India Goes to Vote: Chemistry with Modi, Arithmetic with Opposition

FILE PHOTO: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses after the ceremonial reception for South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa at the forecourt of India's Rashtrapati Bhavan Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Altaf Hussain/File Photo

A queer situation in India ahead of politics. Opposition wins in all of the five Indian state assembly polls which were the last ones before the announcement of general elections in India which shall be held over five weeks from April 11 to May 19. And Modi gains some ground with an aggressive stance against Pakistan and terrorism on its soil by bombing some alleged terror camps in Pakistan. Opposition also has no strong answer as to who is the consensus face against Modi.

So as India goes to vote in April-May, 2019, arithmetic of possible votes on ground is with the opposition while chemistry of emotions is with the Indian PM, Narendra Modi. Arithmetic is with the Opposition which got 64% of all polled votes last time in 2014 divided among many parties, while NDA got 36%, and many of the electoral enemies of the past are on the same side now (BSP and SP together in UP, RJD and Congress in Bihar, etc). Chemistry with claims of a stable decisive government and strong leader of 56 inches chest and hyper nationalism on cross border terrorism are with the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Where does the Indian Opposition lack its firepower?

The opposition has been right to raise questions on demonetization, fall of the price of rupee, rise of fuel prices, jobless growth, fuzzing of GDP and employment figures, crony capitalism on purchase deal of Rafale fighter aircrafts, bank NPAs on rise (Non Performing Assets), et al. But they neither have the will power nor the strategy to take on Modi-Shah election war-machine in any which way. Let us look at how and why is this so.

First, where was the much touted Opposition unity during the late 2018 No-Confidence Motion in Lok Sabha and Deputy Chairman election in Rajya Sabha? Several opposition parties abstained and some even voted in favour of the government. The same unity is still not there in many states like Delhi where a united Congress-AAP or in Andhra where an alliance of TDP-Congress stand chances to sweep the respective states, but still not happening till March 10.

Second, with the Congress win in Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and MP, Rahul Gandhi for a while was on the driver’s seat for 2019 LS polls. But he seems to have frittered away the gains of the wins. Where is the all out opposition mahagatbandhan across India? Whereas the astute BJP president Amit Shah agreed to give almost equal seats to Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) in Bihar and to Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and tied up with AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress has failed to strike an alliance with ruling Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and neither could it bring them on in Punjab. So far it has failed to have all out Mahagatbandhan in Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and a few other states. Where is the state level ‘strategic alliances’ in many states? And the Congress alliance even in Karnataka is ridden with challenges to the glee of BJP.

Third, where are the well researched counters to the failures the Opposition raises so assiduously of the Modi-Shah government? BJP failed in Doklam virtually taken over by China now, so what would Rahul do in such a situation if he was in power? He did not have the answer in a Singapore meet of non resident Indians. Fuel price-rise and subsequent commodity price-rise are real. What would be the counter measures to tackle the same, as some of it is due to global impact? And how would you have tackled devaluation of rupee and turned into an advantage? What are your measures (short and middle term) for creating jobs? Farmers’ distress is acute now, was there during Congress regime too. While it is right to ask questions, where is the alternative roadmap to solving it beyond loan waiver which is just a temporary relief? No answers from the Opposition camp, only questions being raised.

Fourth, even if some 12 or 14 of opposition parties are coming together, where is your Common Minimum Program? With answers to the questions raised above, and measures to bring amity amid broken social ties in times of lynching and tension, or measures to tackle terrorism of all types without belittling the value of dissent in democracy. A clear CMP or alternative governance manifesto is of urgent need to create talking points.

Fifth, even if for hype, PM Modi with his hyperbole of bold aggression against Pakistan and terrorism, apart from his schemes of Digital nd Start-up India et al, is actually creating talking points and a semblance of active governance and a promise of innovation (mere promises even after five years of his rule). His cyber army and a large compromised media are both amplifying this narrative and attempting to turn this into a presidential form of election of Modi versus Who. But where are even promised innovations by the opposition? For example, against health insured Ayushman, can you not come out with a plan of Mohalla/Gaon Clinics? Against national Hindu-Muslim/Urban Naxal narratives, can you not come out with LS Constituency specific five development projects? And some common ones for the nation and states? To be fair, Congress has tried to create sector wise manifestos through mass consultations. But too little, too late, and not always with full steam.

