City City Bang Bang, Columns

Opposition’s Long Winter?

The overwhelming nature of Mr Modi’s victory has silenced the Opposition, as is understandable. To win a significantly higher number of seats than 2014, in spite of the show of unity put on by regional parties in some key states, and to do so in a context which was seen to be unfavourable only a few months ago, is quite remarkable. And deeply dispiriting for the other side.

On the face of it, there do not seem to be too many avenues open to the opposition. It is possible that at the state level, they still have a good chance of doing well. Orissa and Telengana seem to suggest that the local and national can move in very different directions. But at the national level, given Mr Modi’s personal equity, there doesn’t seem to be much hope.

What makes this dominance even more daunting is that the BJP stands an excellent chance of consolidating its hold in the near future and emerging unchallenged nationally. While regional parties today are very strong in several states, their long- term future is doubtful. As we have seen in the case of the NCP, for all the talk about dynasties, the handing over of power from the founder down to the next line of command is often quite tricky. Some parties and individuals have managed it well- Jagan Reddy, has managed to retain his father’s political constituency, Stalin has made a start, and Akhilesh Yadav has managed to wrest control from his aging father, although his leadership has not yet been validated electorally in any meaningful sense. In the case of Naveen, Mamta and Mayawati, however, there is neither the possibility of a dynastic handover nor anything that remotely resembles a second line of leadership that is visible, making these states viable candidates for the BJP to cement its position in.

Against this backdrop of a long winter for the Opposition, it is perhaps worth examining the BJP’s current domination more critically. It is true that the BJP won an awe-inspiring scale of victory but it cannot be denied that it was extremely vulnerable just a few months before the elections. Beginning with the losses in key northern states, the combination of rural distress and the lingering effects of demonetisation had put the party on the defensive. It is equally true that the tragic attack in Pulwama and the subsequent strike on Pakistan changed the narrative substantially, after which there was no looking back. The Chowkidar campaign turned what the Congress thought was its strength into a crippling liability, and the BJP gained momentum that it kept building on.

Much of its eventual margin of victory can thus be attributed to an unforeseen tragic event and the party’s ability to harness its consequences to its advantage. Not to more fundamental longer-term factors. of course, Mr Modi’s popularity was always going to be a factor. But what Balakot did was to make his persona an electorally decisive factor. The numbers seem to bear this out. The first two phases of elections were terrible for the party- they won only 37% of the seats they contested, a number that went up to over 70% by the last phase. To that extent the retrospective inevitability of the Modi victory, is perhaps less inevitable than it appears today.

Is this nothing but wishful thinking, the chief merit of which is that it would make the losing side feel better? As the election came closer, is it not possible that more voters, when faced with the real task of making a choice, would have opted for someone perceived as a stronger leader than those seen as nothing more than a motley group of opportunists? Also, the large margins of victory suggest that the gap between the two sides was huge and not that easy to bridge. These are reasonable challenges to the scenario that this article is painting. However, the truth is that just as anecdotally, reports from the ground were almost uniformly suggesting support for Mr Modi the closer we got to election day, similar reports available a few months earlier painted a different picture. The opinion polls, whatever their worth, also seemed to confirm this.

At one level, this analysis, speculative as it is, is no consequence. Mr Modi has won comprehensively, and 303 seats are going nowhere for 5 long years. The argument that the BJP’s current dominance is a little overstated, even if true, makes no material difference to the political landscape. What it does suggest however, is that the disparity between the two sides that is seen in the numbers is perhaps not entirely indicative of their relative strengths on the ground in a longer-term horizon. Space exists for the other side even if it is difficult to see it right now. Certain circumstances and a specific set of strategies have helped the current outcome

come about, but these might not be irreversible movements although they might soon become just that, given the favourable prospects that the ruling party has.

Of course, given that the principal Opposition party seems to have gone into cardiac arrest after the elections, it does not look as if it is likely to do anything of note any time soon. Also, the fragile show of unity amongst some regional parties appears to be unravelling. The larger challenge for the Opposition goes beyond the arithmetic. It has been found wanting in terms of its vision for the country. There is a tired sense of sameness that surrounds it, and when compared with Mr Modi’s ability to frame a future vision for the country that voters are responding to, it simply does not measure up. Its brand of politics is outdated, its leaders do not evoke any great belief, and unless the Opposition reimagines itself in a significant way, it will have nothing meaningful to offer voters. The Opposition’s Narendra Modi problem is huge, no doubt but its own lack of vision is what might make it irrelevant.

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