There’s no reason, as yet, for the somewhat battered BJP behemoth to feel under pressure from the intermittent calls for Opposition unity, even though it is displaying signs of being stressed. The Election Commission’s capitulation over announcing the byelection date for West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s re-election, days after a Trinamul Congress delegation warned the EC it was moving into constitutionally dicey terrain, is one telling incident.
This doesn’t mean the BJP’s dreams of establishing Hindutva hegemony by winning back its reputation as an invincible force have been irreversibly shattered. All it will take is a definitive BJP victory in Uttar Pradesh and the decimation of regional party challengers, plus wins in Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur, since it is unlikely to win in Punjab, after the crushing West Bengal defeat, to restore its image as an unbeatable success. It’s hard to refute the argument that the BJP looks good even as the incumbent party in a state like UP, where the fractures in the Opposition, with multiple parties competing against each other, and the Samajwadi Party unwilling to accept the Congress as a partner and the BSP looking more and more like a spent force, willing to sit on the fence rather than challenge the BJP. Notwithstanding the fissures in the BJP in Uttarakhand, a Congress revival strong enough to challenge the incumbent has not emerged yet.
There is more to winning in UP, Uttarakhand or Goa than merely putting a BJP man in the CM’s chair. Big wins are necessary to ensure the BJP can install its choice without a tussle at Rashtrapati Bhavan and in the vice-president’s chair as both elections are due in 2022 as well. To put the shine back on its tarnished image after the West Bengal blow, the BJP needs wins in the five states going the polls before the presidential and vice-presidential elections in July-August.
The calls for the Opposition to unite and get ready to fight the BJP by Mamata Banerjee and Sonia Gandhi are just that; an appeal with no real substance yet. There has been no successful action by the anti-BJP parties that met on three separate occasions between June and now to rattle the BJP into thinking its position as the dominant force in Indian politics is open to challenge.
Mamata Banerjee’s “Khela Hobe” call may have electrified voters across India and she may no longer be the dark horse of unpredictable prowess after her third term two-thirds majority win in West Bengal, defeating Narendra Modi as the challenger and Amit Shah as the mastermind, but she is not the challenger in any of the state elections that are crucial to the BJP’s hegemonic dreams between now and 2024. The Trinamul Congress’ base is limited to West Bengal, and it is just starting its political fight against the BJP in Tripura, a small state with limited heft in the larger context of national politics.
And yet the anti-BJP Opposition appears upbeat, and the BJP is twitchy. The reason could be that while the maths is right, the mood is wrong. The numbers and variables in Uttar Pradesh would indicate that the BJP is unlikely to face a major challenge from the splintered Opposition. The same is possibly correct for Uttarakhand.
The mood is a different matter altogether. The Modi government’s tactics over the past seven years of grabbing the glory and dumping the failures on states for policies and actions initiated by it is coming home to roost. The BJP is now in the uncomfortable position of defending in the states going to the polls the actions and policies that have fuelled discontent among voters.
The accumulation of negative political capital by the Modi government is an opportunity that the call for Opposition unity clearly perceives as a windfall. By proposing to hold an Opposition conclave that will include leaders of political parties in opposition to the BJP, even though they are not in power in any of the states, Mamata Banerjee is signalling that a coherent and cohesive attack that addresses the growing discontent and seething resentment against the Modi government can be crafted to take on the BJP in the crucial state elections in February-March 2022.
The Modi government has certainly provided enough ammunition to the Opposition to craft the attack. The shortlist of its decisions reads like a text prepared for the Opposition to convert into a political campaign of considerable impact. The plan to monetise assets, for instance, by leasing public sector properties to private enterprises for 25 years is an easy way for the Centre to make a fast Rs 6 trillion but at the cost of stripping value from assets located in the states that get nothing from the exercise. The self-evident truth is that workers and the states will bear the cost of funnelling funds to the Centre is not a politically beneficial move for the BJP, which will need to explain the decision to suspicious voters and counter the Opposition attack, if the Opposition can get its act together.
The Modi government’s decision to pass the buck to the states on Other Backward Castes’ listing without a caste census is also readymade fodder for the Opposition if it can use it effectively in the forthcoming elections in UP. The hefty hikes in the price of gas, diesel and petrol and increases in the price of fertiliser, pesticides, insecticides, cost of power generation has angered consumers from the middle class, farmers, small industries and trade. The farm laws have sparked the world’s longest running protest, now in its ninth month, and another Bharat Bandh is in the offing to mark 10 months of protests. Labour law changes and the virtual ban on strikes has angered the working population across all states.
The list of the Modi government’s policy missteps adds up to an economy that is unable to recover and the consequent distress in urban and rural areas, growing unemployment, badly targeted social benefits that enrich the private sector but deliver little value to the vulnerable. Majoritarian nationalism and the toxic politics of divisiveness over religious identities works best when the economy is not tanking. Hardships that hurt everyone has political consequences that cannot be offset by Hindutva mobilisation.
For the Opposition to work out an agenda based on the specificities of the states going to the polls ought not to be difficult. If that happens, and Mamata Banerjee is working to make it happen, the BJP and the Modi government have a challenge on their hands and no playbook to deflect the attack.