Sixth, while Modi-Shah rule plays down several fundamental premises of the Constitution (socialist, secular, democratic republic with independence of judiciary and separation of powers between Centre and States and among organs of the government), the Opposition parties have not been able to come out with their clear points how Constitution is being violated and what they would do to uphold the Indian Constitution. Even their own foot soldiers are ignorant about much of these nuanced issues and they only have themselves to blame.

Seventh, the opposition parties accuse right wing forces led by BJP to be blatantly communal. And rightly so. But are you not repeatedly resorting to blatant casteism and regionalism to ‘protect’ your turf and vote-banks? If you give a well devised development plan, old strategy of castes and regions will not be needed. The Opposition needs to learn from the success of Modi in 2014: not hardcore Hindutva, but development promise (which has not been kept though).

Eighth, it is right that opposition should not focus a single face before elections since that will further presidentialise the polls and give Modi an added advantage. But then the focus needs to be on a positive agenda and Modi-failures and not just anti-Modism which is the opposition order today. A collective yet coherent leadership, a clearly communicated common agenda, one-to-one contest with NDA, a combined crack team of the opposition in each booth, a Mohalla Aman Committee to avoid any communal/casteist riot-like situation, and a dogged attitude are needed to make the Opposition count today. None of it is really visible.

People’s Agenda Needed:

Today, as India prepares for another general election, and with Congress winning three states recently and the Modi government resorting to an aggressive stance against Pakistan on the issue of terror attacks on Indian soil, the question of getting into the electoral field with a concrete agenda is up for public debate.

The only way to combat the Modi-Shah juggernaut and war-chest with huge resources for the opposition is to have one-to-one contest. All Opposition combined together has to put up one candidate only. The declaration of SP+BSP to enter into a pre election tieup, in UP, leaving Congress out itself has been a dampener of sorts. However, Left+Congress in Bengal or only Congress fighting it out with Left and BJP in Kerala can be well crafted strategies to weaken BJP’s upper caste Hindu support base.

The alternative force in India cannot just be of parties, but of an alternative world-view, of a common minimum program, and of an alternative approach to governance. First, pledge to protect the Indian Constitution and its basic tenets. So, commit to true secularism where the state does not negate any faith but also does not become party to any faith. Neither Hindutva nor Muslim appeasement. Pledge to uphold socialistic welfare economy as envisaged in the Constitution, because the marginalized people, with their per capita income far below the subsistence level, cannot survive unless supported with minimum access to food, clothing, housing, public health and minimum assured education. Pledge to protect democracy and hence leave media, entertainment, culture and education to be run not by bureaucrats but by professional experts. And, above all, pledge to protect legislatures by not short circuiting their sessions, and to protect the independence of judiciary by not interfering in their recruitment, postings, promotions and processes. Safeguarding democracy also needs to be through police reforms, administrative reforms, judicial reforms, and electoral reforms, and through an all-out implementation of the institution of the Lokpal, apart from protecting the independence of the constitutional positions (e.g. EC, CIC, etc).

All communities need to be assured that India is theirs, but they need not be appeased too. The Sachhar Committee report shows the lack of socio-economic and educational development among the Muslim minorities and their representation in positions of power and responsibility. Situation is exacerbated today with a visible alienation of them from the political mainstream. Also, if forest rights are not given to the tribal users of minor forest produce as per the forest dwellers’ act on minor forest produce, and land rights are not given to the tillers, there cannot be visible change in the country-side and no end to Naxalism. Then, social assimilation will need distinct ways and means to empower women as well, particularly ensure their security in public places, raise conviction in cases of assault on women, and enhance their socio-economic participation.

Focus less on the politics of minorityism and Dalitism, and more on the economics of Modi-Shah dispensation and how disastrous it has been with regards to demonetization, GST, joblessness, price of fuels, general price rise, fall in exports and imports, limited GDP growth, extreme agrarian distress, and the like. Atrocities on women can be another loud communication point, while those on Muslims, Christians and Dalits can be a more localized campaign at the grassroots not on top leaders’ public talks or media interviews, even though communal polarization will be one major plank of BJP in the last leg of communication, as seen in Bihar elections as well. Well researched economic facts turned into easy to comprehend oneliners, infographics and memes must flood the communication channels if opposition has to combat the onslaught of the well oiled cyber army of BJP.

United Opposition must promise a slew of economic measures, including viable Minimum Support Price and implementation of MS Swaminathan recommendations for agriculture, gradual recovery of all NPAs (specially in cases of willing defaulters), banking autonomy with SOPs on banking operations insulating them from political interference with RBI independence ensured, recovering black money in land, jewellery and foreign assets, and encourage investments in education and health with tax holidays and other benefits. This plan also shall underline a fair share of funds between Centre and States, respect for economic federalism specially in the provisions of the Finance Commission, and execution of truly one nation one tax system through a uniform GST. Interestingly, it is important to increase investment in education and health upto 20% of the total national budget, which is around half today. Investment in health insurance and not on public health infrastructure does not good to the man on the ground.

