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  • Writer's pictureSrijan Pal Singh

“How to build Opposition 2024”

Updated: May 30, 2020

2019 elections are over – the result is out and the dust has settled. NDA won 352 seats, UPA led Congress was reduced to 91 with the grand old party barely crossing the half-century mark at 52. Interestingly, the BJP, which contested in 437 seats and won 303 of them, at a winning ratio of 70%. A near consensus cry of the opposition, to remove Modi failed miserably and many old stalwarts of Indian political scenario are seeing an existential crisis. The next five years will see Modi also getting a majority in Rajya Sabha and a powerful government united under BJP ruling the nation, with a weak, clueless and near insignificant opposition which is left licking its wounds. Let me clarify the premise.

India needs a stable government to progress. The only stable government can take bold reformist steps. Thankfully that it has already got in 2019. But any nation also needs a credible and strong opposition to counter-weight every action of any government. 2014 saw a fracturing opposition which collapsed in 2019. 17th Lok Sabha will see feeble voices to check policy decisions – and there is a dire need to re-invent India’s opposition in the next test of 2024. Who will be the opposition – and will a metaphorical phoenix rise from the ashes of 2019?

I would categorize Indian voters into three chronological buckets based on three major events – all happening under the rule of Congress, each separated by two decades. First is the 1971 generation. Let us call them Voter 1.0 – the ones who were teenagers or older during the 71 war – where India exerted its supremacy over Pakistan in a thumping. This generation also saw Indira Gandhi’s emergency, her fall, her thumping rebound and ultimately her demise. Then there is the Voter 2.0 – the ones who were born in the 70s and 80s – people like me who saw 1991 growing up. The ’91 economic liberalization saw new jobs opening up, red tap loosening, general wealth increasing and we saw through the 1990s – with those on cycles moving to motorcycles and those on two-wheelers graduating to cars. Poverty remained an issue – but no longer a commonplace in Indian society. 2011 was the time of the creation of Voter 3.0. These are the children born on the 1990s and even 2000s – who saw the grand event of a national party shamed for its series of corruption scandals – while an intellectual but almost incapacitated Prime Minister (the hero of 1991) watched his reputation grounded. It saw through graphic scenes of government water cannoning its own citizens in the backdrop of India’s icon – the India Gate as they were protesting against corruption. It saw a ruling party standing against the clear choice of its people to reinstall its most famous scientist at the post of India’s President. And they did it twice! Voter 3.0 remembers Congress and its UPA in that darkest shade – and the poor media management of the party has sent in a downward path where the liberator of the nation is seeing a campaign “congress muktbharat” (India free of Congress). In 2024, Voter 1.0 would be no more than 10%. Voter 2.0 about 30% and Voter 3.0 about 60%. That Voter 3.0 gives little relevance to what happened in 1971 and 1991 and unless provided with a new narrative, it will stick to its impression of 2011.

First, opposition parties need to give up their “Pied Piper Syndrome” and treat their voters as intelligent beings. Often regional party leaders have taken their primary constituents for granted and believed that just like children of Hamelin went behind Pied Piper in a state of blind following, their caste betrothed voters will never dare to leave their sides. The impression that voters are dumb is profoundly incorrect.

Take two states as an example. Uttar Pradesh saw perhaps the strongest alliance of regional satraps, each banking on their loyal caste votes. Mayawati (BSP) for her Dalit votes, Akhilesh Yadav (SP) for his Yadav votes and Ajit Singh (RLP) for his smaller but far better regionally concentrated Jat votes. The formula deployed was D+Y+J added to M (Muslim) voter would easily give enough wind for the Maha-gathbandhan (super alliance) to sail over the Modi wave. The three leaders conveniently assumed that their loyal voters will walk the path they are asked without questions.  Even the pre-poll analyst got down with their mathematical sheets – predicting around 40 seat loss for BJP. What was forgotten was that today’s voter is far more self-conscious of his (and her!) choices. For instance, Dalits and Jats have long-standing rivalries which cannot be forgiven and forgotten just because it is now convenient for the leaders of the communities to do so. There has been a slow and steady erosion of faith of people in their caste-based leaders, who have mostly prioritized their electoral needs over the interests and long-standing issues of their own community.

Then take the case of Odisha where the elections for assembly were held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls. A regional party, Biju Janta Dal got 112 out of 146 seats while the BJP managed to get the second position with 23 seats. Interesting in the 21 Parliament seats the gap was narrower. BJP managed 8 while BJD got 12. What was seen in Odisha is that when people had a clear leader for Chief Minister in Naveen Patnaik, BJP got only 32% votes? While the same voters on same day voted for Modi as a PM choice with 38% votes for BJP. The choice of who will lead mattered by a swing of 6%. In any election, this margin is enough to swing results. Voters are smart and know their privileges and responsibilities.

