In the wake of the fractured mandate in Karnataka, Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief, said something that is fast acquiring the ring of political certitude. The assembly election results would have been “different”, she tweeted, “very different”, had the Congress fought in a pre-poll alliance with the JD(S). The Congress needs to join forces with the regional parties it has been fighting, this argument goes, if it is to take on the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah BJP.
In other words, the only hope of checking or reversing the BJP’s dominance, the best strategy of defeating the party, lies in “Opposition unity”. Examples are cited — Gorakhpur most recently, and Bihar before that — of the BJP being brought down by the coming together of its political opponents. The unedifying scenes now playing in Karnataka’s capital are also sought to be justified in the name of Opposition unity — in Bengaluru, the Congress, voted out by the people, is eking out the suspense drama, as it stakes claim, tries to cling on to power by striking a post-poll alliance with the JD(S) against the BJP. But for India’s Opposition, currently laid low, does the answer really lie in a strategic relegation of political differences, a mechanical totting up of arithmetic? Only those who are very timid or pessimistic or extremely cynical about democracy’s possibilities would answer yes.
That the BJP looks unbeatable today is not just because under Modi and Shah, it has built an impressive organisation and machine that plots and plans meticulously. Its dominance is not merely a function of the immense financial resources it is prepared to pour into winning power and wresting it, either. Or, because of the faultlines its politics sets off. The BJP’s political ascendance is made up of more than just that. By all accounts, ever since 2014, the BJP has captured and built upon a growing constituency for change. In the years since that first decisive victory, it has further gained from the perception among large swathes of the electorate that, despite the lag between promise and delivery, in spite of its shortcomings, the BJP is the change agent in the polity while the Congress and other political rivals are proponents of the status quo.
The Congress and the rest of the Opposition cannot mount a genuine political challenge to the BJP without acknowledging this formidable political capital it has created for itself, and without crafting a response to it.
Such a response, such a working through of a political alternative to the dominant party, is necessary for the sake of vibrant democracy which thrives in the robustness and abundance of arguments and choices. But it may not come about by the next general election. It could take longer than that. By the look of things in Karnataka, however, the hard political labour of reviving the Opposition has not even begun.