We have all read the story about that fabled old man in a village who, on his deathbed, summoned his sons engaged in a dispute. We know how the warring sons realised their folly after failing to break a bunch of sticks and decided to present a “united front”. Now, there are two serious issues with this fable in contemporary times: the old man would summon his sons and daughters. Second, and more important, is the question of what happens to the squabbling sons and daughters if the old man passed away without imparting this life lesson.
That seems to be the state of affairs today as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) victory in four states – all-pro incumbency verdicts – has triggered furious speculation and dozens of questions on the ability of the opposition parties to present a credible “united front” to the voters against a formidable BJP, led by an even more formidable Narendra Modi.
The first question to ask is: are the myriad opposition parties and personalities really interested in actually forging a combined opposition force? Many doubt whether that’s so.
Even if the answer is ‘yes’, the second question is: what will make such a hypothetical “Mahagathbandhan” (grand alliance) a force that the Indian voter thinks can deliver a better government than the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)?
Can Regional Chieftains Swallow their Egos?
The authors are not very optimistic of a resounding ‘yes’ to the first question. Just one piece of hard evidence from the tiny state of Goa that sends two members to the Lok Sabha will explain the reason. In 2017, the BJP literally “stole” a mandate that was almost certainly against it. It won 13 seats compared to 17 won by the Congress in an assembly of 40. The sitting Chief Minister of the BJP lost in his own seat. The Congress was short of just three seats. There were 10 “others” who won on an anti-BJP mandate. And yet, it was the BJP that formed the government.
Let’s forget morality lectures and come back quickly to 2022. The BJP was unpopular and was staring at 10 years of accumulated anti-incumbency sentiments. Both Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress announced that they will fight “separately” and defeat the BJP without the Congress. The AAP at least has been around in Goa for years. But why Mamata Didi decided to rush headlong into Goa will remain a mystery.
The outcome: the BJP wins 20 out of 40 seats, and the Congress 12. The BJP’s vote share was 10% more than the Congress’s. The AAP and the Trinamool together polled 12% anti-incumbent votes, which would have almost certainly gone to the Congress in their absence. No rocket science here, just simple maths.
How Modi & BJP Exploit Ambitions
The BJP gets the support of five more MLAs and forms the government for the third successive time. If ambitious chieftains like Mamata and Kejriwal cannot bury their egos for a tiny state like Goa, what makes you think they will do it when the big throne in Delhi is at stake?
Colleagues of Kejriwal think they were working hard for the last five years in Goa, and they feel that their tally could have been way better if the Trinamool would not have made a last-minute entry.
Post-Punjab, we have to take their assertion seriously. As we write this analysis, the AAP has formally announced their intent to contest elections in West Bengal. Who exactly will they end up hurting? Modi or Mamata? Will Modi and the BJP not ruthlessly exploit, probe, inflate and pamper these egos to ensure that it wins a third successive term in 2024?
No Congress, No United Front
Of course, the dominance displayed by the BJP in these elections might be a wake-up call for them with a ringing alarm that chimes: “we will swim or sink together come 2024”.
Since anything is possible in politics – and a week is a long time in politics – let us assume that all opposition parties would listen to the sage counsel offered by the “unofficial” opposition patriarch, Sharad Pawar, who has been plaintively repeating ad nauseam that a combined opposition with the Congress inside that tent is a minimum necessary condition for defeating the BJP-led NDA in 2024. Every time a Mamata Didi or a KCR comes calling, he mumbles this mantra.
Let’s face it. The veteran grandmaster of political moves, who was once an ambitious Prime Minister aspirant chieftain in 1991 when the Congress settled for a ‘safe’ PV Narashima Rao, has a very valid point. No matter the scale of parties’ sweeping victories in assembly elections in a state or two, fighting the BJP at a national level without the Congress and hoping to dent the Modi juggernaut is delusional, wishful thinking that will take these chieftains nowhere in 2024.
Remember, a similar clutch of chieftains formed a “united front” sans the BJP in 2009 to dislodge the Congress-led UPA. The modest and unassuming Manmohan Singh took the Congress from 145 to 206 Lok Sabha seats as a consequence. Even his ardent admirers will admit that Singh was no charismatic electoral magician. Imagine what a still indefatigable and charismatic Modi is capable of doing.
It's Basic Maths
In any case, it is all about primary school-level arithmetic. Congress still retains a “national” core vote base of close to 20%. How can we just arrogantly write it off as dead, buried and gone, and simply refuse to co-opt the party in a defining battle in 2024?
The Congress is still in direct, bipolar competition with the BJP in 195 Lok Sabha seats. Add 20 of Kerala where it has direct equity in the contest, and the tally goes to 215 Lok Sabha seats where the Congress is in the game for winner or runner-up contest.
Now, add the 101 seats in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-ruled states of Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, where the Congress is still seen as a valuable junior partner. We have not added Bihar in this as Tejashwi Yadav has already dumped Congress.
So, for all practical matters, the Congress and the current UPA allies are in a direct, bipolar contest in 316 Lok Sabha seats. Do the regional chieftains with Prime Ministerial ambitions expect to win a majority by successfully wiping the BJP out in the remaining 227 seats? Last we heard in arithmetic, 227 was supposed to be 45 seats short of the magic figure of 272 in the Lok Sabha. Or do they expect the Congress to come crawling to them in 2024 in the event the BJP falls well short of 272?
