Two major initiatives by the Modi government are indicative of the fact that the INDIA meet in Mumbai has rattled BJP. On the first day of the conclave came news, out-of-the-blue, of a special session of parliament on September 18, no reason given.
On the second day, a second big announcement – a panel, led by former President Ram Nath Kovind, to weigh the feasibility of the One Nation, One Election concept. This gave birth to unnecessary speculation that the parliamentary elections could be synchronised with the assembly elections due in November-December 2023. Obviously, the news space which INDIA would have hogged in the absence of these two developments was conceded and the debate swirled around how good or bad is the concept of ‘One Nation, One Election.’
I am of the firm opinion that these two steps taken by the Modi government were an exercise in headline management. It was also no coincidence that a day before the meeting, LPG cylinder prices were slashed by ₹ 200. This shows that the BJP is well aware that the coming together of 28 political parties might impact the 2024 parliamentary elections and that to preempt any damage, people’s attention should be diverted by a mega-narrative.
INDIA’s Mumbai meeting was the third in a row after Patna and Bengaluru. If Patna was the ice breaker, then Bengaluru gave the confidence that political parties with different ideologies and competing political ambitions can come together to fight the juggernaut of the Modi government. The Mumbai conclave may go down in history as a momentous event because it belied the apprehensions of naysayers that 28 political parties led by egotistical leaders could ever be a cohesive unit. It has also reassured the advocates of opposition unity that INDIA is no longer as fragile as was painted by some media organisations – rather, it is emerging as a robust conglomerate with a deep sense of history and capable of taking decisions to ensure the forward March of INDIA.
Three milestones have been achieved in Mumbai.
One, when the opposition is fractured and divided into many camps, it is imperative for them to first give a sense to the nation that they have crossed the rubicon, forgotten the past and are ready to act as one bloc. In the absence of one voice and unity of purpose, political togetherness is of no use.
The three conclaves of INDIA have definitely underlined the fact that despite differences, they have evolved a mechanism to work together and behave like one unit. And if this continues then it will be the single biggest threat to the continuance of the Modi government after general election in 2024. It was this absence of unity in the Opposition that gave the BJP a walkover in 2019. There was no single narrative and no ideological challenge to the Modi government then. Now there is a clearly-defined alternative before the people vis a vis Hindutva. Now voters have a choice at the national level. In states, where voters had a strong choice, they did exercise their right; not surprisingly, the BJP is having a tough time winning assembly elections. The latest example is Karnataka, where the BJP lost badly.
Two, the conclave has successfully taken the first steps in creating a structure to lead the ship called INDIA. It has not only created a 14-member coordination committee but has also formed four other sub-committees dealing with joint campaigns, working groups for social media, media, and research. In these committees, representation has been given to almost all the parties. As one of the members told me, even he was surprised with the smoothness with which the committees were formed. He was confident that he did not see any problem in their functioning as everyone has realized that they can fight Modi only if united and if divided they will all be politically dead. This is the thread which binds them.
Three, the assertiveness of the Opposition is startling. This was the same Opposition which in the 2019 elections was fragmented and confused about whether it should attack Narendra Modi. Rahul Gandhi was probably the only one who did not spare Modi and took him head on. Other leaders were mute or avoided attacking him.
In Mumbai, the opposition leaders did not mince words. They look more confident. Each of them tried to project that Modi’s defeat is a foregone conclusion. Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav, Uddhav Thackeray all declared Modi would not come back as Prime Minister and INDIA would form the government. In electoral politics, it is very important to make voters believe that they are on the winning side. Although elections are still more than eight months away and anything can happen, the resoluteness with which the Opposition has taken decisions shows that they have smelt the coffee and that Modi will face a challenge.
But this does not mean that INDIA has answered all the tough questions. The absence of a convenor who can act like a CEO, who can monitor the day-to-day functioning of the group and lead when needed is definitely a miss. This shows that on an important issue, there is no consensus. Without a convenor or a designated president, it is not clear how a 14-member committee will work or arrive at any decision. If there is a deadlock in the committee, who will resolve it?
The most obvious question that INDIA will face, incessantly, will be, who is their prime ministerial candidate? It is not clear if INDIA has taken a conscious decision to not portray anyone as a leader of the flock. If they are following the 2004 model, when the opposition did not have a prime ministerial face against Atal Bihari Vajpayee, they should be upfront about it, or it can potentially breed a crisis within the group and outside. Voters should be told that issues concerning them are more important than an individual. But there is a caveat.
Since 2004, politics has become more personality centric than ever before. The BJP is led by Modi who has manufactured a cult around himself, and his supporters are not willing to listen to anything against him.
The non-projection of a face by the opposition will be an exercise in de-mystifying the politics of charisma and cult-making, and reorienting the pendulum, which has moved away from people’s issues.
A personality cult is the first sign of the weakening of democracy. In a democracy, institutions that can withstand any situation or crisis should be powerful. India has run successfully without a personality cult for decades, since the death of Rajiv Gandhi. But the last nine years have witnessed a reversal of that trend. If INDIA were to continue with the policy of not projecting a face, it would be a bold move and good for Indian democracy.
(Ashutosh is author of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and Editor, satyahindi.com.)