What happened in Odisha is a lesson for the leaders sitting opposition. It needs to stop treating elections like Christmas where the leader is secret present only to be unwrapped post the results. The voter 3.0 needs to know who will lead them – and in 2024 they might want even more specific choices. India may be a parliamentary form of democracy in its constitution but in the minds of the people whose vote matters – we are well on our way of being a Presidential form of elections. Let me come to the second point – the narrative.

Congress’ underlying theme of AB HOGA NYAY (Now there will be justice) had one killing flaw. None what was suggested was radical or reformist enough to create a new impression for the Voter 3.0 (or even 2.0). They were all tweaks on NDA’s government plugging some gaps and plumbing some leakages wherein GST, Startup Policy or Farmer Schemes. 2024 cannot be fought on this plank of being the person with the screwdriver tightening lose joints but the guy with the jackhammer revolutionizing system. UPA won 2009 elections riding on a loan waiver scheme and thereby promising an economic disaster of giving Rs. 72,000 per annum per family as a minimum fixed income guarantee to 20% poorest. This not only disincentivized working in general but also dishonored the hard-working labor class of India. But the India which voted UPA into power in 2009 for loan waivers, the India which is often said to have sold its vote for measly 500 bucks, that India, in its urban slums and villages rejected a fixed income of 6,000 a month for the next five years. The narrative cannot be poverty, India has moved on from that position. The need of today is dignity and respect – and 2019’s NDA campaign winning idea was based on the dignity of the nation and its people – from Balakot to Triple Talaq. This India will grow even further in 2024 – and the Opposition of 2024 needs to bank on this new reality of what India needs.

In 2024, the narrative cannot be attacked on institutions – whether Election Commission or Armed Forces. The new opposition needs to respect the pillars which hold India together and talk about their ideas to strengthen rather than question them. One of the victims of the current opposition’s narrative has been the idea of secularism. Secularism, enshrined in the constitution, has been mishandled and hence misplaced in the 2019 narrative. It has reduced to a pessimistic anti-national ideology where tolerance to diversity is replaced by an unhinged attack at the identity and even integrity of India. Secularism is not the antithesis of nationalism – on the contrary in a nation like India, they need to support each other. 2024 opposition will have the task of rediscovering their identity as secular which would begin by cleaning up the distorted image of it which 2019 has left. The third issue is that of the leader.

Indians at large have rejected the princes in 2019. Rahul Gandhi, riding as the flag bearer of the Gandhi-Nehru family was knocked off his horse in his very home ground of Amethi. Priyanka Gandhi’s entire projection seemed to center around her facial similarity with her grand-mother Indira. The assertion that people should vote for someone just because their hair and nose look similar to a figure from history is more naïve in itself than offensive to the people who it assumes will fall for it. 2024 India will reject princes – at least those who have not worked their share. It needs a new leader with a compelling story. If you are Game of Thrones fan – you would remember the words of Tyrion Lannister who denies the Iron Throne and asks it to be handed over to Bran Stark because “He is a better story. People love stories.” The same needs to happen with Congress and opposition in general. The stories of merits triumphing against odds are far more powerful than that of a high birth entitled children fed with silver spoons by their powerful parents. Modi is that story. Kalam was that story. Shastri and Patel were those stories. India admires them. Opposition 2024 needs its leader which can reflect that story and it will come at the price of dumping the existing leadership to the fringes. Lastly, opposition 2024 needs to find the right. And the work begins now. This was the first election where children born in this millennium have voted. Today are in colleges and by 2024 they would be in the job market. Regardless of what any leader does, across the world automation and AI will kill jobs – or at least significantly shift the skill requirements. Hence, the greatest challenge in 2024 would to upskill, reskill and find employment for the youth and those who lose their jobs.

Then by 2024, Voter 2.0 which is young today, will start getting older. That is when the need for better healthcare would be a critical issue – and India woefully is lacking in that department. Merely promising free health and free education in government facilities would be grossly inadequate. The aspiration of India would lie in making these basic human rights come with better quality.

Thirdly, the emerging issue of environmental degradation will transpire into a bigger issue. Quality water and air will be not only an urban but a rural issue which needs to be met with an electoral strategy. Networking of river bodies can be a project which can bring permanent relief to farmers and homes from drought and floods.

Next, true NYAY would be when the judiciary functions efficiently for the common man and does not make him wait years if not decades to get justice. 3.3 crore cases are pending in Indian judicial system which affects the lives of so many citizens.

Admittedly, many of these goals are within striking distance of Modi 2.0, and with a powerful government in place, he may barely leave anything for opposition to brandish. But then the sequence of events for a nation of 1.2 billion is hard to control and things will go right and wrong giving opportunities to the opposition. Building these stories into a coherent idea would be critical. 2024 opposition will have the tough task being radical with its ideas. It needs to zero in on a single leader rather than a random cocktail of alliances. That leader needs to be credible, humble – and preferably not swinging from the branches. He or she needs a trustworthy second layer of localized leaders – who are willing to sweat in the fields and streets than resort to armchair politics. The old ideas must die. But does the opposition of 2019 have the stomach for such a colossal shift? Will the phoenix rise?

This article got published in Bussiness Today on 29 May 2019.

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