And why exactly should Congress do that when the upper limit for Mamata Banerjee remains 42 seats (considering she will win all the seats in West Bengal) and Arvind Kejriwal it remains just 20 seats (considering he will win all seats in Delhi and Punjab)? Let’s just leave K Chandrashekar Rao with a saturation of 17 seats in Hyderabad alone.
All Parties are Dynastic
Besides, why blame the Gandhis alone for the dynastic approach when almost all the parties in the opposition camp are doing the same thing? From the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the Shiv Sena (SS), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the National Conference (NC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), right up to even the Trinamool Congress, everyone is practising dynastic rule within their party structure. The only exceptions – so far – are the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Left.
Modi knows this, and this is why his election speeches are now more concentrated around the opposition of dynasties. Even Narendra Modi doesn’t single out the Congress for being dynastic. So, why should voters single out the Congress on this matter?
The only person within the UPA rank and file with Prime Ministerial ambition is Sharad Pawar, and he clearly knows his maths and these equations rather well. Not without a reason, he keeps underlining that without Congress, any anti-BJP front will remain a non-starter.
Can the Entitled Dynasty Climb Down from Its High Horse?
Clearly, the regional chieftains have to climb down a notch or two from their perches towards the ground reality. But the “entitled” Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has to climb down a lot more from their now-imaginary thrones. Mamata Bannerjee, K Chandrasekhar Rao and Arvind Kejriwal might let Modi win 2024 and remain content for another few years ruling their regional fiefdoms, but they will simply not accept Rahul Gandhi as the putative leader of the opposition.
And why should they? We are not talking about egos here, but their political instincts. It is doubtful if any other major politician of India has such a miserable electoral track record and continues to make decisions for the party, officially as president or actually as non-president.
If there was even an iota of hope left about his ability to conceive smart political strategies, the manner in which Rahul and his sister Priyanka Gandhi destroyed the Congress in Punjab (and sank Uttarakhand along by keeping Harish Rawat occupied in the Punjab mess rather than leaving him to clean up the Uttarakhand mess) in the run-up to 2022 leaves no further doubt except in the minds of family cronies and sycophants.
The Gandhi family has to accept that their glory days are history and they must express willingness to climb down from their high horse and accept a possible non-Congress man or an ex-Congressman like Sharad Pawar as the leader of a credible national alternative. In short, if they are serious, they should remain a part of the UPA omnibus but let an efficient driver drive it.
Besides, even the Congress can very well do better with a non-Gandhi leader in its leadership role. Electorally speaking, the vote share ‘won’ by this remnant of the Gandhi family in its best performance in 2009 was a little above 28%. That was still less than the Congress vote share of 29% in 1996 under Narasimha Rao; the much-celebrated “historic win” of Sonia Gandhi in the 2004 election was actually just a repeat of what Congress under Sita Ram Kesri got in 1998 elections. Sonia Gandhi managed 145 seats with 27% votes in 2004, while locked-in-the-AICC-toilet fame, Sitaram Kesri won 141 seats with 26% votes in 1998 for Congress.
So much for a difference that the Gandhi family made to the fortunes of the Congress by virtue of the toilet coup. Now, compare the Congress under Rahul Gandhi and you will understand the grand success of Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri in the right context and perspective.
The Last Mile Challenge
What next if the ‘dynasty’ actually displays the humility to accept reality and forge a 'united front' against the BJP for 2024, where they are not the automatic leaders from the front or from behind the scenes?
The chances of that happening don’t appear very high, but let’s assume that anything is possible in politics. If this 'united front' is serious about defeating Modi, it must first start by forgetting Modi. No matter who the joint opposition leader is, if s/he is pitted against Modi in 2024 as a national alternative, it’s a lost cause.
Can a clutch of super-ambitious and ego-driven regional chieftains, and a supremely entitled “royal” family, do all this and more in less than two years and start campaigning together for 2024? Well, to again issue the cliché, a week is a long time in politics and stranger things have happened, like castles built on sand staying firm even against a strong breeze.
As many discernible and sensible analysts have been saying since before 2019, Modi will keep making himself the main issue during Lok Sabha elections. The only way to blunt that as a weapon is to focus on the poor performance of BJP leaders (and a big number of inefficient BJP chief ministers) in delivering “economic” and material well-being on bread and butter issues. The opposition must keep hammering the message home to voters that they deserve a better future and a better government. In effect, the opposition has hope only if the Indian voter casts her ballot in 2024 as if it were a series of assembly or some other local municipal elections in their state. In other words, they will have to make it a contest of 543 local municipal elections with hyper-local issues rather than a single national election with national leadership as the only issue.
For all practical purposes, India has been voting as a Presidential system rather than a Parliamentary system. For a long time, the Congress benefited from this, but now, the tables have turned. Going back to the basics of a decentralised, local, first-past-the-post system will be the only way they can ask voters to look beyond the current binaries of pro-Modi/anti-Modi mandates.
To Defeat Modi, Look Beyond Defeating Modi
As long as the Opposition keeps asking people to defeat Modi, the results would ensure a pro-Modi mandate. If they continue their campaign on an anti-Modi narrative, Modi will remain the centre of discussion. The more he wins, the more you campaign against him.
The more you campaign against him, the bigger mandate he manages to get. It’s a circular logic, working like an unstoppable centrifugal force, throwing out the opposition to the periphery. And the entire opposition (and the media sympathetic to them) is only spinning this wheel faster after every defeat.
As a meme from the 2020 Indian film Chhalaang says, “Technique Hi Galat Hai Tumhari (your very technique is flawed).”
(Yashwant Deshmukh is founder & Editor in Chief and Sutanu Guru Executive Director of C Voter Research Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)