Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s combative style of politics has triggered an informal competition among his political opponents to counter him as ferociously and also become the face of the opposition forces arrayed against the Bharatiya Janata Party.
As of now, there are three principal competitors – Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, and chief ministers Arvind Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar.
The number of competitors wishing to become the anti-BJP, anti-Modi face is likely to grow as certain electorally crucial states have their Assembly polls over the next two years. This is because the necessary prerequisite to become the face of the opposition demands the leader must trounce the BJP in an election in which Modi campaigns vigorously.
In this sense, not only is Modi dictating opposition politics, but even the extent of his participation in state election campaigns will determine who plays the lead in blowing the bugle against the BJP.
It was primarily through their election victories that both Kejriwal and Kumar entered the informal competition for inheriting the leadership mantle of the opposition.
This should have ordinarily belonged to Gandhi because the Congress, unlike Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmo Party and Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), isn’t confined to a state. His party’s nationwide presence, at least theoretically, provides him a head-start in dominating the opposition space.
But this advantage has been offset because the Congress mustered just 44 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, leading to a veritable diminishing of Gandhi’s stature. Worse, he hasn’t yet won a state for his party. Not only did the Congress fail to win Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand, it didn’t even bag the second slot in any of them.
The Congress was a member of the Grand Alliance which won Bihar, but Gandhi did not plot the defeat of the BJP. It is through a Bihar-like secondary role in alliances in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, two of the four states going to polls in 2016, that Gandhi can hope to derive vicarious pleasure of victory.
It’s the turn of the Congress to lose in Kerala, the third state where elections are due next year, for here it switches the baton of governance with the Left every five years.
It, therefore, become imperative for Gandhi to retain Assam for his party next year.
Unfortunately for him, while Assam has immense salience for India’s security, its electoral significance is marginal, sending as it does just 14 Members to the Lok Sabha. A possible Congress victory there will not have the same resonance as the Bihar election has had.
Then again, the BJP seems on its way to altering its electoral strategy, pitching Union Minister Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate instead of turning electoral contests, as have been the case till now, into a battle between Modi versus the opposition.
Should Modi refrain from playing a robust role in the Assam election campaign, Gandhi will be denied the necessary requirement to vanquish the Prime Minister for emerging as the principal personality who could galvanise the anti-BJP constituency.
This isn’t to say Rahul Gandhi hasn’t tried hard to reinvent a new persona for himself, particularly on his return from his mysterious sabbatical earlier this year. He has been combative, even bellicose, stridently critical of Modi’s policies and tagging his government as pro-rich and anti-poor.
But whether the carefully cultivated persona has a popular appeal is yet to be tested.
Politics is akin to a school or college examination – hard work must manifest in good grades or it is considered irrelevant other than becoming a source of personal satisfaction. This is where Gandhi’s failure to win a significant state matters considerably, for it is only then will he be deemed to possess leadership qualities.
It is also debatable whether the new persona suits him. For one, his aggressive, mocking style appears imitative of Modi. It is as if Gandhi has come around to believing that the recipe for success is to play the angry, conscientious man.
For a dynast whose family has been in power for decades, his style must come across to many as lacking substance or, worse, hypocritical. The route to success is not necessarily through the overuse of the larynx or choice of words dripping with sarcasm. Think Nitish Kumar, sober and soft, yet successful and convincing.
For the aggressive style of politics to acquire credibility, the practitioner must appear to have been grossly wronged or appear to have been thwarted from pursuing the ethically correct course.
This narrative Gandhi has failed to create around his politics. For instance, he misread the National Herald case to scream of political vendetta. His party hinted he might not apply for bail. The Herald drama ended not with a bang but a whimper – the bail bond was eventually furnished.
The narrative of being wronged
Kejriwal, on the other hand, has successfully built the narrative of being wronged around his politics, in the process overcoming the limiting factor that Delhi is electorally insignificant in national politics, electing as it does only seven members to the Lok Sabha.
He galvanised the anti-BJP forces not just because of his sweeping assembly victory, but also because he handed out to Modi his first electoral defeat and proved he wasn’t invincible.