There is a real possibility of the United Opposition win in the next Lok Sabha polls, only if it puts the Common Man and the nation successfully to contest against Narendra Modi and fights with a Common Minimum Program and not repeat the mistakes that Janata Party did in 1977 battling another authoritarian ruler, Indira Gandhi.

But is the Opposition listening?

Advantage Modi & His Strategy Now for Second Term in Office:

Modi surely starts the campaign for second term with a clear advantage due to yet divided opposition, macho image post Pulwama and Balakot, some gains on prices front in recent times, three main opposition leaders not being on one page (Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee), a highly compromised one-sided legacy media, and BJP’s IT Cell swarming the social media with its mix of truth, false and bravado specially using something that has come to be known as Whatsapp University of falsehood. Personal ‘unblemished image’ and folklores around Modi and his personal life are being constantly weaved and amplified further knowing fully well that the opposition has no single face and is a divided house.

Also several schemes of Modi government are being touted to draw the attention of the electorate: Jan Dhan Yojana that brought bank accounts and financial inclusion to 17 crores of Indians first time (not saying that the banks are fining these poor people now for no minimum deposits), Ujjwala Yojana which has brought cooking gas and oven to several millions of poor Indian families (not saying that the cooking gas prices have gone several times higher in the last five years), Digital India scheme bringing in affordable net connection in the hands of people at large (not noting that the scheme and its ramifications have actually benefitted largely Reliance Jio and has killed several other players in the telecom market-place), Ayushman Bharat has assured health insurance upto Rs.3 lacs per family to many poor families of India (not noting that the conditions to avail this are quite harsh for these families and finally this scheme only benefits private insurance companies and private hospitals in the government’s preferred list), and recent 10% reservation for the economically poor of the unreserved classes of people (not saying that government jobs and educational seats have actually not risen to make substantial gains for the reserved categories, this one or the earlier ones).

The Opposition has so far not been able to raise the duality of these apparently attractive propositions from Modi government. And, then there are other blatant failures. Modi himself was resolute in appointing Urjit Patel (related to the Ambani family too) as Reserve Bank of India Governor and police officer Alok Verma as Director of Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s premier investigating body. But too many demands from RBI led to Urjit’s unceremonious exit, though he earlier had acquiesced to government’s demands during the ill-fated demonetization. And then Alok was shown the door even in a more undignified way when he questioned Modi’s man Rakesh Asthana after being appointed Special Director going against norms and when the Rafale deal files reached his table. The claims of fight against corruption by Modi government also have fallen flat as no Lokpal (Ombudsman) to keep corruption in high offices has been appointed in five long years, no visible gains from demonetization of 86% of currency through declaring all Rs.1000 and Rs.500 notes ceased to legal tender on November 8, 2016, and later surprisingly launching Rs.2000 notes as legal tenders, and with no substantial black money still recovered which are stashed in banks overseas or which are hidden in land-pieces and jewellery. But these are still not part of dominant narrative today. Not yet.

So, Who Wins?

The answer depends on if Team Modi can turn the positive chemistry into actual votes with 27 parties in NDA (National Democratic Alliance). Not an easy task. And, on the other, if the Congress led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) and other motley groups of opposition parties can bring to the fore genuine failures of the Modi government along with an alternative people’s agenda, the arithmetic of the opposition can give it some glue, some chemistry with the electorate. We will know on May 23.

To my mind, it seems India is inching towards a hung Parliament, with no alliance getting a clear majority of 273 seats in a hour of 545, and there shall be another selection after the election. The NDA allies may ask for change of leadership from Modi to someone else. The UPA and other opposition may actually come together and try to cobble up a majority. However, in the most likely event of BJP being the single largest party, it is anybody’s guess that astute and cunning leadership of the richest political party of the world, Modi-Shah of BJP, will go all-out to “ensure majority”.

It is only these periodical elections, with whatever limitations, that stop India from becoming a banana republic. And these elections are still far better from many others in more than a hundred nations of the world.

by Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury

(The author is a media academic, columnist and a political analyst in Indian new television, and currently the Media Dean of Pearl Academy, Delhi, Mumbai, and former Media Dean of Amity and Symbiosis Universities).

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