By: Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury
The talk of alternative political alignments are in the air. With the BJP failing on most fronts and moving more towards an aggressive Hindutva, all anti-BJP forces and even some erstwhile BJP leaders and allies are scouting for alternative formations to take on BJP. Sadly, all talks on alternatives are about parties to collaborate and the top leader/s. There is hardly a talk on alternative politics or politics of an alternative India vision.
Why search for an alternative at all?
The current rulers are on the back-foot, and understandably so, with GDP 2% down after demonetization, fuel prices highest in the decade (Rs.80 and above per litre), unemployment crossing the roof (72 lacs jobs against a promise of 10 crores in five years by Modi government), most campuses up in protests against ruling BJP and its students' affiliate ABVP (which lost elections in JNU, DU, HCU, Patna U, Lucknow U, Allahabad U, Mumbai U, and many more), pre-demonetization quantum of cash back in economy, no visible spate of control in black money or terrorism, cross border violence highest now in this decade, Hindu-Muslim and Dalit conflicts rising, several key ministers (like those of foreign affairs and finance) being very sick, and many more. The quest for an alternative formation is hence pronounced with the general elections exactly a year later (unless pre-poned by PM Modi). The talks of alternative combination are in spite of the fact that BJP is ruling 21 states of India, whether from the front or the back door.
What alternative options on the table?
Congress with its United Progressive Alliance partners are the first natural choice. But a national party with just 44 MPs in Lok Sabha and ruling only 3 states, of which one goes to polls in a month, is not in any bargaining position, unless it wins Karnataka handsomely and scrapes through at least in two of MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh polls ahead: all of these remaining in the realm of speculations, though not impossible.
Second is the talk of federal front of Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool (TMC) Chief Minister of West Bengal, in which is she is ready to bring in every non-BJP party including Congress if Rahul Gandhi is not the face of the combo as several other opposition leaders are there senior to Rahul and who worked with his father and grand-mother.
Third is the talk of people's front of K Chandrasekhara Rao, the Telengana Rashtra Sangh (TRS) Chief Minister of Telengana, which believes in a united opposition alliance minus Congress, as most of these states he targets have Congress as their primary adversary locally.
What's wrong with these alternatives?
The fallacy in all three alternatives above is that they are party and leader combos and none a combination of ideas and alternative governance vision. They finally want to stop a seemingly larger than life Narendra Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah's phenomenal election machinery of lies and half-truths anyhow. They understand that another Modi government is an end to most of their political career ahead.
A power-driven alternative based on multiple smaller and at times conflicting identities cannot fight another power-driven ruling force which is based on one over-arching identity, that of Hindutva.
An alternative has to be the alternative in substance or content and not just in form with a similar content as earlier. If not, then naturally the positioning of Narendra Modi shall be, "All want Modi out, I want corruption out and development in." The media shall build a narrative of one honest strong man versus a bunch of dishonest dwarfs wanting to drag India down again. The Opposition would lose even before the game starts.
Failure of a similar alternative in yesteryears
As a parallel, let us see the decline and rise of Indira Gandhi. Facing a severe anti-emergency backlash led a motley group of united opposition forces, she bit the political dust in spite of trying to portray the 1977 general elections as "me versus they" and telling "they want Indira out, I want poverty out". Modi is and will try the same tactics this time too.
Indira did not have the mastery in controlling media, did not have an army of fake social media warriors, emergency by perception and practice was far more openly anti people, and hence she was defeated. Modi is stronger on these factors.
But the then motley opposition formed a party, Janata Party, which itself had left, right, centre and nowhere people together and hence broke up in less than 30 months on questions of leadership, policies, benefits to various pressure groups ad regions, etc.
And in this failure of the 'united' opposition against Indira Gandhi, ironically, lies Modi's biggest hope of 2019.
Then what is the right alternative? First, uphold the Indian Constitution:
The alternative force is hence not just of parties, though that is a visible face. It is of an alternative world-view, of a common minimum program, and of an alternative approach to governance. And what such a thing can possibly be that can stand strong in front of the Modi-Shah machinery?
First, pledge to protect the Indian Constitution and its basic tenets. So, commit to true secularism where the state does not negate any faith but also does not become party to any faith. Not Hindutva neither Muslim appeasement. State patronage to all religious boards must end, majority or minority, and there are many. Soft Hindutva cannot fight aggressive Hindutva as both feed on the same communal bent of mind. Hence, Congress and Mamata are both on the wrong road here. Pledge to uphold our sovereignty, and hence respect rights of other smaller neighbours, but also protect our geo-political interests (NDA fumbled in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Maldives and with Pakistan & China many times in last four years).
