The Mahagathbandhan is relying on cold arithmetic to project confidence. Have they accounted for the fact that Narendra Modi can upset all equations?
Can Modi win again in 2019? From the Congress’ point of view, this question arouses both despair and hope. Despair because, unlike what their friends in the media told them, 2014 was not a one-off, black swan event. After that, the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut has rolled on in state after state, retaining states like Gujarat where it was already in power for more than two decades and conclusively winning states like Uttar Pradesh, where it has never been in power for any sustained period. And then there is the North East, which turned saffron, with even the thuggish left unable to hold its Tripura bastion. Till as late as the Karnataka election in May 2018, the BJP has emerged as the single-largest party, and that too by a wide margin.
But Congress also has hope. Why? Because no party at the Centre, other than the Congress, has been re-elected after a long term in office. The Janata Party experiment failed after three years in office. As did the experiments in 1989, 1996, and 1997. Vajpayee did return in 1999 after getting elected in 1998, but that term lasted just a year and so 1999 was for all purposes a fresh, first term. In 2004, after five years in office, Vajpayee too lost. So, the Congress hope is that Modi too will suffer the same fate in 2019 after a full term.
The idea driving the Congress is this: people vote for the BJP either in crisis situations or when the BJP has a brand new idea and a messenger that can make people give up their default positions driven by caste, language, regional, or religious considerations. Once the BJP is in power, the crisis situation ebbs, as is clearly the case in 2018 when compared to where India was in 2014. The appeal of the BJP under Modi is no longer new and so people would revert to their default positions. To speed up this process, the idea of “Mahagathbandhan” or grand alliance is the chosen vehicle. It was the vehicle that Sonia Gandhi used in 2004 and it is the same vehicle that Rahul Gandhi is hoping to ride on in 2019.
As people start voting along their divided caste lines, instead of uniting on the issues of development and governance, the Mahagathbandhan is intended to agglomerate these votes on caste lines into one block against the BJP in each constituency. So, all non-BJP votes in Bansgaon in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, or in Purulia in Bengal agglomerate and triumph over the BJP votes. Or so will be the hope of the Congress. There is only problem, though, in this well laid-out plan.
First, the seemingly insurmountable challenge of the Mahagathbandhan is not the first hurdle that Modi has faced and overcome. Indeed, all his public life he has faced and defied such challenges. In the 2012 Gujarat Assembly election, Modi was faced with a promise by the Congress to build free houses for lakhs of people. But he did not blink and did not give up his principled position of not indulging in mindless offering of freebies before elections. He prevailed.
Before the 2014 general election, there was a flurry of articles seemingly sympathetic to Modi but pointing out how the geographical limitation of the BJP, lack of allies, and past precedent suggest that despite Modi’s popularity, the BJP would fall short of a majority. In an article in June 2013, this writer had taken on exactly these same arguments and we can see now that most of the points that were made then have turned out to be true. The BJP won a historic full parliamentary majority in 2014.
The rupture of ties with the Shiv Sena before the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly election was thought to be the next Waterloo for the Modi-Shah model. But the BJP prevailed again. When the Congress started facing defeat after defeat in state elections, the next insurmountable challenge propounded for Modi was that it is easy to defeat a discredited Congress, but when it comes to strong regional parties, the BJP would flounder. What could be a more fitting example of strong regional parties than that in Uttar Pradesh? This challenge was surmounted as well.
The next challenge was that it is mostly anti-incumbency that is driving BJP’s victories and it won’t be able to win on a pro-incumbency agenda. This argument was defeated in Gujarat, where the BJP retained power even after 22 years of incumbency. Next challenge was, can the BJP win in non-Hindi belts and where minorities form an overwhelming part of the population? The BJP is now in power in Tripura and Nagaland along with most other states in the North East.
So, we see that it is not the first time a challenge has been posited to the BJP - one that is presumed will be its Waterloo. This Mahagathbandhan stratagem is just the latest in that series.
Second, just as other challenges were converted into an opportunity by the BJP, so too will the Mahagathbandhan challenge. How? Think of it this way. In the recently concluded Karnataka election, the voters of Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S), though nominally aware that JD(S) is not a likely ally of the BJP, were still not voting for Gandhi-led Congress. Since there was no alliance before the election, their vote was as much for the JD(S) as it was against the Congress. It is only after the election that these parties came together. Similarly, a voter not voting for the BJP in Bengal, in a non-pre-poll alliance situation, would vote for the Trinamool Congress over the BJP and not for the Congress over the BJP. Same would be the case with the non-BJP voter in Uttar Pradesh – he would choose Bahujan Samaj Party or Samajwadi Party over the BJP and not Congress over the BJP. A post-poll khichdi alliance, as one in Karnataka, would still work since the committed voters of the regional parties would be able to vote for their regional party leader over the BJP, although they may be cheated after the election.
But what would a pre-poll Mahagathbandhan do? It would completely eliminate any doubts in the mind of the voter. If a majority of the constituencies has just two prominent candidates – one from the BJP and the other from the respective Mahagathbandhan, then there would be no confusion in the minds of the voter. If not voting for Modi, the voter would know instinctively that they are voting for Gandhi. Why? Because only Congress, with presence in more than one state, would emerge as large enough to lead the coalition. So, an election in West Bengal, in absence of the Mahagathbandhan, which would otherwise have been between a Mamata Banerjee candidate and a Modi candidate, would now effectively become one between the Gandhi candidate and the Modi candidate. And the pattern would be the same in every other state. A Mamata candidate or a Mayawati candidate may still triumph over a Modi candidate in their strongholds. But a Gandhi candidate?
