Decoding Bharat Bandh: Who Won the Battle?

Bharat Bandh offers both the Congress and the BJP reasons to cheer and worry, writes Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

5 min read
Did Bharat Bandh give an advantage to the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress?

Paradoxical though this may sound, public response to Monday's Bharat Bandh offers both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party reasons to cheer and worry simultaneously.

For the former, widespread success in states where it is the principal Opposition to the BJP and in states where it has politically significant allies, old or newfound, provides evidence that the party is finally succeeding in converting anti-incumbent sentiment into visible anger against the ruling party.

However, the failure of the party to widen its platform of Opposition parties and convince them to be part of a joint programme is cause for some worry.

This suggests that several strong regional parties, whether incumbents themselves or resurgent forces, are still unwilling to be become part of a bandwagon where the Congress would be considered the natural leader by virtue of its status as a nationwide party.

This could be problematic in states like West Bengal where the party will depend on the mercy of Trinamool Congress to be allotted some seats and win them.

The last factor is the prime reason for the satisfaction within the BJP camp. It would be happy that the bandh and absence of key Opposition parties and their leaders have come a day after its National executive session concluded.

This development will buttress Prime Minister Narendra Modi's belittling of the idea of an Opposition front, contending it was bereft of a programmatic plan for the nation and was driven solely by the agenda to unseat him.

BJP’s spin doctors will now campaign that because Opposition parties could not agree to a Bharat Bandh collectively, it could not be trusted with the reins of the nation.

Palpable Worries for Bhartiya Janata Party?

But the worry for the BJP would be that public anger against it is now not just being expressed through opinion polls and ‘mood of the nation’ surveys and is instead visible on streets through public action.

The success of the bandh, if seen in conjunction with the series of parliamentary and Assembly by-elections since its humbling experience last December in Gujarat, besides at least two major nationwide surveys, spells bad news for the party as it shows that the spell of Modi is beginning to shatter.

Not All Plans of the Congress Are Coming Unstuck

The path of agitations does not come to the Congress naturally and general secretary Ashok Gehlot claimed this was the first time the party called for a Bharat Bandh. The modest success of the programme, especially its ability to get several of its allies on board either to endorse its call or by calling their own agitation to coincide with the Congress programme, is evidence that not all plans of the Congress are coming unstuck.

The party would also feel pleased at the not-so-lukewarm response to the closure call in a state like Telangana where the chief minister not just precipitated an early poll but even used an unkind epithet for Rahul Gandhi.

It must be borne in mind that although parties like the Samajwadi Party and the four communist parties announced their own agitations – the former staged dharnas down to the tehsil levels in Uttar Pradesh while the Left parties held their own parallel protest – the Congress succeeded in projecting unity in public.

This was bolstered by the presence of some leaders from outside the party at its rally in New Delhi.


Congress Touches the Right Chord of Rising Fuel Prices

Recent surveys have indicated that while the issues like fostering communal harmony, protecting autonomous government institutions, safeguarding judiciary from executive interference and preventing the promotion of a culture of hatred are considered most vital by the intelligentsia, the people, the proverbial aam aadmi, are still mainly guided by concerns on basic issues like rising prises, lack of jobs, poor health infrastructure and inadequate civic amnesties.

In this context, the Congress has tactically scored by bringing the issue of rising fuel prices to the centre table.

It must be kept in mind that such agitation may not have immediate impact but history has shown that in the long run, it often leads to a build-up. It is worth recalling the Bharat Bandh call given eight years ago by the National Democratic Alliance, then in Opposition, along with Left parties, on the same issue of rising fuel prices.

Sentiment expressed in this protest eventually escalated and converted into nationwide sentiment against the UPA.

The list of parties which backed the July 2010 shutdown was similar to the one of 21 parties which was released by the Congress on Monday.

Significantly, LK Advani, then the leader of Opposition, claimed that it was possibly the "first ever time that almost all political parties participated in the protest." Some of the names on the list then, for instance the Biju Janata Dal, are absent now, but this is a calculate risk which the party has taken.

The Curious Case of Biju Janata Dal

Evidently, Naveen Patnaik still views the Congress as his primary foe and calculated he has little to gain by opening another front with the BJP and provide it the tag of a credible opponent. The strategy has a chance of boomeranging because the BJD too would have some anti-incumbent sentiment against it, although the party feels it is safe on this count. If Patnaik's assessment turns incorrect, the BJD and the BJP could be at the receiving end of one-another's anti-incumbent sentiment in the national and state polls. The sole beneficiary in that case would be the Congress.

The Bharat Bandh has given an opportunity to the Congress to test its mobilising capacities in states where it will lock horns with the BJP, most importantly Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. It would have reason to be satisfied with this and electoral gains will strengthen its position while negotiating with other Opposition parties in the run up to 2019.

The shutdown also has to be read not just in the backdrop of efforts to forge a united front against the BJP but also in the context of the party's emerging slogan, a re-run of Indira Gandhi's 1971 slogan – Woh kehte hain Indira hatao, Main kehti hoon garibi hatao. The problem for the BJP however, is that Modi has made more than his share of promises and to retain credibility, he must avoid making fresh pledges. This explains the BJP's emphasis on what has been achieved and efforts to drive home to voters that they are on the way to a New India.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a journalist and the author of ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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