Yet the Delhi victory might have been forgotten but for the Modi government persistently raising, through Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung, the issue of jurisdiction over trifling matters and concerted efforts to circumscribe the Kejriwal government. It can be argued that Kejriwal could have shown the tact to negotiate with the Centre as, say, Sheila Dikshit did at the time NDA-I was in power.
Is Kejriwal being a confrontationalist, showing a greater penchant for creating headlines than governance?
These charges have been flung at Kejriwal, but haven’t damaged him because of the nature, and worries, of the anti-BJP forces. They have been staring askance at the Modi government palpably scaring opposition leaders as well as eating into their political space. They pined for a ferocious response to Modi from the ranks of the opposition. Kejriwal seemed to be an answer to their wishes.
But, more pointedly, Kejriwal’s style of politics enables him to retain the persona of being the “outsider” in politics.
As noted political psychologist Ashis Nandy said in an interview to the Business Standard, “When you come in as an outsider and then try to become an insider, you sacrifice your appeal right there. The Mufflerman (Kejriwal) should remain like Spiderman, an outsider. I am not saying he should be a complete outsider because that is suicidal. But he should have one foot outside.”
Kejriwal seems to have followed Nandy’s prescription.
No doubt, the BJP created the context, expecting Kejriwal to follow the traditional script of negotiations to create space for himself. His refusal has reinforced his outsider image, which is precisely what his supporters and, now, the Left-liberal constituencies increasingly want.
For instance, Kejriwal’s description of Modi as a “psychopath” was denounced in all newspaper editorials, but earned him admiration from many who are opposed to the BJP but who can’t be counted among his supporters. They, like Modi-followers, favour combative but effective politics. Gandhi favours combative politics but hasn’t been effective in galvanising the anti-BJP constituency.
Quite clearly, Kejriwal’s stock has zoomed ever since his party accused Finance Minister Arun Jaitley of allowing corruption in Delhi’s cricket.
This was evident at the book launch of JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav, whose own party members preferred to click selfies of themselves with Kejriwal rather than Nitish Kumar, who too was present there.
A different idea of development
But this doesn’t mean Kumar has been left lagging behind in the competition to become the face of the anti-BJP, anti-Modi constituency.
Like Kejriwal, Kumar’s equity has grown ever since he led the Grand Alliance to victory in Bihar. But he has chosen to counter Modi not through a combative style, but in representing the idea of development different from his.
Yet Kumar encounters several problems to win the informal competition.
For one, it is unclear what the Grand Alliance partner Lalu Prasad Yadav’s response to Kumar’s national ambition would be. He can’t be a force in Bihar unless he has Yadav’s support and consent. This is vital as the JD(U), despite its pretentions, remains confined to Bihar.
Kumar seeks to overcome this handicap by trying to rope in the fast disappearing breed of socialists around the country under his umbrella, and gratuitously facilitating alliances even in states where his party doesn’t count, as he is said to be doing in Assam.
Then again, Kumar has better relations with mainstream politicians whom Kejriwal denounced during the anti-corruption campaign.
Kejriwal will also find it hard to align with mainstream parties as it would compromise both his image of being the outsider and an anti-corruption crusader. Conversely, the mainstream politicians too will find it difficult to accept the grammar and idiom of Kejriwal’s politics.
But this disadvantage Kejriwal can partially offset should his party succeed in performing well in Punjab in the 2017 election or, better still, winning it.
For the first time, a one state-based party would have fanned out in another. It might also enable AAP to make forays in other states, especially where the electoral contest is between the Congress and BJP.
Capturing popular imagination
Ultimately, it is about who captures the popular imagination across the country, becomes the face of the anti-BJP constituency, and the tally of seats his party wins in the next Lok Sabha election.
This is precisely why Rahul Gandhi, though lagging far behind Kumar and Kejriwal, can’t be counted out.
Also, the list of competitors will grow with time. For instance, in case Mayawati wins Uttar Pradesh, would she too vie to become for the same spot.
As this informal competition stiffens, it must be said that Modi’s politics of giving no quarters to the opposition, his inclination to become the predominant leader of Indian politics, has triggered a realignment and made the opposition think of, and prepare for, the 2019 Lok Sabha election so early in his tenure. This seems unprecedented for India, indicating a deep socio-political divide.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.
This article originally appeared on Scroll.In and has been re-produced with permission.