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The Opposition revels in ridiculing the ruling BJP over its description of the Narendra Modi government’s every move as a “masterstroke”. It also rakes up the “politics of fear” as part of its ammunition to fire salvos at the saffron party.
The Modi dispensation’s choice of candidates in the Presidential and the Vice Presidential elections, however, shows that it is the BJP’s politics of imagination that the Opposition needs to master lest it would be outwitted time and again by the ruling party through the art of political symbolism backed by a seemingly compelling narrative.
The BJP’s opponents cannot hope to outdo the formidable Narendra Modi-led political machine by simply harping on the politics of fear or its doomsday predictions – that the government is weakening democracy, stifling free speech, corroding institutions etc. – or by constantly mocking Prime Minister Modi. While there may be genuine worries and apprehensions, the parties would need much more political imagination than betraying a sense of despair to counter the Modi juggernaut.
Much like the term “masterstroke”, the “Opposition unity” has become a cliched phrase in the country’s political lexicon. The Opposition has never been a united camp. And it takes just a little effort by the BJP to splinter its ranks – and that of the Congress-led UPA’s or whatever is left of it. Although the outcomes of the Presidential and Vice Presidential contests are foregone conclusions, there are some key takeaways.
The Congress, the principal Opposition party, has shown some willingness to accommodate others. It consciously took a backseat and let other Opposition parties, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the case of Presidential candidate Yashwant Sinha, take the lead. And in the case of the Vice Presidential nominee, it let NCP chief Sharad Pawar and CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury drive the deliberations after the TMC did not evince much interest, perhaps because of the Sinha fiasco.
Even in the run-up to the 2017 Presidential election, the Congress had let other Opposition parties to come up with the names of possible candidates. Gopal Krishna Gandhi had then emerged as the frontrunner but the parties played the waiting game and let the BJP-led NDA announce its nominee first. With the NDA picking Ram Nath Kovind as their candidate, Congress president Sonia Gandhi mooted the name of Meira Kumar, making it a Dalit versus Dalit contest. The parties thus did not allow the BJP to walk away with its narrative entirely.
But this time, the Congress’s withdrawal from the Opposition’s decision-taking stage did not help much. The BJP could easily outsmart them by fielding Droupadi Murmu, a tribal leader from Odisha and ex-Jharkhand governor. The Opposition and even the UPA (with the JMM and the Shiv Sena extending support to Murmu) stood divided. There was evidently a lack of political imagination on their part. There are perhaps no right or wrong candidates at the Presidential level, where it may be, politically, the context, circumstances and narrative that matters in the final analysis.
In picking Margaret Alva as its Vice Presidential candidate, the Opposition has managed to weave a story – a woman, South Indian and minority – but the TMC’s absence at the key Opposition meeting proved to be a dampener. The Opposition cannot afford to miss the point that the narrative management is as important as the political strategy and tactics. But perhaps taking a leaf out of the BJP’s book, it seem to be more interested in indulging in apparently manufactured outrages with an eye on social media.
For instance, the recent outrage whipped up by several leading lights of the Opposition over a routine advisory issued by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat banning demonstrations, dharnas, strikes and fasts in the precincts of the Parliament House backfired when it was pointed out that the Secretariat had been issuing the same advisory even when the UPA was in power.
It is not that the likes of Jairam Ramesh, Yechury, Derek O’Brien or Manoj Jha would not know that. They were all in Parliament before the Modi era.
Another political controversy that recently erupted was over the national emblem. The CPI(M) and the AIMIM were perhaps the only Opposition parties which questioned the constitutional propriety of the Prime Minister unveiling the emblem atop the new Parliament building. The rest of the parties focused on the differences between the new emblem and the original Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath.
But the Opposition will be doing itself a disservice by this constant sniping at the government over such matters. It has to focus on the vital bread-and-butter issues which strike a chord with the masses. And be imaginative in its politics.