Prem Shankar Jha
Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Union government, it has had a secret ally. That ally is the Congress party of India.
The partnership between the two parties is not explicit but implicit. When it comes to words, the Congress criticises everything that the BJP says or does. But when it comes to deeds, the Congress has tacitly backed the BJP every time. It has been doing this by sabotaging every attempt that leaders of various opposition parties have made so far to forge an alliance with it to fight the BJP in central and state elections.
It has been doing this through two, perhaps unintentional, political errors.
The first is to hold a grudge against any party that has supplanted the Congress within a state that it used to control. Its chief target in the past eight years has been the Aam Aadmi Party which has replaced it in Delhi and most recently in Punjab.
The second is to accuse any strong regional leader who proposes a coalition of wanting to rob the Congress party of its birthright and become the prime minister of India.
It made the first mistake in the 2017 state elections in Gujarat where it spurned AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal’s offer to not merely ally AAP with the Congress, but also allow it to choose the candidates AAP would put up in the constituencies allocated to it. In the elections the BJP won 99 seats, against the Congress’s 77. But it won 15 of these with vote margins of less than 5,000 and nine with margins of less than 2,000 votes. A Congress-AAP alliance in 2017 could have won a sufficient number of those seats to oust the BJP and severely weaken Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s power base in the country and within the BJP.
The Congress’s second mistake has been to allow sundry party members to insist that the Congress must not only lead any opposition coalition in the fight against the BJP but, should it win in 2024, automatically claim the prime ministership. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi could have disclaimed such ambitions, but chose to remain silent.
The BJP’s delighted spokespersons have therefore learned that all they have to do to make the Congress party’s envy machine start running in Modi’s favour is to accuse any regional leader who talks of opposition unity of wanting to become the prime minister. That is what Union home minister Amit Shah accused Nitish Kumar of doing recently, when he proclaimed that the doors of the BJP in Bihar are closed to him forever.
The BJP’s victory in 2019 should have brought home the price of disunity to the Congress. But the party’s second rank did not allow the claim that leadership was its birthright to die. As a result, although meetings between opposition leaders became more frequent, with several being hosted by the Congress, the key question – who would lead the coalition government if one had to be formed, remained unanswered.
Rahul Gandhi’s inspiring Bharat Jodo Yatra, in which he steadfastly refused to discuss political tactics and focused unswervingly upon the three critical challenges the country is facing – rapidly growing poverty, rapidly growing youth unemployment, and rapidly growing communal polarisation – created the policy platform around which an opposition to the BJP could coalesce. But the key question: who would head a victorious coalition government, remained unanswered.
The obvious answer is that this question will arise only after the elections, and only if the coalition succeeds in dislodging the BJP. Till then it is not only hypothetical, but raising it before the election is the surest way of making sure that it will remain so.
The history of our democracy provides ample proof of this, for the only three victorious coalitions – the Janata party in 1977, the National Front in 1989, and the United Left Front in 1996, had not chosen a prime minister before the elections.
The ULF had, in fact, to send for H.D. Deve Gowda, then chief minister of Karnataka and completely unknown in north India, to head its government. Deve Gowda, moreover, came with the utmost reluctance for only a year in order to give the ULF time to find an acceptable permanent leader.
After Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra had given the Congress a new lease on life, the All India Congress Committee session at Raipur would have been the perfect occasion for the Congress to eschew the demand for primacy in an opposition coalition and announce that it would await the verdict of the electorate. With 19.46% of the national vote in 2019, against 4.06% for the next largest opposition party, the Trinamool Congress, it had the best chance of heading the next government anyway. All it had to do at Raipur was to announce that it looked forward to working with all other parties (or like-minded parties) to defeat the BJP in 2024.
But instead it raised its hoary demand to be primus inter pares – the first among equals – yet again.
In her speech as the outgoing doyenne of the party, Sonia Gandhi conceded that this was a challenging time not only for the Congress but for the entire country. She minced no words in accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP-RSS of relentlessly capturing and subverting every institution, ruthlessly suppressing any voice of opposition, favouring a few chosen businessmen over others, fuelling the fire of hatred against fellow Indians, viciously targeting minorities and ignoring crimes and discrimination against Muslims, against women, against Dalits and against Adivasis. She accused Modi of showing contempt for the values of our constitution.