Pledge to uphold socialistic welfare economy because the marginalised people, with their per capita income far below the subsistence level, cannot survive unless supported with minimum access to food, clothing, housing, public health and minimum assured education. Pledge to protect democracy and hence leave media, entertainment, culture and education to be run not by bureaucrats but by professional experts. Polemics is good in these. And, above all, pledge to protect legislatures by not short circuiting their sessions, and to protect the independence of judiciary by not interfering in their recruitment, postings, promotions and processes. Safeguarding democracy also needs to be through police reforms, administrative reforms, judicial reforms, and electoral reforms: all of which have been pending for long, and through an all-out implementation of the institution of the Lokpal, apart from protecting the independence of the constitutional positions (e.g. EC, CIC, etc).
Uphold rights of all communities without any appeasement
Second, all communities need to be assured that India is theirs, but they need not be appeased too. Hence, alternative policy and measures need to be stated for faster socio-economic assimilation of minorities through reasonable representation of all communities in jobs and education, and of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in all walks of life. Mere reservation does not ensure dignified life. If talent with the basic qualifications are not there, reserved seats go vacant for decades as is the case today.
If forest rights are not given to the tribal users of minor forest produce, and land rights are not given to the tillers, there cannot be visible change in the country-side and no end to Naxalism, which survives on the backdrop of a brutal exploitation of the marginalized people. In fact, Sachhar Committee report shows the poor plight of the destitute Muslims and many other reports expose how tribals are the most exploited lot of people in India.
Also, social assimilation will need distinct ways and means to empower women, ensure their security in public places, raise conviction in cases of assault on women, and enhance their socio-economic participation.
Alternative Economic Vision for India
Third, structural changes are needed to achieve a slew of economic measures, including viable Minimum Support Price and implementation of MS Swaminathan recommendations for agriculture, forced but gradual recovery of all NPAs (specially in cases of willing defaulters), banking autonomy with SOPs and with RBI independence ensured, recovering black money in land, jewellery and foreign assets, and encouraging start-ups and digital economy, apart from investments in education and health with tax holidays and other benefits.
This plan also shall underline a fair share of funds between Centre and States, respect for federalism, and execution of truly one nation one tax system through a uniform GST bringing all services and products under it with one tax-structure like most nations which have implemented GST. Interestingly, it is important to increase investment in education and health upto 25% of the total budget, reducing routine administration and defence expenses. A happy people will ensure a happier nation.
The right noise about sanitation, digital economy, entrepreneurship, mass skilling, infra-structure, public health & housing, and pollution by Modi government, many in continuity of earlier UPA policies, need to be taken to the next level of execution, beyond slogans.
Finally, there has to be a development plan for each LS constituency of India with specific proposals on table in the Manifesto of the unite opposition. Political acumen of such an alternative force shall be understood if each constituency is given to that non-BJP party which has shown the best strength in it, in the last five years, to take on BJP on an one-to-one electoral fight. Leadership can be decided later based on performance of each party.
Winning the battle of perception
Modi stands tall in the battle of perception. It is 'There is No Alternative', a tall man of 56 inches against an army of political dwarfs, no personal corruption of Modi as against motley group of corrupt forces, united Hindu led India versus motley group of casteist and communal forces, etc. Falling into the same narrative, which the compromised media shall assiduously promote, will be suicidal for the opposition.
The only way to combat it is to put forth an alternative qualitatively different narrative. Like, NDA sloganeering versus real action-plan on goals espoused. Like, one tall arrogant dictator versus people's grassroots leaders. Like, selective chasing of corruption by Modi government while all corruption charges on BJP functionaries go un-investigated. And there are many. Like, one religion-high castes dominant narrative versus united India approach. Like, sensitive issues to be left to an independent judiciary to judge (Ram Mandir, Adhaar, etc). Like, crony capitalism versus enterprise led competitive economy. Like, arrogant elite governance versus consensus striving for bottoms up governance. Like, control freak approach to freedom of expression approach in media, in art and culture, and on campuses. The alternative narrative has to be on these lines exposing the doublespeak and hidden agenda of Modi-Shah dispensation.
Let a collective leadership of an united Opposition, named People's Federal Alliance (PFA), evolve with a distinct Common Minimum Program and approach and take India to a more holistic sensitive people-centric development oriented future devoid of an overdose of rhetoric and aggressive emotions. And this front should be all non-BJP opposition, Congress, left and regional forces together, but all agreeing to the common minimum program with an alternative vision as suggested above. It has an enormous opportunity since in the best of his times, Modi has got 31% of India voters' support, remaining being a fractured support to all opposition together. The top leader of the party with the highest number of LS seats can don the leadership role thereafter. And if Modi still wins with an his image and program, let democracy win and opposition cooperate with Modi ahead. I am sure it shall be a much more chastened disposition than what it is today. Post 2019.