It has been a month since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were declared. The outcome pleasantly surprised the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because few even in the party firmly believed that it would they would outdo its own brilliant 2014 performance. It forced political observers – who had assumed that Narendra Modi may come back, but would need a range of allies – to re-examine their assumptions about Indian politics. But its impact was most striking on the opposition parties, leaving them stunned, as many, including the Congress leadership, were convinced that Modi was on his way out. Not only did he return, the opposition was routed across most states, barring those in the south.
In these weeks, the opposition has neither been able to figure out why things went so wrong, nor has it been able to find a prescription for revival.
Looking back, it is clear that a range of factors went into carving out the spectacular BJP win. Narendra Modi’s personal appeal, the faith a large segment of the electorate had in his intent and integrity, and the lack of a credible alternative leader in the opposition ranks were significant factors. The government’s welfare schemes, from rural housing to toilets, gas cylinders to health insurance, targeting 220 million beneficiaries, made a big contribution to the resounding victory. The BJP was able to leverage its air strikes in Balakot to energise its cadre and create a nationalist sentiment. Supplemented by a formidable organisation, the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, careful micro caste engineering and sharp Hindutva politics in key areas, Modi swept to power again.
One would have thought that given the devastating rout it faced, the opposition, by now, would have gone back to the drawing board and begun working on precisely these elements. Till it gets its leadership, ideological messaging, and organisation in order, the non-BJP parties will continue to struggle.
Instead, they are in even deeper disarray than expected. The morale is low. There is confusion about the way ahead. This is best exemplified in the developments in the Congress party, the country’s leading opposition.
Two days after the results, party president Rahul Gandhi announced his decision to step down at a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting. Whether a leader should really quit after a defeat, when the party is facing its most serious political crisis, is arguable. There is a view that this is an exercise in taking responsibility and being accountable, and there is an equally convincing view that this is a decision born out of a sense of entitlement and unwillingness to lead. But Gandhi is entitled to decide whether he wants to stay on in the job or not.
It was not so much his decision to quit as what has followed that speaks poorly of the Congress. For days, senior leaders, state units, and the party’s front organisations asked Gandhi to stay on. He refused to relent. But for as long as he is president, he is in charge. And he does not seem to have instituted the processes to find a successor swiftly. Till that is done, as the very basic first step, the party cannot even begin to take on its role as a serious opposition. Gandhi owes it to the 120 million voters who voted for the Congress in the 2019 polls, the party’s rank and file, the broader opposition and all those who believe that a strong opposition is necessary for Indian democracy to expedite the process of selecting a new leader, if indeed he is quitting as president.
This successor – the new Congress president – will have an incredibly challenging task at hand. He will first have to command authority and win the acceptance of both senior and younger leaders; only a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family has usually been able to do that. He will have to get a grip and defuse the factional fights, which have broken out in many state units. He will have to kick-start a process of reviewing the 2019 outcome, through a brutally honest introspective exercise. He will have to begin preparing for state assembly polls in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand at the end of the year and Delhi next year – note that BJP has already begun planning for these states. He will have to reach an understanding with the rest of the opposition parties on a joint strategy to battle the BJP in parliament and outside. He will have to find a way to revive the party in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar and West Bengal, which together send 162 members to the Parliament and where the Congress is almost non-existent. He will have to help the party regain strength in the states in which it is the principal competitor to BJP. And he will have to do all this, with Rahul Gandhi still exercising influence from behind the scenes.
The situation in the other opposition parties is no better. The Samajwadi Party-Bhaujan Samaj Party alliance in UP, which was held up as a great hope to combat the BJP, has already crumbled. Relying on old caste arithmetic is clearly not a recipe for success any longer. This once again puts the BJP in pole position to win the 2022 assembly polls in the state. The Trinamool Congress is facing its most serious challenge in West Bengal as the BJP rises even as violence, unrest and religious polarisation engulf the state. In Karnataka, the tensions between Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) are escalating. The older guard in the regional parties – Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad, HD Deve Gowda, Sharad Pawar – are all fading, while the younger generation – often second generation dynasts – appear to lack the hunger, political skills, and connect on the ground to be able to take on the BJP.
All of this has meant that even as the BJP has consolidated in the month since it returned to power – hitting the ground running in government, pushing its ideological agenda in Parliament, embarking on a new membership drive, ensuring a succession path in the party with a new working president, and preparing for forthcoming polls – the opposition is still struggling to recover from its loss. This does not bode well for the system of checks and balances which constitute an important element of democracy.