Opinion

Is the Opposition shooting itself in the foot?

Subir Roy | Updated on March 20, 2019 Published on March 20, 2019

Voting time Crucial polls   -  THE HINDU

Thanks to the Opposition parties’ inability to cobble up a coherent electoral alliance, it is advantage NDA

As the general election campaign gets going in right earnest, a powerful contradiction is emerging. The Opposition has a good case, probably a better one, to make but it is the message of the BJP-led NDA which is coming across as the more compelling.

Perhaps the foremost handicap the Opposition suffers from is a self-inflicted one, the inability to come together comprehensively so as not to split the anti-BJP vote. The simple arithmetic of the distribution of the popular vote in the 2014 elections and the pointers revealed in opinion polls should have yielded some kind of a mahagathbandhan in order to grab a victory that is waiting to be seized. And yet, a grand alliance appears stuck in a halfway house.

The key divisive issue appears to be the Congress’s perception that there is a resurgence in its support and several Opposition parties’ unwillingness to buy this. The Congress has forged alliances in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Jharkhand, but it is the lack of progress in UP, Delhi and West Bengal which is hogging the limelight.

In UP, the major alliance partners, BSP and SP want to keep the Congress in its place, which is virtually outside, in Delhi the Congress wants to severely downgrade AAP and in West Bengal, two groups with a past but barely a future, the Left parties and the Congress, are failing to come together, unconcerned that they matter so little before the biggies — Trinamool Congress and the BJP.

Lack of unity

The inability to have coherent alliances across the country raises questions about the ability to govern without self-destructive squabbling. In contrast the BJP is well ahead in coming to an understanding across the country from Maharashtra to Assam. In Maharashtra the perennially protesting Shiv Sena has fallen in line and in Assam even the AGP which had walked out over the Citizenship Bill has returned to the fold.

The BJP displays the hallmark of a party with a straightforward ideology which its followers can easily relate to and a single undisputed leader without any serious second rung. There is no public airing of differences that goes with vibrant inner party democracy. In such a scenario none questions a supreme leader who is seen to be carrying the party to victory. But should he eventually fail to deliver, the fall will be complete. Hence it is being argued that it is a make or break election for Narendra Modi. In contrast Rahul Gandhi will be able to survive a defeat, unless it is severe and keeps the party where it was after 2014.

The foremost weapon in the hands of the Opposition is the rural distress sweeping the country. The low prices that farmers have been getting for their produce have made it difficult for them to even recover their costs, causing them to take to the streets. Last year several major farmers’ demonstrations hit the country. Poor agricultural incomes have hit the growth in rural wages which have lagged behind inflation.

Along with this the situation on the job front has been a disaster. Modi came to power promising to create 20 million jobs; instead, the CMIE says that 11 million jobs were lost in 2018. Unsurprisingly, the unemployment rate has touched a 45-year high. The employment numbers have been so bad that the government has tried to suppress them, the truth eventually coming out through a newspaper leak.

The idea of India

Formidable as these issues are, the most important message that the Opposition needs to deliver is that the very nature of the India we have known and want is in danger. A divisive Hindutva ideology has alienated Muslims and Dalits. The lynchings by the anti-cow slaughter vigilante have traumatised and taken the livelihood away from poor Muslims who depend on the meat trade. This has also impacted the poor Dalits who live by taking care of the carcasses of dead animals. The countryside today above the Vindhyas is filled with hungry stray cattle who are destroying standing crops. Farmers are now maintaining a vigil round the clock to save their crops and thrashing cattle that try to stray in.

In this situation the terrorist attack at Pulwama has come as a godsend to the BJP. The national outrage over it and the celebratory mood created by the IAF strikes at Balakot have shifted the entire focus of public debate to issues of national security and patriotism. The Opposition has been dubbed unpatriotic for seeking evidence to establish whether the counterattack was effective.

With less than a month to go before the first phase of polling, the key question is whether the election campaign can go back to issues like rural distress, missing jobs and the need to preserve the tolerant and inclusive India that Gandhiji and other founding fathers built. The Opposition needs to go beyond electoral alliance and seat adjustment issues and focus on those which are far more fundamental.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on March 20, 2019
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