THE opposition looks better placed to defeat Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the April-May polls than was the case in 2004, when Atal Behari Vajpayee lost suddenly, against all predictions by the media pundits. There’s a caveat today, of course, and it is called opposition unity. It’s there but only in fits and starts, and sadly the Congress looks like the weakest link.
In other words, the prime minister is not the invincible superhero his drum-beaters want the world to believe, come war manoeuvres or military bravado. Other than vacuous psy-ops, Modi has little going for him.
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L.K. Advani explained what went wrong for Vajpayee in 2004 in his memoirs My Country My Life — a defeat that shocked the party as never before. Advani listed a few factors for Vajpayee’s debacle, and they remain relevant today, if the opposition is willing to face the truth.
To begin with, according to Advani, the verdict was not a national verdict but an aggregate of regional political reality. That’s how it stands today too.
The prime minister is not the invincible superhero his drum-beaters want the world to believe.
In economy, Vajpayee had performed better than Modi, and yet that didn’t get him past the winning post. “Our commitment to ‘development’ and ‘good governance’ and our appeal to the people to judge our promise on the basis of our performance did not have the kind of sustained nationwide emotional appeal that could transcend the influence of local or episodic factors on the voters.”
Vajpayee won 11 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. What helped Modi get 70-plus in 2014 was the Gujarat model of communal polarisation he applied in Muzaffarnagar. The opposition was in tatters. Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, the Congress were fighting each other. That has changed considerably though the Congress needs to do more for unity.
As for the BJP’s organisational reality, only last week the world watched a Brahmin MP beating a lower caste MLA with a shoe. The defeat of two key BJP candidates in the strongholds of UP chief minister and his deputy at the hands of a lower caste alliance has questioned the BJP’s organisational skills. In Bihar, BJP stalwart Shatrughan Sinha could be the opposition’s choice to spoil Modi’s vacation in Varanasi.
Advani lists Vajpayee’s defeat as “our failure and shortcomings in alliance management” which he says took a heavy toll on the party. “In Tamil Nadu, the BJP’s hastily concluded tie-up with the AIADMK failed to impress voters; DMK and its allies made a clean sweep by winning all 39 seats in Tamil Nadu … Jharkhand, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir and Assam were the other states where we suffered because we did not forge proper alliances. In contrast, the Congress party’s electoral success was mainly on account of its alliance strategy.”
Rahul Gandhi may wish to note Advani’s praise for his party’s “alliance strategy”. It’s difficult to keep count of the petitions launched from worried Indians to the Congress president to heed the warning: unite or perish.
Heed Advani again: “While non-performance and corruption are legitimate grievances, what was resented even more [in 2004] by voters and party workers alike was arrogance on the part of their elected representatives.”
Arrogance. The arrogance of excluding Dalit Mayawati from an alliance in Madhya Pradesh, the arrogance of threatening to go it alone in Delhi, and the arrogance of mocking Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal could hand Modi an outside chance to come back.
Learn from Indira Gandhi. She brought down a communist government in Kerala one day, but clasped their hand in the 1960s to cobble together a society at peace with itself. Given the overwhelming poverty and galloping unemployment, India’s natural gradient remains to the left.
Listening to Rahul Gandhi’s speeches at public meetings, it is not difficult to wager that he could make a decent prime minister. He knows the issues and speaks with empathy, not a forked tongue. He was found timid on security recently. He could have led the opposition to question the wisdom of Modi mobilising the military to fight terrorism, which the Congress wisely never did. Instead, Rahul lost the initiative over ‘nationalism’ and was outmanoeuvred by Modi who invented India’s false priorities.
While the Congress may be selling cow urine, and daubing his forehead with vermillion, Rahul comes across as a man with his heart in the right place. He doesn’t curse any community, which is a great asset for our lowly times. Also, people can peep into his university degree. He opposes death penalty as can be gleaned from his campaign against the hanging of his father’s killers.
For the economy, he has the advice of Manmohan Singh. But there’s a rub, and it is called misplaced ambition. There’s a sneaking suspicion that an overreaching ambition is being fanned by a coterie of advisers with direct links to tycoons who helped Modi come to power.
Here, the Rafale jet scam though a huge issue any other day is a distraction. The exposé by The Hindu and others is extremely laudable. But the Rafale scam will not get the opposition two extra votes. That’s because the urban vote is completely communally polarised. And Rajiv Gandhi lost not because of the Bofors scam in which his coterie was complicit. He lost for messing up the social equilibrium of Indians by mishandling Muslims and Hindus alike whose support he then lost. And remember, Rajiv still came back with the single largest party, and was invited to form the government, which he refused. Does anyone believe that Modi would fall for the exacting democratic ethics as the head of the largest party without a majority?
So, forget Rafale, and focus on alliances, with the exclusive purpose of saving democracy. If that means forfeiting the crown to Mayawati or Mamata Banerjee or Chandrababu Naidu, so be it. Only a strong opposition win can punish the Rafale scamsters among others.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2019