The state of opposition

Modi still awaits a real challenger. Who can emerge as one?

ashishm

Ashish Mehta | May 26, 2015


#narendra modi   #modi one year   #nda one year   #nda first anniversary   #leader of opposition  

A year ago, there were people even outside BJP who made it their own mission to see Narendra Modi as prime minister. Today, many of them are restless and impatient. And yet Modi remains popular; a survey in May found 74 percent of Indians backing him as PM. How do we make sense of this paradox? One factor that can explain the situation is that there is nobody around to challenge him and take him to task: the opposition remains as despondent as it was after its crushing defeat a year ago. The fact that the post of the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha is vacant seems symbolic.

This is no different from the story of his 12 years in Gujarat, where the state Congress – the only party in opposition – failed to provide an alternative vision and connect with the masses. With enemies like that, Modi does not need friends.

So, who will mount a challenge to the most powerful prime minister we have seen in a long time? Democracy, after all, needs somebody to keep in check the extra-strong executive we have got.

Nitish Kumar can script a rerun of Modi’s own story – a lone CM boldly standing up against the centre. He is now back in business and readying for the assembly elections to be held by November. He has a track record for good governance and it more than matches Modi’s record because it was not a case of improving the existing governance but of introducing governance in the first place. But the Modi wave marginalised his party in the 2014 polls, and now he has to first win the assembly polls and prove himself.

Another chief minister who could have posed a threat to Modi is Arvind Kejriwal. The only time in the past year when Modi’s strident BJP suffered a defeat, and a very humiliating one at that, was in Delhi, and that should have pitch-forked the AAP chief as Modi’s first rival. He, however, lost no time in forfeiting his moral capital.

That leaves two leaders, of the two grand and old parties, to play the role of effective opposition: Rahul Gandhi and Sitaram Yechury.
Rahul has not shown his inclination for this job: he disappeared for 56 days right when the crucial budget session commenced. Critics wrote him off, even as his supporters believe he has the charisma to lead, if not India yet, at least the demoralised Congress, and he has been waiting for a free hand to deliver. It is difficult to figure out the potential of a man whose whereabouts were a mystery for close to two months – as much as his views on most matters of governance are. But this much can be safely said: he has the benefit of the pan-Indian presence and recognition of his party and he can emerge as the challenger if and when Modi starts faltering.

Can he realise all the potential he has as the leader No 2 of the party No 2? On return from his leave, he led a rally to protest against the amendments in the land bill. This also happens to be an area where he has some track record, with his Niyamgiri and Bhatta-Parsaul visits. This is an issue on which the Modi government is on the defensive, though the Congress and the rest of the opposition are yet to go on full offensive. Then Rahul made three interventions in parliament, and he seemed better prepared and more forceful in taking the government to task.

The other face is the new leader of what is historically the third biggest party, Sitaram Yechury. In the era of pro-market reforms, the CPM has failed to highlight the pitfalls of neoliberalism. Instead of taking up the cause of those affected by the economic reforms, it has limited itself to the power play of coalition politics. Yechury is known to be a pragmatist and flexible, and he can bring about the long-pending generational change in the Left. But before nursing any national ambitions, his party has to first set its house in order in its traditional strongholds of West Bengal and Kerala.

For each of the opposition leaders, however, the much-needed introspection after the historic defeat is yet to take place. Without figuring out why their parties failed – and why BJP clicked, they are not going to give Modi any reason to worry.

ashishm@governancenow.com

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