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After Karnataka: The Opposition Lacks A Convincing Counter-Narrative To ‘Moditva’

Opposition leaders during H D Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony at the Grand Steps of Vidhana Soudha. (Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The BJP may have lost in Karnataka, but for 2019, the opposition needs a Big Idea. Simply shouting “divisive politics” and “death of democracy” won’t work.

Amit Shah’s superpower is election management. Narendra Modi’s is election campaigns. The formidable duo proved less adept at post-electoral management in Karnataka, with the result that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wound up with egg on its face and the Janata Dal (Secular), backed by the Congress, seized power.

The post-electoral brouhaha has overshadowed the fact that the BJP emerged as the single largest party by far, in the face of sizable odds. Given the inherent instability and hairsbreadth margin enjoyed by the JD(S)-Congress combine, BJP could well have another shot at government formation in future. The second big takeaway is that its creditable performance — particularly in the absence of much-anticipated communal polarisation — owed much to the continuing popularity of Prime Minister.

The fallout of Karnataka will be seen in new political configurations. It will lend impetus to the consolidation of opposition forces, which in turn may drive the BJP to cement alliances, both new and old.

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The dilution of the grand old party’s stature vis-a-vis the rest of the non-NDA opposition is the most significant outcome of the Karnataka election. It facilitates a coalition between the Congress and regional parties, given that its “natural” claim to the leadership role was the primary hurdle in negotiations. In kowtowing to the JD(S), the Congress has signalled that it is ready to meet regional parties more than halfway.

A pre-electoral coalition of opposition parties is perceived as a necessity, without which the BJP will inevitably return to power. Such a mahagathbandhan is easier said that done, however.

Collective leadership is fine in principle, but a “front” ideally requires a leader. From 2009 onwards, elections have assumed a presidential character, with voters opting for the more credible face. In 2009, they chose Manmohan Singh over L K Advani and in 2014, Narendra Modi over Rahul Gandhi.

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West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has envisaged state-by-state battles on the premise of BJP versus the rest. In states with just one dominant regional party, such as West Bengal, Odisha and Telengana, this is not a problem. In other parts of India, the opposition will find it harder to sell a leaderless front.

What’s more, such a coalition cannot be based solely on the premise of a fractured polity. Ideological compatibility has never been a defining feature of coalitions. Alliances have been fluid in nature, with regional parties flitting from one front to the other, the better to serve their own interests. Such opportunistic coalitions — Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), BJP-BSP, BJP-JD(S) — are typically short-lived and the voters know that.

The grand coalition in Bihar was just such an experiment, which failed because Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav were pulling in different directions. Reconciling disparate partners is not possible without an overriding commonality of interests, beyond the short-term goal of seizing power.

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The ideological basis of anti-BJPism will most likely be found in the done-to-death “secular vs communal” proposition. But this, as even Congress leaders admit, is proving increasingly counterproductive and winds up consolidating votes in favour of the BJP. After 2014, Congress leader A K Antony red-flagged perceived minorityism as a major reason for his party’s debacle, a view that has found widespread if tacit support within the organisation.

“The Congress is not a Muslim party!” a senior party leader is said to have snapped during a review meeting. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s “temple run” in Gujarat and mutt-hopping in Karnataka are signs that the party is coming to grips with ground realities. It must get the minority vote, without being seen as a party of the minorities.

So, “secular” can be one, but not the only, defining characteristic of an anti-BJP coalition. The fundamental problem it faces is that the opposition in general and the Congress in particular lacks a convincing counter-narrative to ‘Moditva’.

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Rahul Gandhi gained considerable traction by accurately highlighting the shortcomings of the Modi government, primarily the agrarian crisis, unemployment, the struggling economy, the fallout of demonetisation, the shoddy implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) and the acute failure of public delivery systems. In this respect, the NDA government is a soft target. The gap between promises and achievements is too wide to be ignored, even by the most ardent Modi fans. The cognitive dissonance among floating voters is inevitable, given the unrealistic expectations fuelled by the mythologising of Modi.

