Chimes of change: A 5-point plan for Opposition unity
Merely criticising Modi govt on its manifest failures and betrayals will not sway public opinion sufficiently. Opposition leaders must present a common alternative vision on key issues to the voters
Change in 2024 is necessary. Change in 2024 is possible. Change in 2024 is a certainty. The necessity of change is being felt acutely by the people, who are the ultimate change-makers in a democracy. The possibility of change is being felt — but expressed only privately — by many astute observers of Indian politics. One such observer, commenting on the fall of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity from 66% to 24% in one year, as per a recent India Today survey, said to me, “If the magazine has published the figure of 24%, we should know the real figure is aadhaa (half) of that number. This is because, in today’s atmosphere of fear and reprisal, many people participating in such surveys will say they like Modi even though they actually want him to go.” The certainty of change is being felt by many seasoned political leaders in India, including — and this point must be mentioned here — some senior leaders of the BJP.
It is this combined awareness about the necessity, possibility and certainty of change in 2024 that has energised the recent welcome initiatives for Opposition unity. The most important among them was the virtual meeting convened by Sonia Gandhi, the interim president of the Indian National Congress, on August 20. It was attended by the top leaders of as many as 18 non-BJP parties. A fortnight earlier, Rahul Gandhi had invited Opposition leaders and MPs for a breakfast meeting. This too evoked a good response.
Both before and during the monsoon session of Parliament, which was a washout because of the government’s refusal to discuss important national issues in the two houses, non-BJP leaders met regularly to coordinate their actions and issued joint statements. On a parallel track, several initiatives for Opposition unity are also taking place outside the formal framework of political parties. For example, Rashtra Manch, a national forum founded by Yashwant Sinha, a prominent former leader of the BJP and a senior minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, convened a successful meeting on June 22 at Sharad Pawar’s residence in New Delhi. It urged non-BJP parties and also people’s organisations across the country to come together and give vent to common citizens’ mounting pain and suffering under Modi’s rule.
Post-Covid period will see a burst of political activity
It is still early days for the revival of normal political activity in the country. Covid-related restrictions, though considerably eased, still limit mobility and meetings of political leaders. The situation is still not safe for offline conferences, mass rallies and protest actions in public places — although here we must wholeheartedly commend our kisan brothers who have been heroically continuing their non-violent sit-in agitation on the outskirts of Delhi for the past nine months demanding repeal of the three undemocratically passed farm laws. One thing is certain: as soon as the pandemic constraints go and an increasing number of people get vaccinated, India is certain to witness huge protests across the country precisely on account of those issues that have caused a steep fall in the prime minister’s popularity ratings.
These issues are well known: gross mismanagement of the Covid situation by the Modi government, gross mismanagement of the economy, steep price rise that is hurting not only the poor but also middle-class families, mounting unemployment which is a result of both job losses and the inability of a slowing economy to generate new jobs, and a growing sense among the common people that Modi has betrayed their trust in him.
The BJP government’s attacks on democratic institutions and democratic rights of citizens, its contemptuous disregard for the basic values of the Constitution, and the ruling party’s poisonous politics of communal polarisation are also beginning to alarm and anger thinking sections of our society. At another level, in unprecedented assaults on the federal structure of the Indian Union, the Modi government has been systematically robbing the states of their powers. Most recently, the Modi government has presented to the Opposition a new and potent issue on which to mobilise widespread public protests — privatisation of national assets on a scale never seen before.
Because of all these factors, the post-Covid period will surely see a burst of pent-up popular dissatisfaction. These mass protests will be targets of suppression and repression. We should anticipate very harsh times, including imprisonment of Opposition leaders and activists, in the coming two years. The government and the ruling party will attempt to justify such repressive measures by intensifying the propaganda focusing on their false narrative on nationalism and ‘national security’. However, the more the BJP tries to build defenses for its weakening political power on the sandy foundations of falsehoods, the greater will be the opportunities for a prochange, pro-people and pro-nation alternative politics to emerge in the run-up to the 2024 LS elections.
Non-BJP alternative should stand on agenda of good governance and pro-people development
As things stand today, the mood of the people is this: “We want change. But where is the alternative?” Hence, now is the time for non-BJP parties to evolve a clear and common understanding on how to construct Opposition unity that rapidly gains the trust and confidence of the people. Here are five ideas.
