If Narendra Modi’s BJP romps home to victory in the just announced General Elections in the face of all-pervasive public anger against the regime for the mindboggling mess it has made of the country, the credit for his unlikely success would go to the opposition.
Whether the stunning February 14 attack on security forces in Kashmir’s Pulwama and the subsequent Indian ‘strikes’ on Balakot in Pakistan were scripted or not, the BJP led by the Prime Minister himself has been quick to catch it with both hands.
True to its character, the Hindutva party jumped on the opportunity to turn Pulwama and Pakistan’s support for “Kashmiri terrorists” into the hot, emotive topic of national conversation on eve of polls, snuffing out more pressing, bread-and-butter issues like the unprecedented unemployment crisis, agrarian distress and scams involving Modi and his cronies.
While the BJP has gone to town brazenly milking the Balakot strikes that nearly took the two nuclear neighbours to war, and the return of Commander Abhinandan from Pakistan — thanks to Imran Khan’s laudable maturity, one must add – in every way imaginable, the opposition has remained deafeningly silent and virtually disappeared from the nation’s news agenda.
Instead of demanding answers about Pulwama and the criminal negligence of vital intelligence inputs, the opposition maintained a reverential silence for fear of being declared ‘traitors’ and ‘anti-nationals.’
Even when some opposition leaders such as Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee mustered the courage to raise inconvenient questions about the mysterious strikes that seem to have killed no one, let alone destroy the so-called terror infrastructure as the government has claimed, their stray voices have been drowned out by the din of the jingoistic, obsequious Indian media.
Rather than respond to Pulwama and the subsequent developments with alacrity and maturity, evolving its own independent narrative, the opposition has just dutifully, eyes wide shut, followed the government’s agenda. In doing so, as the BJP veteran Yashwant Sinha argues, the opposition has walked into every trap set by Modi.
After all, many of those who have closely followed the political journey of Prime Minister Modi and his doppelganger Amit Shah and the way the duo think and operate have long worried that a besieged BJP may spring up a nasty surprise or two on poll eve. The twin likely scenarios suggested include a showdown with our pesky Western neighbour or a major communal conflagration in the Hindi heartland over Ram temple at the site of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Remember the 2002 Gujarat? Remember Godhra?
Whatever the reality of such speculations and rumours, it is clear that the opposition has squandered the momentum it had generated before the Pulwama attack and staged showdown with Pakistan. It has once again allowed the BJP and its crafty strategist duo to set the agenda for the 2019 polls, pegging it successfully on the twin planks of muscular nationalism and Hindutva majoritarianism. The government has so cleverly been conflated with the nation that any questioning of official narrative is treason.
It’s not just in setting the electoral agenda and pushing a winning narrative that the BJP with its massive organisational machinery, ideologically-driven cadres and deep pockets has been far ahead of the Congress and other parties; it has been the first to hit the ground running.
At the height of the terrifying crisis with Pakistan, the Congress went out of its way to support the government. It promptly called off a strategic meeting of its working committee in Gujarat, on Modi’s turf, in deference to the national sentiments over Pulwama even as the BJP went ahead kicking off its poll campaign, ‘Mera Booth Sabse Mazboot’ with great fanfare.
This remarkable unity of purpose in the BJP camp demonstrating its fierce resolve to hold on to power at any cost is only matched by the disarray, division and palpable demoralisation in the opposition ranks, as if it has already been defeated.
While the BJP has gone out of its way to court cantankerous allies like Shiv Sena’s Thackeray and Bihar’s Nitish Kumar, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress exasperatingly refuses to come off its high horse.
As Arati Jerarth notes in the Times of India, “The Opposition’s inability to get its act together is perplexing, especially after BJP went full throttle with the ‘nationalism’ plank. After months of meeting, holding rallies and supping together, Opposition parties are still grappling to craft a grand alliance to take on Modi.
Smaller regional parties have emphasised time and again that the onus for stitching up an opposition front rests with Congress. Crafting a coalition needs skill, pragmatism and a large heart. Rahul Gandhi’s Congress seems to lack all three. While Rahul Gandhi seems reluctant to learn from history in a high-stakes election, Modi has shown no such inhibitions. He has sealed alliances wherever possible with an alacrity that flies in the face of the perception that he is not a coalition man.”
Unlike his more pragmatic mother, who cobbled together a formidable alliance reaching out to unlikely allies like Ram Vilas Paswan, to defeat the BJP in 2004, Rahul has so far failed to rally opposition parties behind the Congress despite the relentless efforts of former BJP allies like Chandrababu Naidu. Instead of acting as the pivot and fulcrum of opposition unity, Rahul’s party is turning out to be the weakest link.
It was the Congress’ refusal to partner with Mayawati’s Dalit party in the upper caste dominated Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan that led to the party being cut to size in Uttar Pradesh. A miffed Mayawati decided to teach the Congress a lesson, which may, in the end, determine the fate of the next government in Delhi and the future of India itself.
If only the BSP and SP had demonstrated greater maturity and accommodated the Congress in their alliance in the battleground state of UP, which sends 80 members to Parliament, the saffron juggernaut could have been stopped in its tracks.
If the BJP once again manages to win UP and eventually India, it would not just be because of Pulwama and the ‘Surgical Strikes 2.0’ but also because of the fact that the it managed to attract and accommodate enough allies and friends while the Congress simply couldn’t.
Indeed, Modi may have already turned around this election not just because of the manner he has responded to and exploited the extraordinary events of the past few weeks but also because he is leaving no stone unturned to ensure the BJP wins 2019 and remains in power for the foreseeable future.
Which is a tragic irony considering the unmitigated disaster that this government has turned out to be on every front. The economy is still reeling from the double disaster of demonetisation and GST. Doggedly pursuing its sectarian agenda, it has methodically targeted every Indian institution — from bureaucracy and police to judiciary, and from universities and think tanks to even film and television industry.
Why it hasn’t even spared the secular institution of armed forces, shamelessly dragging them into its attacks on opposition parties! This regime has literally normalised and routinised the all-pervasive witch-hunt and persecution of Muslims. The attacks on Muslims in broad daylight do not even make it to newspaper front pages anymore.
Yet if the BJP still gets away with murder and repeat its electoral success in 2019, it would be because the opposition has done little to stop Modi and his war on the Idea of India. If Hindutva wins, it would be because of the opposition’s singular failure to check it. This is still the opposition’s election to lose.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and former editor.