Can opposition unity thwart Modi in 2019?

Jul 3, 2018
By Satish Misra
National politics in India stands at crucial crossroads with the regional and smaller parties weighing their options. It is increasingly clear that the next general election in 2019 is going to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi versus the rest. The RSS-BJP wanted this to happen. 
Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah are setting terms for the next electoral encounter. The government and the ruling party is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that the general election, and the state assembly elections in the interim, are fought in Modi’s name. A massive advertisement offensive is underway to highlight that Modi has done more for India in 50 months than earlier governments did in decades.
Jingles on popular radio programmes claim that toilets, cooking gas, houses, knee-replacements are all gifts of "Modi ji" to the people. The massive advertisement campaign runs around only one individual - Modi.
Withdrawal of support to Mehbooba Mufti’s government in Jammu and Kashmir on June 19 was also done to project Modi’s decisive, hardline image, to “defend” the motherland against individuals and parties who are wrecking and undermining the country’s unity. A concerted attempt is on to project opposition parties as anti-national and supporters of separatists and terrorists.
Meanwhile, opposition parties are groping for ways to wage a credible counter offensive.  All regional and other parties agree that the BJP must be defeated because it is not only a threat to the country’s democratic and constitutional order, but also a danger to them. Leaders of these parties know that a higher index of opposition unity, which means direct contests between the BJP and opposition, alone can end Modi rule. However, there is no structure yet, either at the national level or at the state level that would ensure a one-on-one electoral fight in 543 constituencies that comprise the Lok Sabha, or House of the People in parliament.
Elections will be fought at the state level and the party that is strongest in a particular state would decide the shape of the anti-BJP fight. Opposition leaders are convinced the BJP can be defeated if the anti-BJP vote is not divided.    
Beyond numbers, opposition leaders need to convince a sceptical electorate that the motley and disparate political parties can provide stability and govern. The opposition needs a credible narrative that can capture the electorate’s imagination. 
Leaders of regional parties like Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal), Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav (Uttar Pradesh), Chandrababu Naidu (Andhra Pradesh), and H D Deve Gowda (Karnataka) have successfully run state governments but it may not be enough to convince the electorate to vote for them nationally.  
Most of these leaders are nursing their own ambitions to lead the country. This goes to the advantage of the BJP, which will try to drive a wedge between them, playing them against each other.  
Another obstacle to opposition unity is deep-rooted anti-Congressism. Parties like the Trinamool Congress (in WB), Samajwadi Party (in UP), Bahujan Samaj Party (opposition in UP), Telugu Desam (AP), TRS (in Telangana) have prospered by opposing the Congress in their areas of influence.
The Congress is not in a position to assert itself. Barring Punjab, Mizoram, Puducherry and Karnataka, where it is in power in alliance with JD (S), it is fairly weak. The Congress would be better able to bargain if results of assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are in its favour.  
It is also true that the BJP is vulnerable now, unlike 2014, when Modi was a challenger and could get away by spreading half-truths and making tall claims. The BJP-led NDA government is facing anti-incumbency; Modi’s popularity has waned, even his supporters admit. Victory would come the opposition way only if their leaders rise to the occasion and stand united. 
(The author is a veteran journalist and Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation)

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