1 It is crystal clear that there can be no Opposition unity without the Congress at its core. Despite its considerably dwindled strength, it remains the only national political organisation among the non-BJP parties, almost all of which have only a regional identity and footprint. There cannot be a robust alternative to the BJP without a national party acting as the magnet. The idea of a ‘third front’, which is equidistant from both the BJP and Congress, is an absolute non-starter. Therefore, the Congress leadership, especially Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, must redouble their efforts to bring non-BJP parties together in a broad-based national alliance
2 True, there can be no Opposition unity without the Congress at its core. It is no less true that the Congress has to treat regional parties as its equal partners in a common mission. The Congress today is not what it was decades ago — a dominant pole of Indian politics with a clear majority at the Union level and with governments in many states. Therefore, in the spirit of ‘Coalition Dharma’, the Congress should learn to treat regional parties with respect. This will help it gain their trust and also help the Opposition alliance become cohesive. Wherever necessary — such as in Uttar Pradesh, where assembly elections are due early next year — it would be prudent for it to take the back seat for the sake of defeating the BJP. The outcome of the Bihar assembly elections has taught a sobering lesson. Allies and potential allies expect the Congress to fundamentally change its mindset, its habits and its conduct.
Senior leaders like Sharad Pawar (who is the main architect of an important non-BJP coalition in Maharashtra) and Mamata Banerjee (who handed a humiliating defeat to the BJP in the recent West Bengal assembly polls and won a mandate for her party for the third consecutive time) should have the same prominence in the Opposition alliance as the Congress president. When these three leaders are seen to be guiding ‘Mission 2024’, along with other alliance leaders, on a regular and well-coordinated basis, it will create both credibility and enthusiasm among the people.
3 Opposition unity can neither be cohesive nor credible without a firm commitment by all the constituent parties to a common alternative vision on good governance, pro-people development, important social issues, national security and foreign policy. So far, very little dialogue seems to have taken place among the top leaders of non-BJP parties on how to construct and present this alternative vision. Merely criticising the Modi government on its manifest failures and betrayals will not sway the public opinion sufficiently. Common people also should get convinced that the Opposition has a superior and believable agenda to lead the nation out of the current crises and ensure truly ‘achche din’ for farmers, workers, unemployed youth, students, women, artisans, MSMEs, etc.
The Opposition’s agenda should also present bold and innovative ideas on reforming the education and health sectors, for curbing entrenched corruption in the system, and making the bureaucracy accountable to the people. It should not shy away from advocating radical electoral reforms, which are necessary to make our system of governance truly representative and free it from the baneful influence of moneybags. India also needs thorough-going administrative reforms, which are necessary to de-bureaucratize governance, ensure transparency and accountability, and increase people’s effective participation. Most importantly, Opposition parties must defend with conviction the three core principles of the Constitution which are today under severe threat — democracy, secularism and socialism. There is a strong possibility that Modi’s BJP would take steps to remove ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’ from the Preamble of the Constitution.
There are large numbers of intellectuals, socio-political activists, cultural personalities, and experienced former civil servants, judges, diplomats and military officers who can contribute to the preparation of a ‘Common Minimum Programme’ (CMP) to cement Opposition unity. Many of them are already working on this task. Opposition leaders should hold in-depth consultations on a CMP that can capture the imagination of all sections of society, and adopt it well before the 2024 elections.
4 The BJP cannot be defeated decisively in 2024 unless the contents of the Opposition’s alternative vision of good governance and pro-people development percolate to all sections of society. For this to happen, parties and their leaders should stop treating the CMP in the same way that they usually treat their own election manifestos — cavalierly. Adoption of a CMP comes with a solemn obligation. Opposition leaders must begin to speak in one voice on their commitments to the people, so that the people can begin to repose their faith in them. When leaders in an alliance speak in one voice, the workers and supporters of the constituent parties also start to do the same, thus creating a strong echo effect across the country.
5 The 75th anniversary of India’s Independence next year provides an excellent opportunity for Opposition parties to launch a year-long nationwide campaign to re-unite our people around the dreams and aspirations of the heroes and martyrs of our Freedom Struggle, whose foremost leader was Mahatma Gandhi. Our campaign should effectively counter the divisive agenda of the Modi government and recreate true patriotic spirit that is nurtured by the principle of unity in diversity. The celebration of the 75th anniversary of Independence also provides an opportunity for us to credibly propagate our promises and commitments for 2024 to the people.
I am confident that this 5-point plan for Opposition unity will convert the necessity and possibility of change in 2024 into a certainty.
(The writer served as an aide to India’s late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO. Views are personal)