The excitement generated by a meeting of the Rashtra Manch, a political action group of anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposition parties, has ignited speculation over the need for a ‘credible alternative’ to the BJP in the 2024 general elections. The fact that the meeting took place at the residence of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar was seen by some as a propitious sign.
The participants, however, were keen to play down the event. The NCP clarified that the gathering of representatives of eight political parties was “not a political meet”. It also clarified that the meeting was not initiated by Pawar but by another veteran politician and now a Trinamool Congress leader, Yashwant Sinha.
Despite such soft-pedalling and the notable absence of the Congress, it is worth thinking of the challenges the Rashtra Manch would face in seeding an anti-BJP alliance. The presence of a spectrum of public intellectuals at the meeting notwithstanding, much brickwork will have to be done to forge a viable political front.
Uttar Pradesh poses an immediate challenge, with Assembly elections due there in just seven months. There is no sign yet how the Rashtra Manch can become a player in India’s most politically weighty state. The main contender, the Samajwadi Party (SP), has been dormant and needs to re-establish its credentials as an alternative to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath despite his misgovernance. An SP alliance with the Congress seems a non-starter, especially after such seat-sharing in Bihar cost the Rashtriya Janata Dal an electoral victory. The Bahujan Samaj Party, the other major party in UP, is an unreliable ally as it is not above flirting with the BJP.
Unlike in West Bengal, the advantages of encouraging a Muslim consolidation against the BJP in UP are limited. The relative number of Assembly seats where the Muslim voter can swing the results is fewer. Nor can the UP parties build a campaign like Mamata Banerjee did, projecting the BJP and its leaders as cultural outsiders who threaten the local language and traditions. Caste-based polarisation has been the mainstay of the Opposition in the Hindi belt, but this has been countered before by the BJP’s Hindutva campaign uniting voters across caste lines. Therefore, the Opposition game plan for UP will have to think beyond anti-incumbency and beyond the “tried and tested” strategies for mass-mobilisation.
Perhaps the economy will be the biggest issue in 2024. The negative growth rate of 7.3% in 2020-21 was bad enough. Now, the Reserve Bank of India and international financial institutions suggest that India’s recovery will be prolonged. They have steadily revised the projected growth rate downward for 2021-22— first from 10.5% to 9.5% and then to 8.5%.
Unemployment figures present an even more alarming picture. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the unemployment rate increased from 11.9% in May 2021 to 13% by June 13. The labour participation rate (i.e., the number of people working as a percentage of the working-age population), which had fallen to 40%, fell further to 39.7%. These figures, taken together, imply a fall both in employment rate and in absolute employment. Informal jobs may recover with the lifting of localised lockdowns, but CMIE points out that the steady downward trend in employment is not related to lockdowns alone.
Neither any opposition party nor the Rashtra Manch has shown any roadmap to deal with the economy, generate employment or strengthen the social security net for unorganised sector workers.
The absence of a charismatic leader capable of taking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and someone who would be unfazed by the BJP’s provocations also remains a problem for the Opposition. Perhaps the Rashtra Manch needs to rethink its strategy and not look for a single rallying figure to lead the Opposition nationally. As of now, the strongest challenge to the BJP in every state is provided by a party that is often just locally dominant, including Congress-led governments. Perhaps Rashtra Manch should work out a federal leadership structure with a small national coordination office to get all anti-BJP forces on board.
However, the Opposition to the BJP will have to develop a shared political programme and think beyond mere aggregation of the anti-BJP vote. The various strands of an alternative programme will have to be developed much ahead of the general elections. No opposition party seems to be applying itself to this task. By contrast, straws in UP’s wind suggest that the BJP is clearly opting for its mission of Hinduising the voters -- the economy and unemployment be damned. The Rashtra Manch can encourage the opposition parties to formulate and agitate on an alternative agenda of governance, initiating joint-action programmes over the next three years. Beginning from Uttar Pradesh, joint Opposition rallies and mass protests can be a precursor to Opposition unity.
(The writer is a journalist based in Delhi)