Shikha Mukerjee | ‘INDIA’ veterans ready to unsettle BJP’s masterplan

The Asian Age.  | Shikha Mukerjee

Opinion, Columnists

The assumption that INDIA would waste its time, effort and energy on achieving the impossible, is probably wrong.

Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Uddhav Thackeray, CPI (M) leaders Sitaram Yechury and D Raja at a joint press conference after the opposition parties meeting, in Bengaluru, Tuesday, July 18, 2023.

There is an elephant in the room. Its name is “INDIA”, that is, Jeetega Bharat, which is the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance. And it is a new, freshly minted entity, that even before its appearance has shaken the ruling BJP, compelling it to shake off its complacency and resuscitate the comatose National Democratic Alliance, after almost eight years.

The absurdity of the two alliances competing to stage their respective events, as part of the inauguration of the 2024 political season, when the Lok Sabha elections are due, is a measure of how rattled the ruling establishment under Narendra Modi feels about the speeded-up changes in Opposition political dynamics. It reveals a perception that there is trouble brewing that could disturb the carefully constructed mystique of one nation-one party-one leader narrative, as the only choice for India’s voters.

The BJP’s scramble to add more parties to the original NDA is fairly significant, more so because it has cobbled together 39 constituents, some of who have been fabricated through splits like the Ajit Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, the Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena and others like the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party that have returned to the fold. This is an obvious exercise in expansion, the purpose of which is to be more representative of the diversity and tiny vote banks embedded within larger caste formations.

It leads to speculation that the BJP’s revival of the NDA is to prove its pan-India credentials as it prepares to face off the threat from an entity that calls itself INDIA. The new composition, albeit a pastiche, has many things going for it, just as it has many things going against it. The acronym, which is INDIA, is intriguing. It is, as Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, the host of the Bengaluru event, said, an invitation to unravel its meaning. The likelihood of voters puzzling out, individually and collectively, what INDIA stands for is high. It is then an invitation to dig deeper into the differences between INDIA, which represents the inclusivity of the country’s diversity, and the exclusion that is the hallmark of the Hindu Rashtra majoritarian agenda.

What is INDIA, as of now? It is a collation of 26 parties, most which are already constituents of ruling coalitions in nine states that see the BJP as a threat. INDIA has an estimated 143 Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha. And the alliance probably notches up some 50 per cent of votes in parliamentary elections. There is nothing new about the relative strength or relative weakness of the parties in the Opposition which have come together to challenge the ruling BJP and the bits and pieces it has acquired since 2019.

It is a fact that several of the parties in the INDIA coalition usually compete against each other and have long histories of bitter feuding, making it unlikely that there will be a magical transformation, turning foes, in an instant, into cooperative buddies. Oddly enough, the favourite example of political pundits is the confrontational politics in West Bengal, where the CPI(M) and its Left allies as well as the Congress are permanently locked as enemies of the ruling Trinamul Congress. The conclusion drawn is that INDIA will most likely fall apart because of the deadweight of the contradictions under which it must labour.

Some differences, such as the ferocious rivalry in West Bengal, are irreconcilable. The assumption that INDIA would waste its time, effort and energy on achieving the impossible, is probably wrong.

The best that INDIA can hope to do is figure out, realistically, the seats where it can manoeuvre the BJP into fighting just one official Opposition candidate in the forthcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Given that there are 543 Lok Sabha seats to which elections will be held, INDIA will have its work cut out if it can focus on perhaps 350 to 400 seats where one-on-one fights can be organised between the BJP and a constituent of the new coalition.

The generally accepted calculation is that the BJP and the Congress were in direct competition in about 186 seats in the 2019 general election. That is a good place for INDIA to start work on putting together a list of constituencies where it can take on the BJP in a one-on-one fight. The consolidation of Opposition votes in 350-400 Lok Sabha constituencies will make it a seriously tough contest for the BJP, even though it won an estimated 224 seats in 2019 with over 50 per cent of the votes polled. In seats where the BJP polled less than 50 per cent of the votes, the new formation INDIA will have a better chance of being the challenger.

Scepticism about the sustainability of the INDIA coalition is entirely natural; once the euphoria of producing the elephant is over, there could be a reaction among the constituents about the role of the Congress or the role of a long-term rival party. The BJP would certainly welcome it.

The probability of a less than perfect alliance is high. But there is also the history that has brought INDIA together. It is a short history, beginning soon after 2019, with Parliament as the arena where cooperation and coordination were forged out of the compulsion of holding off the BJP with its 300-plus majority that it used to barrel through controversial legislation, including alterations to the fundamentals embedded in the Constitution, as policy, as institutions and as intentions.

INDIA is, therefore, a bit like an army of veterans. The constituents have faced fierce attacks from the Narendra Modi-led BJP as a conspiracy of the corrupt to serve the interests of select families. The intensity of these attacks is slated to increase going by Mr Modi’s opening salvos on July 18, when it became clear that corruption would be the principal element in the 2024 campaign narrative, perhaps because Ram Mandir and promoting Hindutva had reached a point of diminishing returns.

There is however a problem with corruption as a campaign issue for Mr Modi. In Haryana, what will he say to people who demanded the arrest of Wrestling Federation of India boss Brij Bhushan? In Maharashtra, he will have to share the dais during campaigning with Ajit Pawar and other NCP defectors. Having accused Ajit Pawar of stealing Rs 70,000 crores, can the BJP and Mr Modi bamboozle voters into believing that the party and its Prime Minister are selfless servants of the people dedicated to accelerating development and fulfilling youthful India’s aspirations? Corruption, like INDIA, is a loaded and dangerous weapon that must be handled with care.