The 2024 General Elections in India are roughly 30 months away. And 30 months is a long time in politics — anywhere on the planet. More so in case of India where a multitude of political parties and myriads of socio-political, economic and even foreign policy issues can trigger mood swings within a 912 million-strong electorate.
Even then, there is a strong possibility that the next Lok Sabha polls will be one of the most closely-contested in India’s history. Strong headwinds of anti-incumbency are something that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will have to grapple with.
Secondly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s undisputed popularity as a national leader is set to be put to its hitherto sternest test in 2024. Even the most vocal Modi supporter is aware that there are portends of a ‘brand fatigue’, a certain ‘sameness’ that are threatening to take a fair bit of the sheen off a carefully-curated image of a mass leader and a high-octane, cunning orator.
A prime ministerial face or mere political arithmetic
So, the big question is: Will the Opposition be able to form a united front and project a single face as an alternative to PM Modi? Or will it be more of a ‘strategic’ alliance conforming to electoral arithmetic at micro levels, leaving the bigger question of choosing a prime ministerial face to post-poll scenarios?
Given the way things stand right now, and particularly after the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) dealt such a crushing blow to BJP and its fabled election machinery in the West Bengal assembly polls earlier this year, a united Opposition ensuring a one-on-one fight in at least 350-400 seats across India is not just a game plan that needs to be worked on, but a political necessity that demands to be catered to with a missionary zeal.
Up against a formidable force — Modi
Without mincing words, let’s make two things clear: First of all, a united Opposition is what can really take the fight deep into the BJP camp. No micro-level seat sharing, no last-minute ‘adjustments’ and ‘accommodations’, no ‘tactical’ fights.
If Opposition parties in India are really serious about a dogfight at the hustings, then forming a credible, strong, pre-poll alliance of all the major anti-BJP parties at the regional and national levels is the necessary condition.
No half-measures, no paying mere lip service to an anti-Modi front, but an honest commitment to offer a true alternative to the Modi-led dispensation is what will help win the confidence of the voters.
Secondly — and this is a corollary to the first condition — any united Opposition front without a credible, strong, unanimous choice as the prime ministerial face will not even be worth the paper on which such a unity pledge is signed.
What Opposition leaders and the parties in India need to realise is that they will be up against a political leader (read Modi) whose writ within his own party-fold is unchallenged, no matter what, and will likely remain so in the run-up to the elections.
To counter such a face, backed by the kind of regimented cadre base that the BJP and its mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh boast, what the Opposition needs is a unified entity as the shape and form of Opposition unity — not a hurriedly stitched-together alternative projected at the last moment, depending upon which way the electoral wind vane turns. That is why having a credible prime ministerial face as an alternative to Modi is just as important as forming a cohesive Opposition unit.
A game of chess
Now, if one is to accept these two conditions as necessary criteria for dislodging the BJP from power at the Centre, then the only way in which these two necessary conditions can be fulfilled is for Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son and former party chief Rahul Gandhi to understand that in politics, quite like in the game of chess, ceding ground can at times lead to achieving a bigger purpose, a greater goal.
Both Sonia and Rahul ought to be honest and dispassionate enough to admit that they had their fair share of championing the cause of an anti-Modi, anti-BJP force at the national level — and failed miserably! To allow India’s Grand Old Party to yet again be the standard-bearer of Opposition hope will be like losing half the battle even before it has begun!
Just as the electorate is probably fatigued by the ‘sameness’ of a behemoth at the national level in the form of Modi, similarly, it is also super-saturated with the Congress’ staid, hackneyed approach to managing the affairs within its own party as well as its lack lustre, rudderless approach at taking on the saffron brigade at the national level.
Playing second fiddle to a regional leader could well serve the dual purposes of helping dislodge the BJP from power and also keep the Congress relevant in national politics for some more years.
No room for half-measures
And talking of alternatives to the Sonia-Rahul model, there is no political leader in India in recent memory who has looked the BJP leadership in the eye and taken its swagger by the scruff of the neck like the way West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC supremo Mamata has.
The West Bengal state elections have shown this time that even the formidable Modi-Amit Shah (Federal Home Minister) combine can be taken to task provided one is determined, courageous and tactical enough.
Mamata scored on all those fronts: She was determined not to be overwhelmed by the BJP’s fabled ‘election machinery’; she fought the political turf war as if her life depended on it; and she scored many a brownie point with her pro-poor, pro-people stance – no matter the pandering to populist measures.
There is no denying the fact that at times she faltered, with her overt, brash anti-BJP bluster bordering on an invocation to anarchy. But she did prove a major point: That you can’t beat a force like the BJP with half-measures.
It is high time the rest of the political parties in India and their leaders, particularly those in the Congress, shun their tunnel-vision when it comes to assessing Mamata’s chances of leading an anti-BJP front and allow the firebrand ‘Didi’ to hook-up her Bengal template on to the national server.