Is The Electoral Dice Cast?
I.N.D.I.A has to get its act together
The more it changes, the more everything remains the same. And that seems to apply to India as it nears the 2024 general elections with promises and heartbreaks galore. But electorally little has changed on the ground. It could have been five years ago with the Bharatiya Janata Party pulling out plugs like Pulwama to consolidate the masses; the Congress and the Opposition trying desperately to grapple with differences and reach some pre-poll understanding; and the people vacillating between heavy doses of religiosity and the realities of poverty and joblessness.
Today, after a politically tumultuous five years of politics where the divide between communities has increased; more political activists and journalists are in jail; more draconian laws enacted or in the offing; India seems to be where it was then insofar as election preparedness is concerned. On the eve of the elections, the BJP is on an aggressive foot forward while the Opposition I.N.D.I.A block is on the backfoot.
The BJP has sounded the poll bugle in the first month of the year. And has scored two major victories that will yield benefit in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. One is the inauguration of the Ram temple at Ayodhya with full fanfare and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the lead. The media band helped considerably as people thronged to not just Ayodhya but temples across the country. Whether the sulking Shankaracharyas have had any impact on the visible enthusiasm cannot be ascertained with any certainty at this stage,
Two, the decision by Bihar Chief Minister to desert I.N.D.I.A at this time has rendered a body blow to the Opposition. Of course the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in particular have taken it in their stride more so as Nitish Kumar himself makes little difference to the vote bank in Bihar. But his decision to cross back to the BJP — in his constant series of flip flops– has dented the image of the I.N.D.I.A bloc as a cohesive, united and hence strong alternative to the ruling party at the centre. And as we well know politics is also a game of perception, maybe even more so in these days of half truths and lies and any such dent does tend to influence the electorate.
The Opposition, on the other hand, is again hastening to project itself as a house divided. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has started his second phase of an east to west Bharat Jodo Nyay yatra and has popular support with the people turning out in support. Whether this turn out will be translated into votes is anyone’s guess as the Congress party does not have an organisation in most of the states being covered, to mop up the votes. However, there is goodwill and a platform for the Congress leader to spell out an alternative strategy that should have been music to the ears of the impoverished masses, except perhaps for the fact that the temple got there first. The media black out of the yatra is certainly not helping, although the Congress party has its own social media broadcasts that work.
However, the regional allies of the Congress party have not been supportive. And perhaps there is merit in the argument heard from opposition sources that the Congress would have done well to make this an I.N.D.I.A yatra. Easier said than done of course, given the carping within the Opposition parties. Even as Nitish Kumar entered into a U turn to join the BJP again, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Baneerjee gave grief to the Congress party just when the yatra was poised to enter her state by declaring that she would go it alone in the elections. Matters seem to be sorted out for the moment, but her statements and sulk needless to say grabbed the headlines in the corporate media that had otherwise shown no interest in the yatra. This served again to damage the effort to project the Opposition bloc as united and steadfast.
The Congress party is in the lead insofar as forging unity is concerned. But the egos of regional leaders appear as fragile as before and manifest during seat sharing talks always. In Bihar the Enforcement Directorate has been sent to shackle the incorrigible and indomitable RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav, with his son Tejaswi Yadav also being interrogated. However, the Rashtriya Janata Dal has taken little time to spring back from the Nitish Kumar doublecross, and Tejaswi Yadav has been making statements with the party releasing videos and songs within hours. But these are parliamentary elections, and the BJP has the upper hand for the moment. But there is a visible fight back in this state.
Electorally the Congress party will have to give in to the regional parties if it wants I.N.D.I.A to hold as the tussle right now is about seats. TMC and Samajwadi Party are clear that they will and should get the lion's share in their respective states of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, and the Congress party should not demand any more seats than it can actually win. The Congress has entrusted former chief minister of Rajasthan Ashok Gehlot with talks in UP, a wise move that could get results.
I.N.D.I.A seemed to have realised in the three meetings it has had till date that it was imperative to sink egos, share seats, and work on a common and effective program to defeat the BJP that is clearly on the ascendant. However, now that the general elections are around the corner this resolve seems to have evaporated with bickering being reported from all states including Delhi and Punjab, and Maharashtra. This despite the fact that the stakes are high for Aam Aadmi Party and its leader Arvind Kejriwal, and for both Sharad Pawar and Shiv Sena chief Udhav Thackeray in Maharashtra, The Congress barely exists as an organisation in Maharashtra and is dependent on the larger coalition; in Punjab it has almost decided though to go on its own given the anti-incumbency sentiment that is growing against the current AAP government and its chief minister.
All in all a grim picture for the Opposition that does not have the time required to get its act together in the northern states of India. Rahul Gandhi has repeatedly assured reporters at media interactions en route that the seat sharing issues will all be sorted out, and Opposition unity preserved. As a Congress leader put it, “it will all come together, please wait and watch.”But then the BJP is neither waiting nor watching, it is in action mode.