Pavan K. Varma | Persevere and be clear to build a robust Opposition

A vibrant democracy needs a robust Opposition. To pursue this goal requires perseverance and strategic clarity

The five Assembly elections concluded recently have two clear-cut lessons. The first is that the BJP has emerged as the clear winner. Its victories in UP and in Uttarakhand are particularly noteworthy.

However, a win in UP should not be seen as a semi-final before the parliamentary elections of 2024; nor should one assume that 2024 is a done deal. In 2012, Mulayam Singh Yadav swept UP, with the BJP getting only some ten per cent of the votes; in 2014, the BJP swept UP, trouncing the SP. Politics is a dynamic process. Nothing can be assumed until the fact. In 1971, just after the defeat of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi appeared invincible. By 1974 she was in serious trouble, and in 1975 she had to declare the Emergency. Similarly, Rajiv Gandhi with over 400 MPs in 1984 seemed undefeatable. Yet, by 1987, in just three years, his government was in trouble, and he lost the next parliamentary elections in 1989.

The second lesson is that the Congress, as currently constituted, is in deep trouble, if not beyond redemption. It lost badly in every election it fought, reinforcing a verifiable trend since 2014 of a near irreversible decline. For it to get only around two per cent of the vote in UP and only two seats, is an unmitigated disaster. What is worse is that it appears to be adamant not to change. Its custodians seem to believe that a couple of band-aids will do, when the party needs major transformative surgery.

The BJP’s victory run needs analysis. To my mind, it has three strong elements in its narrative which it uses to the full. The first is political Hindutva, which is, simply put, the use of religion to divide votes for political gain. The second is hyper-nationalism, whereby it claims a monopoly on matters of national security, and berates anyone who questions it as anti-national. The third is welfarism, whereby it has achieved success in partially assisting the poor, through direct benefit transfers, the distribution of free rations, and through the use of other schemes such as the PM Awas Yojana and Ujjwala. A fourth element, especially in UP, was the projection that Yogi Adityanath was the guarantor of better law and order. Finally, the party must be credited with efficient social engineering. It successfully co-opted the upper castes, and it mustered the support of the non-Yadav OBCs, which account for some 32 per cent of UP’s population. To all of this, it had an effective organisation, with the RSS cadres on the ground.

Akhilesh Yadav put up a spirited fight, but the chinks in his armour were obvious. Firstly, he started his journey to power too late. To take on the organisational might of the BJP, he should have started in the very next week after his defeat in the parliamentary elections of 2019. Secondly, his vote base was narrow. Eight per cent Yadavs, and some 16 per cent Muslims, at the core of his effort, do not constitute a large enough social base to win UP. Thirdly, he lacked a convincing counter-narrative. It is not enough to critique the BJP; people also want to know what is it that you are offering. And, finally, his organisational apparatus on the ground was no match to the micro outreach of the BJP.

These facts show not that the BJP — as we have argued earlier — is invincible, but that the Opposition has to be far better prepared to take it on.

The BJP has been defeated innumerable times in state elections. Charismatic state leaders have held on to their bastions in spite of the determined predatoriness of the BJP. But the BJP’s strength lies in the national elections, where an organised, planned, grass-rooted, coordinated and credible challenge, with a face, a narrative, and organizational vigour, does not yet exist to harness the legitimate and widespread discontents of the people. This is the real challenge for 2024, and the gauntlet lies at the threshold of the Opposition.

A very significant part of this challenge is to find a substitute for the Congress. This is not to devalue the importance of the Congress. The idea of the Congress, and its original vision for India are, if anything, even more relevant today. The problem is that the Congress as it exists today is unable to fight to preserve that idea of India, and is unwilling to do anything to change this state of affairs. This has emerged as a very serious weakness in the combined aspirations of the Opposition, since the Congress is the principal opponent to the BJP in some 250 seats. In such direct fights, the BJP’s strike rate against the Congress is around 96 per cent. The Congress’s weakness is thus the strength of the BJP.

What then becomes abundantly clear is that some new entity must emerge, especially in the north and the west including the Hindi heartland, which can more effectively challenge the BJP. This may well happen in the coming days, since politics, like nature, cannot sustain a void. The relentless erosion of the Congress has created precisely such a void. If such an entity, working on its own, or in the right strategic alliances, does emerge, it cannot be seen mechanically as cutting the vote of the Congress, since the Congress has in any case where little left to be cut. The second step in the reinvigoration of the Opposition must be more cohesive national coordination between all parties opposed to the BJP. This cannot be an arithmetical unity, merely a conglomeration of Opposition leaders on a stage, nor can it be held hostage to vanity or one-upmanship. This unity, guided by a pan-India vision, will have to be strategic.

Politics is about the art of the possible. As this column has stated before, a vibrant democracy needs a robust Opposition. To pursue this goal requires perseverance and strategic clarity.

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