How will a credible challenger to the incumbent Prime Minister emerge?
The current wisdom, and most opinion polls, indicate that the PM’s popularity is overwhelming, leading to the TINA (there is no alternative) factor.
The largest Opposition party’s leadership, even as it asks the government the right questions, fails to make any impact. There is a lack of credibility in its present leadership and little hope that it will improve in a hurry.
The divided Opposition also hasn’t been able to throw up a candidate who will hold appeal on a pan-India basis. Many chief ministers and other regional leaders have local spheres of influence, but don’t have a presence in most areas outside their direct domain. As a result, the nation doesn’t have a credible leader in sight who could effectively take on the PM, let alone be considered as a replacement.
The question is -- how will one emerge?
Over time, India has thrown up regional leaders, particularly CMs, who had the ability and in fact have shouldered the responsibility of leading the country. Even the present PM falls into that category. Experience as a CM is an important ingredient in the grooming of a Prime Minister. It’s not necessarily a sufficient one, but certainly an indicator of where potential challengers could emerge.
Recent developments, including but not limited to a steep decline in economic performance, most recently reflected by the 23.9 per cent negative GDP growth; using majoritarianism to impose divisive steps like the CAA, NRC, and the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitition, are illustrative. The domination of multimedia communications to reinforce this divisive agenda, dilution of protective democratic institutions are all well known, but have not been catalysts of bringing about changed electoral attitudes. This is not new. But it seems that recent developments which have aggravated friction in Centre-state ties could become a powerful trigger, which if properly institutionalised and propagated, might provide the route to change.
What is suggested is the creation of an institutionalised forum that could become one of the supportive pillars of democracy. The compulsion to create such an institution will come from the growing Centre-state rifts. The reneging on GST commitments, intruding on the states’ domain in agriculture to pass legislation without due consultation, amending laws to take control of the cooperative finance sector and authoritarian use of the Disaster Management Act for centralised pandemic management are some examples.
These should become the trigger for states (in practice, non-BJP states) to join hands in a formal forum. This could comprise the CMs and leaders of the Opposition as members. This would obviously be across party lines, but the membership wouldn’t be decided by political parties. It would comprise the elected representatives in states, including CMs and LOPs, and it could in turn create a body of experienced bureaucrats, legal experts and eminent citizens both to advise the forum headed by CMs as well as act as spokespersons.
The CMs will have credible reach in their states and perhaps beyond. The spokespersons and experts would send appropriately approved messages on behalf of the forum, not themselves. Therefore, it would not rest on their individual credibility, but messaging from a mass based politically credible entity.
Think of such a body that could include people like Raghuram Rajan, Arvind Subramanian, Ravish Kumar, P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Derek O’Brien, Shashi Tharoor and others that the CMs/LOPs and other leaders with their ear to the ground would choose. In essence, good communication skills would be backed by experience to send collective messages on matters of importance to the people.
The focus of coordination would be Centre-state relations, but clearly it would also include matters of importance to the nation as a whole.
The process of creating such an institution is far less complex and more administratively feasible than trying to create alliances between parties and multiple states. The forum also has the advantage of creating a competitive environment where state CMs and LOPs could compete for visibility to get their points of view across to their constituents and also become examples for a wider audience. This process would throw up potential leaders who would get wider acceptability from their states as well as the national audience.
There are several important issues that remain on the backburner, but which need to be debated and brought to the forefront. For the present, we will use one example as an illustration of what if collectively rather than individually brought into the public domain would help bring a new important discourse of material relevance to change the course of events in India.
Today, the nationalism card is equated with propagating India’s strength. Combined with majoritarianism, aggressive stances have been taken both internally and now increasingly externally. Electoral benefits have followed.
However, there is no mention, leave alone widespread understanding, of the costs of such a policy. The costs of controlling Kashmir after Article 370’s abrogation, internal insurgencies, and in some ways the minorities, must be researched, assessed and broadcast. The aggressive stances with Pakistan and China have now been supplemented by differences with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. All these entail huge costs, which the country can ill afford to bear, keeping in mind the fragile economic situation, the high level of poverty and the government’s inability to provide the required stimulus.
There is no way India can achieve the growth levels it aspires to with the continuation of policies that in fact are fighting internal-external battles at the expense of funding and alleviating poverty.
What is the alternative?
Modern defence systems can offer maximum deterrence through nuclear capability and technological edge, including digital and IT innovations. This combined with diplomacy should be our key negotiating stance externally. Even Pakistan uses nuclear deterrence to keep us from taking any major military initiatives.
Internally, the divisive agenda should be replaced by policies that help the State carry along all its citizens. Most important, and relevant to the suggested changes, is cooperation rather than friction between New Delhi and the states. No other initiative will be more conducive to rapid progress all around and achieving the growth targets needed to alleviate poverty. Only a collective forum can initiate a meaningful dialogue on issues like nationalism. With properly researched facts, political will and diplomatic endeavours, this is eminently achievable. A transformation could follow -- peace could replace aggression all around.