The decline of the National Democratic Alliance is by now a dated story. The few partners of the Bharatiya Janata Party—who are still formally in the Alliance—may be understood to be in the throes of a judicial separation, pending divorce. The contest in a Maharashtra bypoll directly between the BJP and Shiv Sena tells its own story. The Akalis may eventually have nowhere else to go, but this may not be the case with the mercurial JD(U); should the Hindutva forces create mayhem leading upto the next General Elections, Nitish Kumar may well find yet another canny platform to turn the tables.
What is new is the real and undeniable decline of the BJP. According to a very recent CSDS-Lokniti poll, the party has dropped seven percentage points in popular endorsement. Even more significantly, the Prime Minister’s own endorsement as numero uno has come down from a previous fortyfour per cent to thirty-four, even as Rahul Gandhi’s has gone up from a measly sixteen to twentyfour. In other words, as per this poll, if one in three want Modi as the PM, one in four want Rahul Gandhi—not bad for someone who has suffered the most vile forms of denigration imaginable.
This decline was first underlined by the showing in Gujarat where the two sons of the soil managed barely to cross the half-way mark. Indeed, had the Congress been a bit more receptive to alliance offers, the Party might have been in office in Mr Modi’s home State. The losses in the bypolls in Gorakhpur and Phulpur were stunning blows to the BJP, however they may spin those traumatic defeats. And Karnataka has shown the Congress polling a higher percentage of votes, and, therefore, a larger share of the popular vote, than the marauding BJP which, as always, given he illogical vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral regime, benefited in seats gained from the narrow and concentrated character of its vote-base. An occurrence that yet again underscores the need to make the Indian electoral system more truly representative. Imagine that friendly TV anchors, often still wet around the ears, should have the gumption to characterise that uplifting gathering of Opposition parties which together represent some sixtyfive per cent of the mandate cast in 2014 as a “motley crowd” and a “ragtag bunch”. It is a well-recognised fact of class-based democracies that a two-party dispensation is the preferred option of the ruling classes, however this may exclude the bulk of the populace. But if so homogenous a country as Germany can practice an electoral system which gives due place to the smallest of electoral expressions, how much more imperative for a country like India to be doing the same. And equally, how impertative to shift to a state-funded electoral system in order that the much-used phrase “level-playing field” does not remain merely a matter of lip-service but a reality on the ground.
If you have noticed, friendly electronic channels—and who is not friendly these days—are already busy rubbishing the prospect of any Opposition unity which, they are equally busy propagating, is calculated not to retrieve the republic, salvage democracy, re-establish democratic and constitutional institutions and practices, but just to malign Mr Modi and see the back of him because he has been doing such wonderful work. This concerted media blitz to pitch the coming days as a contest of personalities rather than of values dictates the cult phenomenon we now are witness to twenty-four-seven. It is of course a sad fact that educated Indians by and large have little attachment to democratic principles and can be astonishingly readily seen to back a strong, centralised persona who may well ride roughshod over processes and consultative practices but who can be trusted to get the job done in a jiffy. Whether or not the job gets done is of course another matter; if the current state of the economy, of the rule of law, of claims once made with respect to Kashmir and Pakistan, of social hate and vigilante violence, and much more are anything to go by, the job has clearly not been done, This then is the reason why propagation, image-peddling, selective vignettes of physical fitness at the highest levels, must take the place of any real demonstrable achievements on the ground, especially in relation to the immiserated lives of many many millions who still have neither drinking water nor assured electric supply not to speak of any steady incomes, despite tall and raucous claims to the contrary.
Yet, showmanship has always a short shelf-life, and a day comes when the chicks come home to roost. That time is here. There is reason to believe that the Opposition political forces recognise the moment and are sincerely preparing to grab it.
This, however, is not to say that anxieties expressed by thoughtful well-wishers of democracy and of the constitutional republic with respect to how Opposition unity may or may not shape are exaggerated or tendentious. Past examples of such federal endeavours do not encourage. If the current efforts at Opposition unity are to be any different, all those who came together on the stage at Bengaluru will need to realise that what they are opposing now is very very different from what they might have been opposing in the past, Indira Gandhi not excluded. They will need to recognise that if they fail now they may not only immessurably further strengthen those and that they oppose but cause the march to a transformed state and political system to become irretrievable. Memories of the Weimar should here be extremely instructive.
So, in terms of the nitty-gritty. what may be the call of the hour? First, it must be to acknowledge that if any one party or faction seeks to forground its own fortunes at the cost of the federal endeavour, everyone’s loss would have been complete at the outset itself. Second, every component of the federal front will need to openly acknowledge and embrace the relative strengths of all components in their own place and give due weight and deference to that fact. Third, that once it is understood and acknow-ledged as to who is best placed to push back the RSS/Bharatiya Janata Party in which arena, all units must pool resources to make the success of a single combined candidate a surety. Fourth, once the numbers are in, the entire front must set a historic example by acting not as units but as members of a new conglomerate in demo-cratically electing the leadership of the front.
There are States in which, clearly, the Congress is in direct contention with the BJP. Indeed, three such States are due to go to the polls in a few months. The front must lend what strength they have in these States to ensure the victories of the Congress candidates. In a slew of other States, likewise, some parties are unambiguously in leading political positions. Here the Congress must lend unequivocal support without falling to the temptation to foreground its own national predilections. Then there are a few other States where the Congress and some leading regional party find themselves as chief antagonists. If one-on-one contests are to be ensured, this contradiction will need to be resolved democratically rather than from purely partisan platforms. If this is achieved, a historic new politics would have been inaugurated in India.
One chief ploy of the friendly electronic channels is to constantly hammer the cult argument—what will be the face of the Opposition against the colossus, Modi. Aleready there is evidence that this trap is being astutely side-stepped by Opposition spokespersons. One fundamental ideological conviction of the Opposition must be that the call to a Presidential form of politics must be fought and defeated at any cost if India is to remain a democracy responsive to the infinite diversity of her polity and interests. Ambedkar must be recalled: that whereas the cult of Bhakti may be very well in matters of faith, it can only be fatal if it intruded in the nation’s political life.
The Opposition forces, now awake and active, must never for one moment forget that the compounding miseries of some eighty per cent of Indians look to them to provide a sincere new and alternate paradigm to what has been witnessed over time and over the last four years especially. Which means that after ensuring that they do not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the federal politics now underway must in all sphreres of policy return the republic to the people to whom it belongs, or ought to belong.
Last but not the least: “secularism”, although it constitutes an unamendable basic feature of the Constitution, has during the Modi era come to be the most reviled of concepts, to a point where even Congressmen and women fight shy of speaking up for the Muslim minority in particular. This has been for many perhaps the most tragic eventuality, indeed, atrocity, of the last four years of our national life. The new federal Opposition will have failed if it does not boldly rectify this gruesome distortion and reinstate the principle without which the meaning of the Freedom Movement and of the claims of democracy in India will always remain hollow.
The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters
Mainstream, VOL LVI No 24 New Delhi June 2, 2018
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