So, as always, the opposition is relying on anti-incumbency. It assumes that Modi’s sins of commission and omission will translate into negative votes and sweep him out of office. The angst of disenchanted citizens, vociferously expressed on social media, is taken as an indication of voter preference. Jokes on the promised “achchhe din” abound.

But the electorate has matured to the point where voters do not opt for change for its own sake. The challenger must present a credible alternative which holds some promise of capable governance. Gujarat is an example of an angry electorate re-electing the incumbent government for lack of a promising challenger.

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The Congress leader and — by his own admission — PM-in-waiting, has so far failed to present an alternative apparatus. He comes across as a status-quoist whereas Modi, for all his failures, is perceived as a man of ideas, with a capacity for risk-taking. GST is already yielding results and the business community anticipates an upturn in the not-too-distant future. The question of which horse is perceived as being better in the long haul was answered by the voters of Gujarat and Karnataka.

Besides, increasing federal autonomy means greater accountability on the part of state governments and therefore of regional parties. In Karnataka, the success of the BJP indicates that Siddaramaiah’s government was held responsible for the deepening agrarian crisis and deteriorating law and order, rather than the Centre.

In sum, the opposition needs a big idea. Simply putting up a window display of the bogey of “divisive politics” and “death of democracy” is to infantalise the electorate. It must articulate what it stands for and present a coherent plan for course correction. This is not an impossible job; the opposition does not lack sharp minds and Sonia Gandhi, to her credit, has often displayed remarkable political acumen. She was the moving force behind such transformative initiatives as the Right to Information, Forest Rights and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).

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The other possibility is a post-electoral coalition. State-level alliances can be forged between principal players in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Delhi, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Gujarat, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir, without a formal pre-electoral coalition at the national level. In Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, the Congress fights the NDA one-to-one. In Kerala and Telegana, the Congress takes on the Left and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. A post-electoral coalition then comes together to oust the NDA.

The feasibility of some of these alliances is questionable. The Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, the United Democratic Front in Assam or the Janata Congress in Chhattisgarh are unlikely to see any electoral benefit in accommodating the Congress, because they share the same vote base. The opposition parties may want to defeat the BJP, but have no desire to facilitate a revival of the Congress. As for the grand old party, it has suffered through alliances in the past, by giving away its own support base.

Each state presents a different picture, so that brokering alliances requires skilful negotiations. Uttar Pradesh, the most critical state on account of its size (representing nearly 15 per cent of the Lok Sabha), is a classic example.

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The SP and BSP are already in a tug-of-war over seat-sharing. In 2014, the SP won five seats in the face of the BJP blitzkrieg and was second in 31 seats. The BSP didn’t win any but was second in 33 seats. Having won two by-elections with the help of the BSP, the SP tally is now seven. In addition, it has 47 MLAs to BSP’s 19. So a 50-50 seat-sharing formula is less simple than it sounds.

Also, the SP and BSP will have to accommodate the smaller players, including those who are poised to split from the NDA. If the Congress comes on board, it will be squeezed unmercifully, most likely to five seats. The prospect of being denied a ticket will result in an orgy of dal badal across the board. So, the question is whether the “fear factor” engendered by the formidable Modi-Shah combine is strong enough to overcome individual self-interest.

Even in a relatively small state like Jharkhand (14 seats), simple arithmetic demands that the opposition pool the vote shares of the Congress and all the principle state parties — the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) — to defeat the BJP and its ally, the Jharkhand Students’ Union.

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It must also be kept in mind that elections do not necessarily follow numerical logic. Alliance partners cannot assume that the vote shares they received in a multi-party contest will remain the same when they partner up. The Asom Gana Parishad’s vote share in Assam fell from 16 per cent in 2011, when it fought on its own, to 8 per cent in 2016 when it allied with the BJP. Similarly, the Congress vote share in Jharkhand fell from 16 per cent in 2009, when it contested on its own, to 10 per cent in 2014, when it allied with the JMM.

