Opposition flounders as it hunts for a leader

Columnist  | S Nihal Singh

Opinion, Columnists

The BJP now prepares for the general election with the aim of capturing as many more states as possible.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar (Photo: PTI)

As the ruling BJP races ahead to prepare the setting for the 2019 general election, the Opposition parties are still coping with the tasks of finding an acceptable leader and combination after their major setback in the defection of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to the BJP. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s firefighting mission to Bihar to persuade his partymen to remain in the organisation despite their reservations over the leadership of the RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav, a coalition constituent, reveals the depth of the crisis facing the Opposition. It was assumed Mr Kumar would be the man on the white charger and the Bihar grand coalition would be the foundation for a new assault on the BJP, come 2019.

This dream came crashing down as Mr Kumar decided to play safe by going back to the NDA fold, rather than face defeat in the general election. Amusingly, one of his spokesmen took to writing on how to encourage tourism to India to cover up his leader’s embarrassing decision. Mr Kumar lost face again by his party not featuring in the major Cabinet reshuffle at the Centre.

No amount of sophistry can alter the hopelessness of the Opposition’s plight. As the party that ruled the country for the better part of its independent existence, the Congress would have been the obvious choice to lead the Opposition. But Mr Gandhi has proved incapable of providing leadership in pulling his party out of its steep decline and it would not matter even if he is given the titular presidency.

West Bengal’s feisty leader Mamata Banerjee has taken on the role of the Opposition cheerleader in encouraging Mr Yadav to rally the Opposition troops. But she is fighting a battle to frustrate BJP ambitions in her state and thus forced to mend her party’s fences to steer her Trinamul Congress to victory again. Mr Naveen Patnaik of Odisha, a cautious politician, is again concerned with the BJP’s electoral ambitions in his state, rather than give more attention to the plight of the national Opposition.

In Tamil Nadu, despite the coming together of the two factions of the ruling AIADMK, the imprisoned Sasikala’s nephew, T.T.V. Dhinakaran, is spoiling the party by maintaining the fiction that his aunt is still the party’s supreme leader. This tragi-comedy deprives the BJP of the AIADMK’s support at the Centre. BJP president Amit Shah is doing cheerleading for the party to get the northeastern states’ chief ministers together and broadcast his ambition to win the remaining states in the region.

This scenario leaves the Opposition parties singly and collectively at sea. Party spokesmen suggest there is still time to mend fences and form an effective coalition against the ruling party in the general election. But to outside observers this is an empty boast, with the Communist parties still confused on where to draw the line in teaming up with other parties.

The basic problem is that with the splintering of political parties beginning with the mother Congress Party, self-interest rather than ideology was the main motivating factor. The Congress traditionally was a vast tent in which the official slogan of a socialist pattern of society co-existed with extreme conservative and jaundiced views. There was magic in Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership. After his death began a transition period in which his daughter Indira ultimately secured the leadership but had to fight her own battles to free herself from the grip of traditional power brokers by splitting the Congress twice.

The imposition of the Emergency to save Indira Gandhi’s skin brought together the traditionally bickering Opposition parties but the advent of the Janata Party in the surprise election failed because there were too many contradictions among the parties, with BJP parent Jan Sangh nursing its own ambitions in protecting its ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The BJP’s assertion of its own identity and clever political footwork after identifying its leader in Narendra Modi won the party its first clear election victory in the 2014 general election. We are now living through its consequences, with the RSS driving the agenda of promoting Hindutva and the reincarnation of Nehru’s India into a Hindu India.

As with any ideological party, the BJP has set about enforcing its writ, first with changing the leadership of officially-funded historical and research organisations, then nominating a new President and vice-president steeped in RSS lore, revising textbooks (with Maharashtra abolishing the Mughal period) and catching them young in instilling RSS myths in primary school. Jawaharlal Nehru is anathema to the Sangh Parivar because he stood for everything it hated, a cosmopolitan outlook and secularism.

The BJP now prepares for the general election with the aim of capturing as many more states as possible. It has made the process of contesting elections into an art form using technological and computer science to broadcast its message far and wide and pressing into service its army of RSS volunteers and the legend of Mr Modi.

Beyond the task of facing a formidable adversary, the Opposition parties must still agree on a leader and come to accept a set of principles to lead their charge. Secularism is an easy first they can agree upon, but they need collectively to evolve a set of major policies hitting out at the stark failures of the BJP since it came to power at the Centre: total failure in creating jobs and tackling the farm crisis and ensuring security to the minorities.

The BJP believes that the Opposition’s emphasis on protecting Muslims would only consolidate the Hindu vote behind it. But the ruling party has no defence on its signal failure in creating jobs and is hopelessly at sea in tackling the deep agricultural crisis. Besides, it’s still licking its wounds in trying to explain away the sharp dip in national economic performance. But first the Opposition must come together and agree on a leader.