After The Hug - The Dilemmas BJP And Congress Both Confront

Published: July 21, 2018 21:50 IST

The government was never in any real trouble. The no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha wasn't about defeating the National Democratic Alliance, after all - it was a way for the Telugu Desam Party to prove back home in Andhra Pradesh that its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, so disastrous for Chandrababu Naidu's popularity, was definitively over.

He may have managed that; neither the BJP nor the Congress will be entirely happy about how the no-trust motion played out. The two parties are faced with dilemmas - dilemmas that are in fact mirror images of each other, since both are a product of the return of coalition politics. How they tackle their respective predicaments will determine who wins 2019.

For the BJP, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned in his usual aggressive performance, it would be an irritant that the PM was essentially upstaged by Rahul Gandhi and his made-for-TV hug - followed by that wink. The difference from previous attempts by the Congress to attack Modi was clear; the Prime Minister's continuing popularity is such that going at him without respite is not going to be a good idea. But by clearly delineating the difference in approach between the Congress and the BJP, even acknowledging the "Pappu" tag - so Rahul Gandhi has at some point Googled himself - the Congress president has definitely kept his party in the hunt. The "I am Congress and Congress is love" shtick is a little irritating, but it has two advantages: first, it looks like Gandhi actually means it, and authenticity is always good in today's politics; and second, the BJP has no idea how to deal with it in terms of narrative.

It was clear the BJP was a little confused about how to fight this new approach. Modi's speech stressed two aspects: first that he was not "naamdhari" - the same old point about not being from the political aristocracy that, even with his supporters, is not going to come across as new. Second, he declared that Gandhi was "childish". Which, again, goes back to that whole Amul baby-Chhota Bheem thing that the BJP has tried for a while. At some point, the BJP will have to find a different line of criticism if it wants to stay ahead of the curve.


Rahul Gandhi gave PM Modi a hug during his speech at the parliament

The broad thrust of Modi's speech made it clear that he had essentially one objective: he wanted to create the impression that Rahul Gandhi is ambitious to be Prime Minister and the putative alternative to Modi; and that the Congress has always been unable to treat its allies with respect.

This is worth noting. Modi's entire speech was an admission: an acknowledgement that 2019 is all about allies. And yet the BJP is caught in a cleft stick. Unless he keeps up the anti-opposition rhetoric, discovers a single alternative candidate or alliance whom to identify as the enemy, Modi's narrative doesn't really work. Simultaneously, he has to keep the smaller parties if not on his side, then at least wary of each other and the Congress. Thus he sought to link the "naamdhari" criticism with the Gandhis' history with other big leaders, both within the Congress and out - a not-so-subtle reminder that the Congress' leaders in the past have turned on their own. He even tried to keep the divisions between the regional parties open - mocking the differences between YSR and Chandrababu Naidu, and praising the former's Telangana Rashtra Samiti.

Yet this is an awkward balancing act. The BJP's best chance at turnout is presenting the entire opposition as united against the ruling party, which is the only hope for Hindus. Meanwhile, the BJP is simply not strong enough as things stand right now to live without some of those opposition parties post 2019. The attitude of its oldest ally, the Shiv Sena, is a clear demonstration that the BJP will need more friends soon. This may well cause the BJP's general election campaign to collapse under the weight of its contradictions.


Rahul Gandhi walks away after hugging PM Modi in Lok Sabha

So: in spite of its easy victory, the signs for the BJP aren't propitious. But the Congress won't be overjoyed either. Why? Not because of Rahul Gandhi's performance - that was competent. But because  the opposition  is not as yet as united as it needs to be if the next election is going to be properly contested. The numbers of the final vote reflect that - the BJP did better than expected, the opposition worse. Were the TRS, the YSR Congress, the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazagham and even the Biju Janata Dal not-so-subtly signalling that they might well be part of the next NDA government?

Perhaps the AIADMK won't be much of a problem - it might well be decimated in the next elections. The YSR Congress couldn't of course support a no-confidence motion brought in by the TDP. Yet the Congress will nevertheless be worried. The only real chance is for Modi to be in some sense isolated, for various opposition parties, even while taking  differing stands, all challenging the BJP's narrative in one way or another. This hasn't happened yet. Which leaves an opening for Modi's reminders that the Congress has been an unreliable partner in the past.

So how do India's two national parties move on from this moment? What do they learn?


Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at the debate on the no-confidence motion in parliament

The BJP has to figure out how to square this circle: how to both build up and destroy at the same time an opposition alliance. Its victory depends on there being a coherent alliance so it can run a presidential-style election; Ideally, Modi would attack Rahul and only Rahul, and argue that a vote not for Modi is a vote for Rahul. But its victory also depends on there being enough allies for it to take over after 2019, since it has accepted it cannot this time win a majority on its own.

The Congress has its own version of the BJP's dilemma. It will have to do two things that are also, in some sense, contradictory. It will have to ensure that it is seen as a credible party of government with a leader who is prepared, even eager, for the responsibilities that government entails. Simultaneously, it will have to show that it has turned over a new leaf. That it no longer seeks to ally with parties in order to bully them; that it is just the Gandhi Congress, one wing of an old movement, and not the "default OS" of India any more; that the regional parties have as much right to exist, and are as close to India's DNA as the Congress is. Only then will it be able to build a sound alliance. Yet how can it display Rahul as eager and prepared while not building him as an alternative? How can the Congress show energy and desire without turning off allies? Its version of the coalition dilemma can be in time as problematic as Modi's.

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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