In the many autopsies and post-mortems that political coroners will conduct on the body politic of Karnataka, there is one conclusion that is obvious: as the opposition parties recover their will to fight, in the race to 2019, they need to think national, fight local. Yes, the point has already been made many times over on how the arithmetic of opposition unity is the only counter to the chemistry of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And yes, their future lies in alliances. But even if the Karnataka jolt glues together all the non-BJP parties, this formula does not address the fundamental way in which the BJP under Modi has changed the nature of Indian politics. He has made them Presidential in the American sense. Now the individual is the battlefield and a single personality is what people vote for or reject. For the BJP, Modi is the message; everything else in the organisational machinery is deployed to amplify that.
So far the Opposition has played along and accepted, in a resigned sort of way, that these are the new rules of the game. It has scrambled to find a personality of its own to counter Modi. It has become conventional wisdom that without a face to position as the alternative, the BJP will keep winning. The recasting of Rahul Gandhi – the Congress president is now more vocal, has a smarter social media presence and has begun interacting with the media – was part of the opposition playing catch-up. Some of these changes were necessary, long overdue and can’t be faulted. However, in the present circumstances, by focusing too much on personality-centric narratives, the Opposition is walking straight into a trap set by Amit Shah and Narendra Modi.
The BJP knows the personal popularity of Modi gives him the natural advantage in any clash of individuals on the national stage. And it has cleverly made both the Congress and the state satraps defensive about not having a natural leader at its helm that can commandeer a disparate collection of parties.
The BJP is playing on the Opposition’s insecurities that the voters may not respond well to a political khichdi that does not have a master chef. But if its battle plans are based on this thinking, it is fighting in a defensive position instead of offensive. In fact, it is doing exactly what the BJP thinks – and hopes – it will do.
The non-BJP parties need to understand that the only way for them to have a chance at defeating Narendra Modi is by fighting the BJP locally in 543 constituencies. The informally organised federal front needs to focus on its natural strengths: strong regional leaders, loyal caste arithmetic, and strong roots in the home-grown language, culture and ethnic identity. And they must fight the next general election without a predeclared prime ministerial candidate. That sounds like it defies this season’s trends, and it does. Because this season’s fashion is a poor fit for the anti-BJP collective.
If the Opposition makes the mistake of naming who its prime ministerial face will be, should it win, there will be three outcomes. First, Modi will personally be much more of a draw than any other contender. Second, it will splinter a tenuous Opposition unity, creating factions and camps and opportunities for surreptitious sabotage. It could also put off certain blocs of voters who don’t respond well to the chosen candidate. And the larger political narrative will be scripted by the behemoth that is the BJP, which will convert it into a mega-war in which the Opposition will be outflanked on all fronts: cadres, resources, money and message.
Instead, the Opposition must craft a strategy that allows it to pin the BJP down in hundreds of small, local, electoral contests. There is no doubt that the BJP has replaced the Congress as the only pan-India national party, with some of the southern states offering the last ramparts. But the Opposition cannot afford to get distracted by this new reality. Or hope that somehow a leader will emerge from its ranks who will have national resonance like that of Modi. It has a much better chance at falling back on scores of regional leaders who can bring home pockets where the BJP is still much weaker than them.
This is why Rahul Gandhi erred in the Karnataka campaign by saying he was ready to be the prime minister if the Congress emerged as the single largest party in 2019. Not only did it annoy the other regional parties; it brought microscopic scrutiny back on him.
Leave the idle whispers of who will lead – Mamata, Mayawati, Sharad Pawar, Deve Gowda or Rahul – to the drawing rooms of Delhi. The Opposition has a job to do.