The post-poll alliance mathematics that looks so compelling to Mahagathbandhan proponents would turn into a pre-poll chemistry formula. Ironically then, the Mahagathbandhan would work to the advantage of Modi, especially given his formidable communication abilities and the many ways in which the contrast between an imagined Gandhi-led government and a Modi-led government would be presented.
Third, this Modi-led government has fundamentally transformed the social base of the party. The party of Vajpayee was primarily a middle-class, urban-base party. That is why it was still relatively easier for a pro-poor agenda-led insurrection against it. In the last four years, Modi government has worked hard in its programmes, policies, rhetoric, outlook, and messaging to transform its base from just the middle class to also include the vast numbers of those in the lower economic strata – the poor. These voters were attracted to the BJP in 2014 as well, but back then it was a hope that a Modi – the first prime minister from a similar background – would deliver for them. In 2019, these voters would see that despite being in power for five years, Modi has not changed. Delhi has been unable to corrupt him, and that he is still one of them, just like them. And in these five years, he has delivered in addressing the most basic needs of the poor – something that has been exemplified by the historic fall in the number of people below absolute poverty line. This new social base, which is across castes and regions, is unlike the floating voter and does not change affiliations easily.
Fourth, there is nothing negative really against Modi government. Sure, one could argue that there might have been under-delivery in some cases, owing to a complicated bureaucracy, non-cooperation of states, or legacy issues left behind by the United Progressive Alliance government. However, this would be the first non-Congress government which would go into election without any real negative. As such, the negative campaign that Gandhi would run would turn out to be exactly that – negative without a context, unlike say in 2014 when the BJP’s negative campaign in its early campaign days had accompanying context.
Fifth, in the series of assembly election wins after 2014, many of the schemes of Modi government, implemented well on the ground, have had a net positive impact in supplementing support for the party. Jan Dhan Yojana, Ujjwala Yojana, Mudra Yojana, Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan – all have had beneficiaries running in crores and resulting in a cumulative positive impact. The hope of the opposition parties is that successful implementation of mass-impact schemes would no longer be novel talking points in the latter half of the tenure and would thus have diminishing political returns. Modi’s ability to communicate obviates this truism, but even if it were true, the country is preparing itself for the roll-out of Ayushman Bharat. The programme would empower 10 crore families, 50 crore people, on the day of the launch of the scheme itself. As the impact of this game-changing scheme unfolds, along with other similar mass-impact schemes like Saubhagya Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, expect the beneficiaries and their friends and families to support the government that brings them these benefits.
Sixth, at no other time has there been a political party, other than Congress, with such a strong political and electoral machine at the national level. The party under Vajpayee, with Advani also in government, had party presidents who were in the old mould. Amit Shah is cut from a different cloth and he has moulded the party in his own work ethic. Modi’s appeal would not be handicapped by an imperfect mobilisation on the voting day; in fact, if at all, it would only be supplemented.
Seventh, between 2014 and 2019, approximately 7.5 crore new voters would have been added to the voter list. It will be the first election in which people born in this century would be voting. They don’t have any memory of the Congress except what they saw in their early teens in 2013-14. Since then, they have heard nothing positive about the party. Nor have they heard any new agenda from them. These incremental, first-time voters, without any past loyalty, will make up their mind in a growing economy with opportunities in every sphere of life. Why would they imperil their future and risk a return to 2013-14 days?
Eighth, in 2004, there was no template as to what happens when people get divided on default lines and end up supporting the Congress. In 2019, that template exists. How bad the decade of 2004-14 turned out for India, in the age of social media and video communication on every mobile handset, is too near to be forgotten. But even if it were not the case, Karnataka would offer a live example. This contrast between life under Modi government and life under Gandhi government would make the choice that much simpler.
Finally – and this is the crux – governments get re-elected when they can positively impact the lived reality of people. Sheila Dixit won re-elections twice in the city-state of Delhi because the moment you got out of your house, you would encounter a new flyover or an interchange that was easing your life every day. To alter the lived reality of people on a national scale, however, purely by building infrastructure, takes time, which does not lend itself to five-year electoral cycles. That is where the Vajpayee government fell short. When it said we have changed India for the better, a person living in Basti, who did not travel on NH-2, had no basis in his lived reality to believe it. The Modi government, however, is fundamentally different. It is of course building national highways at a pace higher than 25 km per day and rural roads at 130 km per day, but that is not the only thing it is doing.
More than seven crore toilets have been constructed, over 13 crore people have been funded under Mudra Yojana, at least 18 crore people now have social security schemes, more than two crore families now have pucca homes of their own, over 4.5 crore families now live smoke-free lives, and at least 30 crore people now have bank accounts and other benefits. And soon these will be joined by more than 50 crore people who had the demand for quality medical services but did not have the paying capacity and now have that as well. All these people have seen and will see their lived reality change for the better.
So, when Modi argues he is building a “New India”, the foundation of which he has laid, people will see that it corresponds to their real life as well as the lives of their friends and family. To them, the choice between a New India led by Modi and an old India promised by the Mahagathbandhan would, therefore, be a no-contest.