The battlefield for the upcoming general election is still being set, but an overarching theme appears to be taking shape. The Opposition is counting on a grand alliance to take on the ruling regime — a coming together of unlikely allies and longtime rivals, as was showcased in the Saturday press conference in Lucknow and then a week later, on a Kolkata stage, where an array of leaders was on eye-catching display.
From the other side of the fence, the BJP has seized upon the same photo-up and is trying to turn it to its own advantage: It will be Modi against an “unviable and unworkable shortlived combination”, or “Modi vs chaos”, Minister Arun Jaitley has written in a blog. He has warned of one-too-many “desirous Prime Ministers” armed only with negative agendas, a “post-election leadership battle, no common programme, no policy and a disastrous memory of their administrative disabilities”. Shorn of the adjectives and stripped to its core, Jaitley has summed up the question that will be asked of the Opposition: What happens once the election is won?
For now, the parties that make up the Opposition alliance in-the-making have refused to answer that question, or dismissed its importance. The urgent imperative is to remove the Narendra Modi regime, they reason, and the rest can be left for later. The compelling task, goes their argument, is to ensure the defeat of a government that has presided over farmer distress, jobs crisis, oppression of the backward castes, persecution of minorities, undermining of institutions. The matter of who will be the prime minister, and what will be the agenda of the government he or she leads, can wait, they suggest. In 2019, however, those questions may not wait for later.
This is because this parliamentary election will take place in a political moment that is substantively different from those that have gone before it. Coalition experiments in the 1990s unfolded in the context of a Congress in decline, and a BJP not yet dominant. Even in 1971, the battle Jaitley has invoked as a parallel to 2019 in his blog, Opposition parties had forged a grand alliance, unsuccessfully as it turned out, against Indira Gandhi in a moment when the Congress had just split into two.
Because it is ranged against an opponent like the Modi-Shah BJP — which, despite its recent electoral setbacks, has a strong will to power, an organised party machine and a honed political communication strategy — the Opposition must know that it may not have the room or option, anymore, to push certain post-poll questions to the poll aftermath. The time to find the answers, and to present them to the people, is now.