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TNN | New Delhi | May 26, 2017:: The opposition’s elusive search for a coherent narrative to take on BJP has defined Narendra Modi’s three years in office — a desperation that now appears to border on a crisis in the wake of the saffron sweep of UP.
Modi’s stint at the top started as an unprecedented blend of hardline Hindutva and aspirations. The saffron helmsman has added a ‘pro-poor’ plank to his outreach, further shrinking the space for rivals to manoeuvre.
On NDA’s three years in office, ‘marginalisation of the opposition’ is the common refrain in conversations among politicians and commentators. From the time its stars rose in mid-2014 to the high of the UP results in March 2017, BJP has had its ups and downs.
The party followed up its Lok Sabha victory with a string of assembly wins but stumbled at two challenges from imaginative rivals — Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad in Bihar and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi.
But just when Modi’s appeal appeared to be losing its magical touch, BJP won critical battles against Congress and capped it with massive victories in UP and Uttarakhand.
Opposition leaders concede that post-UP, it is crisis time.
BJP bounced back from the Delhi and Bihar defeats by winning Assam on its own in 2015. Its success in civic and local polls even on turfs where it was not considered strong attests to Modi’s appeal and agenda.
The Assam and UP wins underscore that it has not been hurt by the antipathy of Muslim voters — a worrying sign for rivals. The opposition appears to be groping in the dark.
Leaders admit to the lack of a grand catchline around which a strategy of campaigning and collecting votes can be woven. Most of all, the opposition lack a mascot to match the man who has saturated the air waves and the internet with his relentless campaign. Rahul Gandhi is yet to demonstrate he can step up to the plate.
Under Modi, BJP has laid a multi-level trap for rivals. It has been able to touch off a Hindutva polarisation, which in India’s social composition, can hand the party a big advantage. No amount of outrage over communal violence or the over-aggressive street tactics of saffron stormtroopers has made the party back down on its core strategy of polarisation.
Even Modi’s ‘shamshan-kabristan’ and Diwali-Ramzan themes during the UP campaign were seen as an attempt to cater to base sentiment, an indication of what lesser leaders countrywide would be doing. Here again, the lessons for the opposition, which have often calculated that majority-polarisation is more unlikely than minority-consolidation, are sobering.
BJP’s harsh campaign notes effectively tapped into resentment against the ‘appeasement’ of Muslims. The saffron camp’s success in using the outrage over communalism and intolerance to polarise Hindus has visibly killed the ‘secular’ camp’s appetite for raising issues like unrest in universities. When BJP last ruled the Centre with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as PM, Congress and the opposition used their credentials as the champion of the ‘aam aadmi’ to successfully block BJP’s rule that had come to be identified with the middle class and the upper castes.
But Modi has waded in to cramp the opposition’s playing field with grand interventions branded ‘propoor’ — demonetisation being a case in point.
This ‘pro-poor’ lurch has cut across caste lines, breaching a crucial psychological and political barrier for the party, long disdained as a Brahmin-Baniya outfit. Congress strategists concede they need a ‘big idea’ Rahul Gandhi, hopefully, can dribble ahead with.
The Congress vice-president’s own reluctance to embrace his legacy has not helped. After BJP’s massive defeat in Bihar, the opposition and Rahul were convinced that their protracted campaign caricaturing NDA as ‘suit boot ki sarkar’ had done the trick, taking off Modi’s shine among the burgeoning poor classes.
UP has returned the debate, according to a senior Congress leader, back to the 2014 level. And that lies at the core of the sinking feeling in the opposition camp. They, however, draw solace from a quote widely attributed to a British PM that a “week is a long time in politics” — and as evidence, cite how the ‘no-hope’ Congress-led UPA pipped ‘surefire winner’ BJP to the post. But they’ll need more than just nostalgia to bounce back.