Is United Opposition a chimera or a possible reality? And what can be its strategy and roadmap before the mother of all elections can come?
After the victory of the united Opposition in Kairana and Noorpur in UP, soon after similar Phulpur and Gorakhpur victories, and the failure of BJP to manage a majority in Karnataka, unlike in Goa or Northeast, the opposition parties have been rejuvenated. The Gujarat scare for BJP before these, and the all regional parties supporting AAP in sit-in dharna followed by breakdown of the J&K government recently, have further contributed to the Opposition unity.
But this entire coming together is based merely on anti-Modi wave, and is just of leaders and parties, and not of a common minimum programme. Modi is a different leader: with personal charisma, drawing upon religious identity, and engaging a powerful online army to propagate his brand. Hence, merely the template of an anti-Indira strategy of 1977 will not work today in 2018-19.
Today, India needs an alternative vision of governance, and not just huddling together of a few disparate parties or leaders of the Opposition.
Political strategy 1: one to one contest.
The only way to combat the Modi-Shah juggernaut and its war-chest with huge resources is to have one-to-one contest. All Opposition combined together has to put up one candidate only in each LS constituency. The best approach is to give every constituency to the winning party of the last Lok Sabha elections. Wherever an NDA candidate has won, let the runners-up party put up the United Opposition candidate. This itself will make Congress put up candidates in nearly 45 winning seats and at least in 150 others where it was the main challenger. However, the remaining 250 seats must go to the regional parties whoever have won last time or were the runners up. Debating on who has ground-swell of support and who has gained or lost most in the intervening four years since 2014, will open up an Pandora's box. However, if all Vidhan Sabha seats in a Lok Sabha constituency have changed hands, there can be some negotiations. Around 200 for Congress and 350 for Opposition is a reasonably good strategy on the whole. Quality of the contest must precede quantity of seats in a situation where all Opposition parties are extremely cash strapped in the post demonetisation and post electoral bonds period. Hence, SP-BSP combine takes lead in UP, RJD takes lead in Bihar, TMC takes lead in West Bengal, AAP leads in Delhi, DMK leads in Tamil Nadu, with just a couple or more seats for Congress in each of these. However, Congress takes almost all seats of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh.
Political strategy 2: leadership issue
Neither should the Opposition leaders, specially Mamata Banerjee or Sharad Pawar, have a touch-me-not approach towards Congress president Rahul Gandhi due to his young age and inexperience, nor should Congress be hell-bent on declaring Gandhi as PM candidate of the united opposition. Best is to elect the most preferred leader of newly elected LS members as the PM designate if United Opposition crosses the magic figure of 274 LS seats this time. It is in sync with the spirit of the Constitution which calls for leader of the winning LS members to be appointed as the PM. This also deprives the BJP from presidentialising the LS Polls and comparing Modi with the face on the other side. This is BJP’s favourite and successful narrative in the last four years, except in Bihar and Delhi.
Political strategy 3: uphold the Indian Constitution
Opposition must loudly 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 either. Neither Hindutva nor Muslim appeasement. Pledge to uphold socialistic welfare economy as envisaged in the Constitution, because the marginalised 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, 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, electoral reforms, relook at the role of the governors, and an all-out implementation of the institution of the Lokpal, apart from protecting the independence of the constitutional positions (e.g. EC, CIC, etc).
Political stratey 4: uphold rights of all communities without any appeasement
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 low 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, 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 economic participation.
Governance strategy 1: bring forth an alternative economic vision for India
United Opposition must promise a slew of economic measures, including viable minimum support price for agricultural produce and implementation of MS Swaminathan recommendations, 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. It is important to increase public investment in education and health, making them 25 per cent of the total national budget, which is less than half today. Investment in health insurance, not on actual public health infrastructure, as suggested in Modicare, does not do any good to the man on the ground.
Governance strategy 2: localise the campaign with a development plan for each LS constituency
There has to be a development plan for each LS constituency and this must be communicated door to door and through local social media campaign. Instead of a lot of big picture talk as that of the BJP leadership, in the form of bullet trains and acronymed development schemes or hyped up Ayushman Bharat and anti-Pakistan rhetoric, the Opposition must make five top actually needed development promises for each LS constituency. Localisation of this campaign, along with the other strategies noted above, will render Modi-centric presidential campaign of BJP go blunt. Surely there has to be a national manifesto of the United Opposition, along with this constituency specific manifestos.
Communication strategy 1: win the battle of perception
Modi stands tall in the battle of perception. It is a TINA (There is No Alternative) a tall man of 56 inches chest against an army of political dwarfs, and the perception of no personal corruption of Modi as against a motley group of corrupt forces. The image built assiduously by BJP narrative is about a united Hindu led India versus motley group of casteist and communal forces, etc. Falling into the same narrative, which the compromised media may assiduously promote, will be suicidal for the opposition. The only way to combat it is to put forth an alternative qualitatively different narrative and fast. Like, one tall arrogant dictator versus people’s grassroots leaders. Like, selective chasing of corruption cases against Opposition leaders, while all corruption charges on BJP functionaries go un-investigated (like the alleged PDS, Vyapam, and Rafael scams). Like, one religion-high castes dominant narrative versus united India at the grassroots approach. Like, arrogant elite governance versus consensus striving for bottoms up governance. Also, to prevent any low-scale or full-scale riot in the light of the expected Ramjanmabhoomi verdict of the Supreme Court soon, let United Opposition create Aman Committee of each Mohalla with civil society leaders of that locality and one representative of various opposition parties and conduct peace meets and rallies on a regular basis to isolate communal politicking by the Right Wing.
Communication strategy 2: communicating the economic failure of Modi:
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 demonetisation, GST, joblessness, value of currency, 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 localised campaign at the grassroots, even though communal polarisation 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 one-liners, info-graphics and memes must flood the communication channels if opposition has to combat the onslaught of the well oiled cyber army of BJP.
The United Opposition platform
Only a collective leadership of the United Opposition, named People’s Federal Alliance (PFA), with a distinct common minimum programme and approach can make this United Opposition a reality on ground. Their over-arching vision has to be to take India to a more holistic sensitive people-centric development oriented future devoid of an overdose of rhetoric and aggressive emotions. Lot needs to be done on this front to make it see the light of the day, and not merely a chimera.
( The writer is the former dean of Symbiosis and Amity universities )