Who would have thought that Arvind Kejriwal would be among the first to support Rahul Gandhi after his disqualification — forgetting the Congress had welcomed Manish Sisodia’s arrest? Or that a mollified “Didi” would stand by Rahul when she repeatedly spurned overtures from the Congress? Or that a miffed Shiv Sena would readily forgive Rahul despite his repeated attacks on Veer Savarkar and Rahul, in turn, would promise to tone down his criticism of their icon? During the last one week, the Opposition leaders have taken significant steps towards creating a solidarity. They feel threatened, apprehensive that disqualification is a fate that can befall any of them. It goes without saying that the BJP will worry if the Opposition sticks together. But how strong is their new-found glue?
Kejriwal has taken the anti-Modi pitch to an unusual high with his strident speech in the Delhi Assembly, calling the BJP government the most corrupt and Modi the “most uneducated” of all prime ministers. Kejriwal could — as would others — be eyeing the leadership of the Opposition, up for grabs with Rahul out of Parliament.
While trading charges on corruption is de rigueur in politics, it’s surprising that someone as savvy as Kejriwal, who has made education a key plank of his politics, should use such a disparaging term for the PM.
It smacked of an elitism that, ironically, has never been equated with Kejriwal. Indeed, Modi’s “entitled versus the subaltern” attack on the Opposition doesn’t stick to AAP given that there are no dynasties there and most leaders are home-spun. Kejriwal’s attack plays well into the BJP’s story that the only issue the Opposition has is its antipathy for Modi, who is pitching the fight as one between the corrupt “dynasts” and those like him who have risen through the ranks, with whom small-town India identifies.
The reasons behind Kejriwal’s aggression may not be obvious but one thing is: the Opposition parties intend to mine two themes — “Democracy in danger” and “Adani means Modi”. Do these resonate on the ground? Depends on which side of the fence you are on.
There are those who believe that the Adani affair will “dent the Prime Minister’s squeaky clean image” for 2024. And others who feel that the BJP will turn this to its advantage.
In the next couple of months, the Supreme Court is expected to get a report on the Adani matter, which may influence public perception. The Congress is more proactive on the Adani front than are the regional parties, except Kejriwal.
But the central question is: will the Opposition be able to repeat a Bofors with Adani? In 1987-89, Bofors entered the political lexicon, the aam aadmi saw it as “tope main ghotala (scam in the gun deal)” — there was evidence of Swiss bank accounts and more than one smoking gun.
But many have noted the absence of large crowds at Opposition rallies. In a sharply worded interview against Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification, former home minister P Chidambaram admitted he felt “despondent” that people were not coming out to protest as they used to. In her fiery speech at Rajghat, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said: “Public kya dekh nahin rahi kya ho raha hai?… Ankhe kholiye (Can’t the people see what’s happening around them?…Open your eyes).”
The message is clear: either there’s is a disconnect between the Opposition and the “public” or the Opposition hasn’t been able to make a persuasive case. It has not been able to convert “democracy in danger” into an emotion the voter can relate to.
How does harassment of Opposition leaders, with ED interrogating them for wealth disproportionate to their income, affect people?
Sure, there’s sympathy for Rahul today; many say they “feel bad” he should have to leave Parliament. “Acha nahin hua yeh,” is the refrain among many. But it’s a Rahul problem, not theirs.
Suppose the day he was disqualified, Rahul had held a dharna at Jantar Mantar in defence of freedom of expression along with MNREGA workers who had been protesting there since early February for their unpaid wages? This was a UPA programme and they were protesting because of norms that make it mandatory for them to upload their photos. Lakhs are affected, many had lost work—and wages. They felt stifled. Perhaps, freedom of speech would have made sense to them.
In the end, though, it is elections that’s the glue.
I keep saying this in more than one column, democracy’s health/revival depends on a strong Opposition that can win elections. Karnataka, where elections have been announced, is a state where the Congress stands a good chance.
The party has many things going for it: there is an undercurrent for change; Congress national president Mallikarjun Kharge is from the state. There are factions which need to be sorted out.
The Prime Minister is trying to convert the state election dominated by local issues into a national narrative: he called the Opposition leaders a coalition of the corrupt dynasts interested only in blocking him.
The BJP hopes the Congress will use “victim” Rahul in the state and the battle may then become Modi vs Rahul instead of a D K Shivakumar-Siddaramaiah-Kharge versus Bommai-Yediyurappa.
Karnataka today is not just one more state election. It is to the Congress what Uttar Pradesh was to the BJP in 2017, in the run-up to 2019.
Winning Karnataka will stall the BJP’s presence in government in the south, erode its pan-India status. A victory will set the tempo for the winter elections; will enthuse party workers for future contests. It’s a resource-rich state with obvious advantages. And it may give an impetus to Opposition unity.
Nothing is more important for the Congress today than winning this `K’ state. Everything else can wait until May 10. Democracy is not likely to go anywhere till then.
(Neerja Chowdhury, Contributing Editor, The Indian Express, has covered the last 10 Lok Sabha elections)