That said, even a limited measure of opposition unity puts the BJP at a disadvantage. That the 17th Lok Sabha elections will be a contest of coalitions is a foregone conclusion and the BJP is currently on the back foot vis-a-vis its allies. It must enter into fresh alliances in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and hold on to the existing ones. In UP, small parties like the Apna Dal and Suheldev BSP are invaluable in aggregating votes at the constituency level. In Jharkhand, the BJP would be best served by building bridges with its breakaway faction, the JVM. Six of its MLAs joined the BJP in 2015.

The Shiv Sena continues to play hard to get in Maharashtra, while the Telugu Desam Party (TDP)-BJP alliance in Andhra is a dead duck. Indeed, TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu is said to have worked against the BJP in the “Hyderabad Karnataka” region and helped broker the JD(S)-Congress deal. The BJP must now coax and coerce the YSR Congress into an alliance in Andhra, where the BJP is not in a position to go it alone.

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The strategy of both coalitions will be the same — to maximise seats, so that non-aligned players will come on board in a post-election scenario. So, if Karnataka is indeed a template for the 17th Lok Sabha, the BJP will need all the friends it can get in order to form a government.

The BJP’s two big advantages, as stated at the beginning, are the Modi factor and election management. In a system that allows disproportionate representation, the importance of a well-oiled election machinery cannot be overstated. Why so? Because distribution of votes is as important as the numbers. In Karnataka, a 1.4 per cent increased vote share for the Congress led to fewer seats. The JD(S) vote share fell marginally and was reflected in two fewer seats. However, the BJP’s share of votes almost doubled, but the number of seats went up two-and-a-half times.

Likewise, in Assam, the BJP won 60 seats with a vote share of 29 per cent while the Congress won just 26 with 31 per cent. Setting booth-wise targets for vote collection, keeping in view the number of players, is every party’s modus operandi for being first past the post. But the BJP does it better. In Karnataka, for example, it focussed on seats where the victory margin in the 2013 assembly elections was less than 10,000 votes.

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The ouster of yet another of its chief ministers will certainly slow the Congress down in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where it hoped to sail through on the momentum of Karnataka. For the BJP, it makes eminent sense, prima facie, to hold simultaneous polls to the assemblies and Parliament and thereby cash in on the Modi factor. Counter-intuitively, it could result in the anti-incumbency against state governments being reflected in the Lok Sabha polls as well, points out a senior BJP leader. So, while “one nation, one poll” remains a desirable goal, supported by previous law commissions and the current Election Commission of India, it may be too risky a move at this time.

Street-corner political pundits and Lutyen’s Delhi intellectuals posit that a desperate BJP will either precipitate a war or commence building the Ram Temple at Ayodhya in order to trigger communal violence. In the resulting nationalistic or religious fervour, it will come back to power. It is in this context that subversion of the Supreme Court has been alleged and the Chief Justice of India villified. The purpose of the abortive impeachment move against Justice Dipak Misra was apparently to prevent him from delivering a BJP-friendly verdict in the Ayodhya case, thereby impugning him and the two other judges on the bench. To this has been added another fear: that he will seek to supersede Justice Ranjan Gogoi.

The BJP must deal appropriately with attempts to create such an Emergency-style fear psychosis. After all, it’s unlikely that the Ayodhya case will be resolved anytime soon and the convention of appointing the seniormost among the sitting Supreme Court justices is too well-established to set aside.

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Every assembly election since 2014 has been preceded by prognostications that the BJP’s dirty tricks department will orchestrate communal violence. But all the elections, with the notable exception of West Bengal, have passed off peacefully. The BJP won UP and Assam and a near-majority in Karnataka on its own strengths. The 17th Lok Sabha should be no different.

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