'INDIA'

The lesson, equally weighed in optimism and realism, is that you never say never in politics.

A flashback suggests that the Janata Party (1977), National Front (1989), and, United Front (1996), the forerunners to the INDIA grouping in the previous century, fell to ambition and intrigue, while the United Progress Alliance (UPA) of 2004, in which the Congress became more of a comeback kid in a well-thought-out alliance, managed to last a decade in power under Dr Manmohan Singh this side of 2000.

If the INDIA Alliance is to be more like UPA and less like the predecessor coalitions, a lot of thinking and doing is needed.

To be fair, the alliance, whose party count stands at an unwieldy 28, has formed a lead committee on coordination and strategy, besides focus panels on campaigning, media, social media and research issues, suggesting a plan is indeed in place.

However, in the absence of a convenor and towering leader, the jury should still be out, to say the least.

A key point to note is that unlike in the Congress rule years, there is no significant anti-incumbency wave in sight, as it seemed to be the case in 1977, 1989, and 1996.

Last week's Pew Research survey showed Modi still topping popularity ratings. Thus, the Congress-led INDIA (that is what in the end it is based on the number of states in its reach) has to go several extra miles, not just a mile, in making the grouping work.

Politics, especially electoral politics, is more fluid in a multi-cultural parliamentary democracy like India. Is there something in the woodwork that might hurt Modi and provide a Black Swan scenario for the opposition to cash in on?

If one looks at how the BJP lost Karnataka, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh state elections in recent months despite Modi's personal campaign blitzes, there is a case for opposition optimism.

However, Modi has successfully "presidentialised" India's parliamentary culture enough for any challenger group to frequently face the question: Who is your leader, anyway?

Nevertheless, state election results suggest that Modi's hard work and his national image seem to matter more than any personal charisma.

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The Inflation Monster

There is no sign of Modi fatigue yet but there are clear signs that he is going to be held accountable for economic issues that touch the average voter.

In such a context, Modi's recent climbdown from his "no-freebies" pedestal as he boosted subsidies to cut cooking gas cylinder prices shows that there is no let-up in his hard work.

But inflation is a strange electoral monster.

Both Reserve Bank of India governor Shaktikanta Das and finance minister Nirmala Sitharman have spoken in recent days of supply-side issues that keep prices of food products high. I have always believed that political inflation is of a different flavour from the statistical/economist variety. What people feel is more important than what economists say or spokespersons claim - and that has electoral implications.

The price of a vegetarian thali prepared at home shot up by 34 percent over July, according to a Crisil study. Tomatoes visibly and symbolically led to this but there is a lot else in the food basket that led to the surge. Global oil prices rose to seven-month highs last week on supply worries. This can cause a knock-on effect on the prices of nearly everything in the coming months.

That is not good news for any ruling party in an election year. Recent reports of a monsoon shortfall is another undeniable factor that might eventually influence electoral outcomes. It must be remembered that GDP growth is a good conversation starter in middle-class living rooms but not in a rural chai shop, the spot from where Modi powered himself to lead the world's most populous democracy.

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Seat Adjustments and Ground-level Cohesion

But the INDIA grouping's ambition-and-fear warts showed visibly when there were reports that Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee skipped the final press conference at Mumbai because she had apprehensions about her Trinamool Congress being jolted by old foe Indian National Congress in her home base.

Ergo, the "seat adjustments" being talked about are vital in INDIA's intended victory march, which is going to be a lot like hand-to-hand combat in a war.

In a war, mighty air forces may make visible impact, but territories are really captured by slow-moving infantry divisions. In its electoral equivalent, speeches and campaign rhetoric are like air power, but what matters ultimately are constituency-level adjustments.

This is particularly relevant in a context where the BJP's Amit Shah has contributed a new expression to India's electoral vocabulary: "Panna pramukh" or "voter-list chief" (someone who represents last-mile votes in a booth-to-booth scenario). The BJP likes to leave absolutely nothing to chance.

We are not even talking of election funding yet. Elections cost money (much as parties sidestep discussing that issue). The BJP's electoral bond pile is decidedly a heap above the rest.

Also, any win for the INDIA grouping must keep in mind a post-election scenario. Caste-based parties with ambitions resting on the spoils of power have been post-election spoilers in the past. Such leaders are mouthing words of statesmanly unity in the current scenario. Will they turn urbane and urban enough to walk the "give-and-take" mood they speak of?

Last but not least, Modi shows no sign of resting on his laurels. His grandstanding with a one-nation-one-election project and convening a special session of Parliament after this month's India-led G20 summit show that he has confidence in himself above all else.

The INDIA group badly needs a positive agenda that goes beyond Modi-baiting. So far, Modi seems to have had a political Teflon coating: criticism often does not seem to stick to his skin. This may be because the criticism often does not touch the everyday lives of millions of Indians swathed in a mix of welfare sops and visually pleasing national pride paraded in moon-rockets and global summits.

The Congress party's winning "five guarantee" approach in Karnataka's state victory showed that a positive vote-pulling agenda is not beyond the capability of the INDIA grouping but to replicate such an agenda amid fiscal pressures in a nationwide coalition gambit is something else. As they say: Watch this space.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(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:  United opposition 

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