India: an opposition narrative for 2019

Zoya Hasan | Published: 00:00, Mar 30,2019 | Updated: 23:36, Mar 29,2019


A shopkeeper displays masks of Indian Congress party president Rahul Gandhi and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi for sale at a roadside shop in Chennai on March 14. — Agence France-Presse/Arun Sankar

Its challenge is to foreground economic and social issues without getting diverted into national security concerns.

AHEAD of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, several political parties opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party have rallied around the idea of forming state-level coalitions to block the party’s re-election. The first phase of polling for the 2019 election is barely three weeks away, some of the alliances, especially in the National Democratic Alliance camp, have been sealed, while alliances in the United Progressive Alliance and opposition camp are still taking shape. The Congress has sealed alliances in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bihar, and Maharashtra but failed to do so in the crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The Congress not joining opposition alliances in these two states and Delhi gives an advantage to the BJP, which is striving to polarise voters by playing its nationalism card after the Balakot air strikes.

Ground reality
OPPOSITION parties have allowed short-term considerations to come in the way of alliances which can make a serious dent in the BJP’s seat tally. Opposition unity is necessary because in ‘India’s first-past-the-post electoral system, aggregation of votes at the constituency level is vital for winning seats. The majority of the BJP’s Lok Sabha seats are very disproportionately based on an unprecedented sweep in the Hindi-speaking northern states, two western states and union territories in 2014. Replicating such a strike rate in the 2019 elections would be highly improbable’.
Given this improbability and given that the BJP’s popularity is diminishing, the odds of the BJP beating the opposition at the national level seems no better than even. Hence, the unease in the BJP camp is apparent. It is not surprising that both prime minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah have derided opposition unity and the efforts to form what Modi called a ‘milavati sarkar’ (adulterated government). Coalitions or ‘khichdi sarkar’ will not deliver goes the common refrain. But there is no evidence that coalition governments are bad for the country; in fact decisive shifts have occurred under coalition governments and not one-party domination. The 1991 reforms and the UPA-I’s landmark rights legislations were pushed through by minority and coalition governments respectively. At the State level, coalition governments have dominated Kerala and Tamil Nadu and several other States which are among the better governed and more developed States, whereas despite winning a massive majority in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the BJP’s single party government has not been able to ensure development or governance or social peace.

For a decentered polity
THESE last five years raise important questions about the effectiveness of governments where power is concentrated in the hands of a centralised leader with a single party majority, particularly when it comes to their ability to represent India’s diverse regional interests or to deliver development benefits for everyone. Coalitions, on the other hand, represent a more decentered polity and the ability of India’s political institutions to reinvent and embrace the diversity of regional and social identities in the country and the different needs and interests of various sections, often suppressed under a centralised system.
But even as the limitations of strong leadership and single-party dominance are becoming evident, alliances and coalitions can only be a viable proposition if they offer an alternative politics. Exposing the government’s failings which is the job of the opposition (and the media) makes good political sense but it is not enough. Also, elections are not merely about arithmetic. The last five years lay bare the incompatibility between hate politics and economic growth. Going from State to State, it is clear that people are concerned primarily about livelihood issues that cut across all barriers, and not emotive issues. Even so, there are concerted efforts to deflect this concern through jingoistic nationalism by politicisation of the fight against terror, by sharpening communal polarisation, and by creating conflict situations over emotive issues.
Jobs are the really big issue for people and there is evidence of considerable discontent and restiveness over it. The problem is that the opposition has not paid enough attention to it. The government is on the back foot which is obvious from the suppression of official jobs data (the Periodic Labour Force Survey of the NSSO) cleared by the National Statistical Commission. The government claims have been exposed and hence the refusal to release official data.
The failure of the opposition parties to weave all this into a cohesive narrative is certainly a matter of concern, but in all fairness it is not easy for State-based Opposition parties to offer a unified and consistent narrative. Still, the overarching narrative is clear. Pushing this narrative are two larger concerns. The first is the politics of hate and unprecedented ascendancy of right-wing communal discourse which appears grounded in division and negativity legitimised by the top leadership of the country. However, this volatile rhetoric cannot trump disappointment over the lack of jobs and rural distress. The latter narrative has been built up over the last few months and has gained traction. But after the Balakot air strikes the BJP managed to disrupt it. Foregrounding, once again rural distress, unemployment, the demonetisation fiasco, the goods and services tax impact, allegations of corruption and cronyism, and the subversion of state institutions, is thus crucial.

What the metanarrative is
UNDERPINNING these issues is the metanarrative of an inclusive democracy based on communal amity, social justice and economic equity. However, such a perception of social justice cannot serve as the basis for any long-term vision unless it focusses squarely on distribution and common citizenship by instituting a set of fundamental socio-economic rights.
This can be done. One month after Balakot, the political build-up over air strikes might not be working on expected lines; hyper-nationalism may not sway voters except those in the BJP’s bastions. The Opposition’s challenge is to foreground economic and social issues without getting diverted into national security concerns even while the BJP’s redoubtable propaganda machinery will play up the last in a bid to quell the first.
The Opposition parties have to respond to the palpable public disquiet. Congress President Rahul Gandhi has finally done so with the promise of a guaranteed minimum income for the poorest quintile of the population, a move that has rattled the BJP. The big question, of course, is whether the Congress government, if it comes to power, will substitute Nyuntam Aay Yojana for existing social welfare programmes, which it musn’t, in order to pay for it. So far there is silence on this. The workability and affordability of NYAY have to be debated, but, as an idea, it signals justice for the poor; it is at least an acknowledgement that the poor and not just the corporate sector need stimulus. The BJP knows the scheme has poll potential, it can develop into an effective counter-narrative which will take the spotlight away from the national security focus that the BJP is trying to push. Moreover, it could help the Congress to build its 2019 campaign around this issue, somewhat like the right to employment in the run-up to the 2004 parliamentary elections.
It would be surprising, if despite its poor track record, the present government is voted back to power on the basis of exaggerated national security concerns, air strikes and testing new space missiles. To avert this possibility, it is important to remember that howsoever necessary it is for parties to revive and rebuild and defend their social base from encroachment by like-minded parties, it is even more important for them to defend India’s secular and democratic republic., March 29. Zoya Hasan is professor emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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