Finally, the war has begun. The two armies are ready. One has 26 parties and the other has 38. One is called INDIA and the other is NDA. One led by a collective leadership and the other, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. INDIA claims it wants to reclaim lost democracy and constitutionalism and India.
The BJP, which leads the NDA, has launched a barrage of accusations against the opposition, painting them as corrupt, dynasts and opportunists. In the war of words, what is certain is that the battle for 2024 is no longer one-sided and that Modi can't claim a walkover as he had in the two previous elections.
There were several sceptics, even in the Left-liberal fold, who were not sure about opposition leaders ever coming together under the same umbrella, with big egos clashing, the difference of ideologies and political opportunism. But the smoothness with which they came together and created INDIA, the acronym representing a new political force to take Modi head-on, has surprised many. A few months ago, even leaders in the anti-Modi camp were unsure of any such alliance working out, given the political disparateness. There was a sense of hopelessness and despondency despite their common view that unless they joined forces, Modi and the BJP could not be defeated.
But now that myth has been shattered. Twenty-six parties have promised to fight together. The credit should be given to Prime Minister Modi. It wouldn't have come to pass if he had not created the 'new normal' in which he breached the fundamentals of democracy, that the rule of law is for all and that central agencies are free from the clutches of political masters. The relentless targeting of opposition leaders by these agencies, led by bureaucrats who once swore by the Constitution but are now drunk on loyalty to a leader, has resulted in a situation in which opposition parties are left with no option but to fight together.
India has never witnessed such brazen misuse of agencies before. Today, among the Enforcement Directorate cases involving political leaders and parties, 95% are against opposition leaders and only 5% are against those who are either with the BJP or support the ruling party at the Centre. Opposition leaders are regularly raided, their properties are confiscated and attached by ED officials, and they are sent to jail, where they languish for months and years without any hope of bail.
This assault on their constitutionally granted "freedom" had them facing an existential crisis - either fight to survive or surrender to servitude. The onslaught is multifaceted. Not only central agencies but also Governors and Lieutenant Governors appointed by the Centre have made life hell for governments ruled by the opposition. The mainstream media has been discrediting them on a daily basis, portraying them as anti-India, corrupt and opportunistic. Every effort is made to choke them financially. The situation has reached a point that they are not allowed to even speak in parliament. If they speak, then their speech is either expunged or they are removed from parliament. Rahul Gandhi is an example.
Against this backdrop, it would have been a big surprise if the opposition had not come together. The ruling dispensation had probably not imagined this would happen quite so smoothly, and so fast. The Prime Minister's two speeches, on a day the opposition had gathered to announce their togetherness, is proof that he is either rattled or has been caught off guard.
The Prime Minister is a good speaker. He never minces his words while attacking his opponents, but the kind of speech he gave, his choice of words to attack the opposition and his body language betrayed nervousness in the ruling camp. The BJP should know more than any other party that whenever the opposition has united, however fragmented or marginal, it has hurt the party in power. The examples are plenty in 1967, 1977 and 1989. This was the time when the Congress used to walk like a colossus in Indian politics. The opposition parties were too small to confront the Congress but collectively, they inflicted major damage.
One can argue that 2024 is different. But such arguments were also trotted out by the Congress in 1967, 1977 and 1989, and we all know how that ended. Today, defying perception, the opposition has emerged far stronger than ever before. Today, the opposition has governments in 11 states, which was never the case earlier.
It is also often said that the Congress is too weak to fight the BJP at the national level. Critics forget that on earlier occasions, there was no party in the opposition that could have claimed a national footprint and governments in states. The BJP (Jana Sangh), the Left and socialists had a national vision but no national presence. The BJP, which is now on pole position, formed the first government on its own on 4 March 1990 in Rajasthan. It was led by Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Today, the Congress has governments in four states, and in two it is a coalition partner. The party has won 12 crore votes nationally. The BJP, which is now in the government, had seven crore votes in 2009. Modi is too astute a politician not to know this political reality. So, his desperation is understandable.
The cobbling of 37 parties overnight by the BJP bears testimony to my argument that Modi is aware of the danger of the BJP underestimating the opposition meet. He is the man who declared in parliament that he alone is enough to vanquish the collective might of opposition leaders. He knows that in politics, perception is very important. Hence, the effort to showcase that the BJP has the support of more political parties than the opposition. This time, the opposition doesn't seem to be intimidated by numbers. It seems to have done its homework better. The name given to the opposition front - INDIA - stands as a testament. It is no ordinary name. It tries to tackle every accusation the BJP has flung at them since 2014. The name is strategic, political and also ideological.
INDIA stands for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance. First, let's look at the word INDIA. Can the BJP now abuse the word INDIA like it would have done with UPA? Can it say INDIA is anti-India or INDIA is pro-Pakistan? It can't. It is an attempt to reclaim the word India, which the BJP under Modi has snatched from them. Modi, in the last few years, has claimed to be synonymous with India. He is India and any attack on him has been described as an attack on India. The opposition has tried to counter that strategy.
Two, the opposition has been dubbed anti-national ever so often. The BJP has become the harbinger of nationalism, and those who oppose the party are termed anti-national. So the "National" in INDIA serves as a reminder that they are also nationalistic, but not like the BJP or RSS - their nationalism is inclusive. That they do not discriminate on the basis of religion and caste. That their nationalism has a place for every citizen; and that Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and other minorities should not worry about their identities. They are at par with Hindus and will be treated as such, unlike the BJP claiming to take everyone along, but favouring Hindus over others.
Three, Modi has also hijacked the word Development. He does not miss any opportunity to boast about India growing economically and claim that on his watch India became the fastest growing economy and fifth largest in size. To underline its development narrative, the BJP always talks about double engine ki sarkar (a government with a double engine). The opposition's use of the word Developmental is an answer to that claim, an attempt to reclaim the growth turf and tell the voter that it was the Congress that launched OG reforms to foster economic growth in India.
Fourth, INDIA is also an argument to project the opposition front as an ideological alternative to the BJP's Hindutva. INDIA is unity in diversity, it is multicultural, with space for all faiths, where everyone is treated equally, in which no identity - national or sub-national, regional or sub-regional, linguistic or tribal - is discriminated against. For them the constitution is religion instead of religion being the guiding principle.
This is just the beginning; INDIA must now evolve and emerge as a serious threat to Modi and the BJP. I am sure, with Modi's appetite for politics and power, his tenacity, his resilience, flexibility and ideological commitment, the road ahead won't be a smooth one for the opposition INDIA. Any attack on them will be more severe and direct than ever before. Modi's speech was just a preview.
(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.