The coming parliamentary polls hung all over the political circles in the Indian capital on the last day of the final session of the outgoing 16th Lok Sabha on February 13. Electoral politics was in full play on the day both inside the Lok Sabha, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his final speech in the current House, and at the historic Jantar Mantar, Delhi's popular protest site about a kilometre away from Parliament House, where a clutch of anti-BJP parties held a sit-in reiterating a call to oust Modi-BJP in the elections.
The two separate events brought out some components of the poll strategies of the two sides and their campaign narratives. Modi, in his speech, made a strong case for stability and a clear majority by voters. On the other hand, the opposition leaders, including Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, sought to build on their efforts to firm up a united front to take on the BJP in the polls glossing over the fissures among them by deciding to go for a pre-poll pact and a common minimum agenda.
To have a proper understanding of the BJP's campaign narrative, one should read Modi's February 13 remarks in conjunction with his speech in the same Lok Sabha about a week earlier, where he slammed the rainbow coalition of regional parties and the Congress, and emphasised the importance of a clear majority by posing the coming poll as a choice for the electorate between a “majboot sarkar” (a strong government) and a “majboor sarkar” (a political tour de force).
Modi said India has become the sixth biggest economy in the last five years, is poised to turn into a five trillion-dollar economy in annual economic output and has become the centre of economic activity with initiatives like “Make-in-India” because it had a majority government. By contrast, he termed the opposition alliance in the making as a “mahamilavat” (grand adulteration) and suggested such an arrangement was associated with graft, instability and dynastic politics. In the February 7 speech, Modi took to the “compare and contrast” method juxtaposing the performance of 55 years of other parties' rule in India since independence and 55 months of his government's performance since 2014. He responded to the opposition's allegation that his government was undermining democratic institutions by digging into history and underlining that it was during the Congress Party's rule in India that the Emergency was imposed in 1975, snatching away the basic civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution and toppling governments in states belonging to non-Congress parties.
Two features stand out in both the speeches of Modi in the Lok Sabha: the prime minister's tirade focused more on the Congress than any other party indicating in the process that the Rahul Gandhi-led party will be by and large the BJP's main rival in the polls. That is understandable especially after the Congress' impressive victories in three heartland states late last year after having been in power in just a handful of states before that. Secondly, he is posing the coming electoral contest as a stability versus instability choice. Electoral strategy is all about a blend of generating fear about your rivals and weaving hopes of a change for the better, especially among the aspirational and therefore restless youth.
Modi's articulation of “majbooot sarkar versus majboor sarkar” is in sharp contrast to the frantic efforts of the opposition party on February 13 to give their fledgling unity a touch of credibility. Hence the decision on a firming a pre-poll alliance and a common minimum programme to shake off the BJP's criticism of their joining hands by disparate groups for the sake of opposing Modi. The “Modi hatao” slogan heard at the Jantar Mantar sit-in only served to add to the perception that the only binding factor among the opposition parties is the opposition to the Modi-BJP. There is a need for them to go beyond that and come up with a positive agenda that is credible enough to be a viable alternative to the saffron party's—something not seen so far.
At Jantar Mantar on February 13, Mamata came up with the details of opposition alliance, stressing on state-specific alliances among anti-BJP parties as also at the national level. She said whichever party is the strongest in a given state should take on the BJP in their areas and cited that Aam Aadmi Party should fight in Delhi, Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh and Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in order to not let the BJP win by capitalising on a split in votes. But herein lies the most difficult challenge for the anti-BJP coalition because some of the regional parties are also pitted in a direct fight against the Congress in some states: TDP vs Congress in Andhra Pradesh, Trinamool Congress vs the Left and the Congress on one hand and the BJP on the other in West Bengal, Congress vs the Left in Kerala, SP-BSP vs Congress in UP and AAP vs Congress in Delhi. This is a contradiction inherent in any collaboration move among traditional rivals trying to forge a partnership against a common objective—BJP. It is precisely for this reason that the TDP refused to enter into an alliance with the Congress in Andhra Pradesh because both the parties are main contenders for supremacy in that state.
These fissures in the anti-BJP coalition caused by compulsions of state-level politics were too evident for all to see on February 13. A few hours before Mamata joined the Jantar Mantar rally, her party came under fire by Congress lawmaker from West Bengal Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and the Left who attacked her government for chit fund scams that cost common people crores of Rupees. An upset Mamata conveyed her feelings to former Congress President Sonia Gandhi on this. Mamata's readiness to tie up with the Left also carries little conviction because the latter stayed away from her January 19 Kolkata rally.
Even in Jantar Mantar on February 13, Mamata and Left leaders did not share the dais together and visited the venue at different times. What further added to the opposition's discomfiture was Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav, who said in the Lok Sabha in its final day's session that he hopes to see Modi as PM again. Not only did that take the opposition parties by surprise, but also struck a contrarian note at a time of unity chorus among the anti-BJP outfits. Mulayam's son and SP President Akhilesh has firmed up an alliance with BSP and this is going to be the principal challenger of BJP in Uttar Pradesh. An embarrassed SP was at pains to explain that Mulayam's remark was in sync with the niceties of a farewell speech on the last day of the 16th Lok Sabha, but many think the comment's political import went much beyond the cover of farewell courtesy which talks about only good things about a person.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.