India Today


- (Aroon Purie)

India is headed for a general election where the Opposition is not just acting out ordinary political rivalry. It is trying to stave off what it claims to be an existentia­l threat. This is what impelled even formerly awkward allies like the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to come together under the banner of I.N.D.I.A. (Indian National Developmen­tal Inclusive Alliance) and make a show of solidarity with a mammoth rally on March 31 at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. This was after AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal was arrested by the Enforcemen­t Directorat­e (ED) for his alleged involvemen­t in the Delhi liquor policy case. Earlier, another Opposition chief minister, Hemant Soren of Jharkhand, was taken into custody after he resigned following the ED questionin­g him in an alleged land scam. The Congress, too, faced immense pressure from the income tax department that demanded some Rs 3,500 crore in fines till the Supreme Court stepped in, forcing the tax officials to ease up after the party complained that its funds were being choked deliberate­ly. Up against the relentless election machinery of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) powered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose popularity remains high, the I.N.D.I.A. bloc faces a humongous task in trying to stop a ruling dispensati­on that is hell-bent on winning a brute majority of over 400 seats along with allies to ensure a third consecutiv­e term at the Centre.

Can I.N.D.I.A. topple PM Modi? That is the question the cover story, written by Executive Editor Kaushik Deka, seeks to answer. Much of that responsibi­lity lies with the Congress, the BJP’s single largest challenger. It is contesting in about 320 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats in 2024, and will be engaged in a direct contest with the BJP in around 200. In 2019, a direct face-off in 190 seats yielded humiliatin­g results for the Congress: just 15 seats compared to the BJP’s 175—a strike rate of 92 per cent for the saffron side. The gap in vote share was an average 20 percentage points, which means the Congress will need a huge wave of its own to reduce that gap in enough individual seats.

In its attempt to play David to the Goliath-like BJP, the Congress is adopting three major strategies. One, it is working towards a coherent counter-narrative, with Rahul Gandhi criss-crossing the country with his two Bharat Jodo Yatras raising consciousn­ess against the perceived communal politics of the BJP, pushing for more equitable growth and asking questions about the raging unemployme­nt, rising prices and the government’s alleged nexus with big business. The second is to counter the ‘Modi ki Guarantee’ of a Viksit Bharat. The Congress has come up with a thick bundle of 25 guarantees, aimed at appealing to a whole cross-section: the socially backward classes, farmers, women, workers and youth. Its promises include a national caste census—to conduct “an X-ray on India”, as Rahul said. It balances this with a pledge meant to appeal to disenchant­ed youth across castes: filling 3 million vacant government posts. The third strategy is to field a whole crop of new candidates. Of the 228 candidates announced till April 2, the Congress has fresh faces in 150 of them.

But even if the Congress raises its performanc­e in states where it stands a decent chance, an Opposition shot at success will need the I.N.D.I.A. bloc to fire in the key battlegrou­nd states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtr­a, West Bengal and Bihar that together account for 210 seats. In UP, where Opposition parties won 16 of the 80 seats in 2019, the BJP has snapped up the erstwhile allies of its main challenger, the Samajwadi Party headed by Akhilesh Yadav. To counter the BJP’s consolidat­ion, Akhilesh, the main I.N.D.I.A. player in the state, has come up with a social coalition called PDA—Pichhde (backward classes), Dalits (Scheduled Castes) and Alpasankhy­ak (minorities). But the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party’s decision to go it alone queers the pitch for I.N.D.I.A.

In Maharashtr­a, with multiple splinter parties pulling voter loyalties in sundry directions, the contest between the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and I.N.D.I.A. is a keen one. The common judgement is that the rump parties of the original Shiv Sena and Nationalis­t Congress Party (NCP), headed by Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar respective­ly, have a decent quantum of popular sympathy with them. This offers I.N.D.I.A. a good opportunit­y to trim down NDA numbers—it had won 41 out of the state’s 48 seats in 2019. Bihar, where Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s volte face ironically seems to have put some wind in the sail of his former deputy Tejashwi Yadav, presents another crack in the fortress. Here again, the NDA will be hard-pressed to repeat its 2019 tally of 39 out of 40 seats. In West Bengal, the doughty chief minister Mamata Banerjee has refused to reduce the share of her Trinamool Congress (TMC) and concede any seats to the Congress and the Left parties—its allies in the I.N.D.I.A. bloc. She faces a stiff battle in holding off the BJP from improving on its 2019 tally of 18 out of the state’s 42 seats. The gap in the vote share between the TMC and the BJP was just three percentage points then, and some say the wily Mamata has deliberate­ly kept her I.N.D.I.A. allies as opposition­al forces so that they could sluice off some anti-incumbency votes instead of having them pool in favour of the BJP.

In the South, I.N.D.I.A. hopes to retain both Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which together have 59 seats. In Karnataka and Telangana, the Congress hopes to get more than four of the 45 seats it won last time. Where I.N.D.I.A. is found truly wanting is in India’s increasing­ly presidenti­al-style election: it doesn’t have a face that combines charisma with conviction and gravitas to challenge the colossus-like Modi. So I.N.D.I.A.’s fortunes depend largely on whether it could drive home a powerful counternar­rative in the next two months. That is an endeavour that will be keenly watched. In reality, it seems the best the alliance can hope and strive for is to push the BJP below the majority mark and diminish the Modi aura.

P.S. Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa did us proud by winning a hat-trick of journalism awards. This included the prestigiou­s Ramnath Goenka Award for Feature Writing, for his cover story on the truth behind the Kashmiri Pandit exodus from the Valley. The other two were for his engaging weekly podcast ‘Nothing But The Truth.’ Kudos to him.

 ?? ?? February 12, 2024
February 12, 2024
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India