I know that Modi's control over the TV media is total. But a few of my friends in print also share similar sentiment, some in disgust and some in desperation. They have five arguments to rubbish the opposition:
- Nitish's desertion has had a demoralising effect. He has the stature and the experience to stitch the opposition together.
- While Modi is walking like a giant, the opposition has no face that can lead the charge against the government.
- While the government is moving ahead with a well-crafted agenda, the opposition looks confused and struggling.
- There is no structure to carry forward the spirit of the opposition; there is hardly any joint meeting, no coordination of any kind and leaders are shooting in different directions.
- Above all, they all believe that the Congress in general and Rahul in particular has no killer instinct to take the battle to the rival camp, they have no will to fight.
There is no denying the fact that Nitish's change of heart will go down in Indian political history as a "great betrayal". He can easily be compared with his own mentor, George Fernandes, who, on the floor of the House defended Morarji Desai's government, but voted against the government and was instrumental in its fall in 1979. Nitish's somersault has not only numbed the entire opposition but also civil society which is in shock with the change of the political and social climate in the last three years. It has killed hope. It has come as a psychological blow. People were thinking that since Nitish broke with Modi on the issue of communalism in 2013, he will carry forward the torch of secularism. Therefore, if he can be poached, then who can be trusted, and what is the guarantee that in a crunch, others won't follow - if he could not resist, then what are we to expect from others! This has created an aura around Modi and his team that they are invincible and can't be countered.
Secondly, it has given a severe blow to the idea of a Maha-gathbandan. Nitish and Lalu along with the Congress in Bihar had trounced Modi in 2015. After Bihar, Modi was badly bruised. And it was assumed that if the same experiment could be replicated in UP and other places, Modi would find it difficult to repeat the success of 2014. The BJP had won 105 seats in UP and Bihar together. In UP, it has 73 seats, and 32 in Bihar. If one now adds the two parliamentary seats of Nitish, the number jumps to 107 seats. Nitish himself had floated the idea of a Maha-gathbandan in UP and he was trying to invite others to form a similar grouping. But even after his departure, the idea is still alive. Lalu Yadav is working in this direction. He has met with Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, the principle players in Uttar Pradesh, along with the Congress. The Samajwadi Party and Congress together won 28% of the votes whereas BSP got 22.2% in this year's assembly election. The BJP improved its vote share to 41.4%. If one combines the vote percentage of SP, Congress and BSP, the figure touches 52.2% which is a formidable number. And if this Maha-gathbandan takes shape, then Mr Modi will find it challenging to get near 73 seats. The difference of a 10% vote share could prove to be a landslide for any group or front and the decline in the number of Lok Sabha seats could be in the range of 30 to 50 seats, leaving Modi far from a majority in absolute numbers.
Doomsayers should not forget that in the Indian context, Nitish's betrayal can work in Lalu's favour. This has created sympathy for Lalu within his cadre and otherwise. In the Ramayana, Ravan's brother deserted him and walked to Ram who was considered to be God and was fighting for truth, but people have not forgiven Vibhishana and it is not surprising that no parents name their child after him. One can find an example of the name of Ravan but not of Vibhishana. Lalu's strength has been the MY combination, i.e. Yadavs and Muslims. And one should not be surprised if other backward castes also gravitate towards Lalu. It was also argued during the 2015 assembly election that Nitish had committed harakiri, people would not vote for Lalu as people are still haunted by the jungle raj of his regime, but Lalu's party emerged as the single-largest party with 80 seats, nine more than Nitish's. And don't be surprised if there is whiplash from the way government agencies are hounding Lalu and his entire family and planning to put them in jail, It could boomerang on Modi and Nitish both. The news from Bihar is that Tejashwi is fast emerging as a leader in his own right. He carries no baggage like Akhilesh.
It will be wrong to underestimate Lalu and his family despite all the corruption charges. If B S Yeddyurappa can be trusted to win elections for the BJP in Karnataka, then why can't Lalu turn the tables in Bihar and Modi return with far fewer than the 32 of 40 seats he won last time in Bihar? A resurgent and wounded Lalu can be very dangerous.
Fourthly, those who are saying that an opposition without any face, common agenda and structure is no match to Modi, are oblivious of Indian electoral history. Indira Gandhi was similarly advised in 1977 when she lifted the Emergency. Her advisers and members of the intellectual class were of the opinion that she would win hands down as the opposition was nowhere to be seen. All the top leaders of the opposition like Jan Sangh, Lok Dal, Congress (O), etc were in jail, their cadre was directionless and these parties had no money. They were released from jail a couple of months before the election, but in no time, they merged their identities and formed the Janta Party. Their election campaign too was no patch on Mrs. Gandhi's. But the results shocked everyone. The Congress was routed. Mrs Gandhi and her son Sanjay both lost their own seats.
History was again repeated in 2004. For the BJP, India was "shinning"; there was a "feel good factor" across India. The opposition was nowhere to be seen. The Congress was in shambles. Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin was questioned. Rahul was too young. The Congress's social base was eroded. Vajpayee like Modi today was seen as unbeatable. Vajpayee had Advani and Pramod Mahajan as his master strategists like Amit Shah is for Modi. Even on the day of counting, Mahajan was predicting a massive victory. But defying all opinion polls, the Indian public rejected Vajpayee and the RSS. A faceless Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister and continued for ten years despite there having been many stalwarts in the BJP tent.
Even in 2014, who had imagined that Modi could win 73 seats out of 80 in UP? The BJP had no organisation worth its name. The BJP had been in the wilderness in the state for more than a decade and it was fighting with the Congress for the third and fourth place in election after election.
These three examples illustrate that elections are fought on sentiment. In 1977, it did not matter who the candidates were. The voters were angry with Indira Gandhi. People rejected her and her policies. And in 1980, when voters saw that the leaders they had chosen had no mettle or morals, they threw them in the dustbin. Vajpayee was a tall leader but he did not act when Gujarat was burning, he concocted a lie that India was progressing and people were happy and for that he was removed. In 2014, Modi arrived on the national scene without any precedence. People were unhappy with the corruption of the Congress government. They elected Modi. In 2019, it is Modi who has to convince the people of India, not the opposition. It is he who has to prove that he has fulfilled the promises he made in 2014. People will ask - have their lives improved? Are their sons and daughters getting employment? Has corruption come down? Has terrorism subsided? Has Pakistan been taught a lesson?
And last but not the least, there is still a year and nine months to go for elections. As Churchill said, a week is a long time in politics. How many knew a week ago that Nitish would be standing next to Modi? If one had no had clue about his somersault now, then how can one predict 2019? Who knows what the future holds?
(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)
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