She reminded the party that since it had led India to freedom it had a special responsibility to protect the constitution. But she did not utter a single word about how it should go about doing this after its vote share had fallen from 29% in 2009 to 19% in 2019 and the BJP had snatched dominant party status from the Congress by doubling its share of the vote from 18.8 to 37%.
The answer, as pointed out above, was obvious. But Sonia Gandhi did not once mention the word ‘opposition’ let alone the need for the Congress to work with it to save Indian democracy. The omission was significant because it came immediately after the inaugural speech of the new Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge, in which he stated that ‘in the prevailing difficult times the Congress is the only party that can provide capable and decisive leadership to the country.’ He also extolled ‘the UPA model’ of coalition governance, stated that the Congress looked forward to forging a viable alliance with like-minded parties and warned that “the emergence of any ‘third force’ will provide advantage to the BJP-NDA”.
Despite being harassed by Modi’s Enforcement Directorate for 12 hours and having her son Rahul harassed for 60 hours as the ED struggled to find some shred of evidence that would enable Modi to send mother or son to jail, neither Gandhi nor Kharge showed an awareness that Modi has absolutely no intention of ever ceasing to be the prime minister of India, and will therefore stop at nothing to ensure victory for the BJP in 2024.
Nor is there any hint of realisation that his determination to remain the prime minister of India for the rest of his life does not spring only from his ferocious drive to succeed, but his fear that if the BJP is ever voted out of power, all the allegations of his tacit or explicit complicity in the pogrom of Muslims that occurred in Gujarat in 2002 will surface once more to torment, and possibly punish, him for the rest of his life.
With the able support of his home minister, Amit Shah, PM Modi has been able to foil every attempt by relatives of the victims and members of civil society, to hold him accountable for the police inaction that led to that pogrom. the string of faked ‘encounters’ that followed, and the so far unsolved murder of his former home minister, Haren Pandya. But that executive power will crumble to dust, and Modi’s immunity from future prosecution will vanish if the BJP fails to win the Lok Sabha elections next year.
Modi and Shah cannot, therefore, afford to let that happen. But both of them know that the ground beneath their feet has begun to soften. Ten years of slowing GDP and industrial growth, and growing unemployment, have made close to 40 million more men and women between the ages of 16 and 60 face great difficulty in finding jobs – leading some to drop out of the labour force – during his stewardship of the country.
The disenchantment may have been there even in 2019, but no voter was given a chance to feel it because the opposition was unable to unite and unable to present a plan for reversing the growth of unemployment, and rising distress of the poor that Modi’s first five years in office had seen. So inept had the party’s organisation become that even the release of its election manifesto took place only nine days before the start of the voting, on April 2. India’s youth were therefore left with no choice but to continue to hope that Modi would fulfil his promises if given another chance.
During his first term in office Modi made calculated use of communal animosity to shore up the BJP’s, and his own support. But four years on, lynching Muslims and uploading the videos has not only lost its novelty for the Hindu masses but has created serious disquiet in the moderate ‘Vajpayee’ wing of the BJP.
More pertinently, it has also done so in the RSS. Between March 2021 and October 2022, in speech after speech, delivered in places as far apart as Mumbai, Ghaziabad and Nagpur, on occasions ranging from a book launch to the Dussehra festival, Mohan Bhagwat the Sarsanghchalak of the RSS has made no secret of his anguish over the way in which Modi has been fanning communal animosity against Indian Muslims.
Modi cannot but be aware, therefore, that his continued leadership of the BJP now rests solely upon his ability to continue delivering the votes the Sangh Parivar needs to pursue its dream of a Hindu Rashtra. He is therefore fully aware that the 2024 elections will be a time of reckoning for him. So, he is leaving no stone unturned to dismember the opposition and discredit its leaders.
His preferred instruments during his first term in office were the CBI, the NIA and the Delhi police. During his second term, his government has been relying upon the Enforcement Directorate.
To prepare the ground for his onslaught on the opposition he pushed through no fewer than eight amendments to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in 2019, which have given the ED untrammelled powers of arrest, seizure of property and denial of bail.
Since 2021 his government has relied almost entirely upon arrests of the leaders of opposition parties under the PMLA, to paint them as corrupt and anti-poor in the eyes of the electorate. His aim now is not merely to destroy ordinary law-abiding peoples’ faith in their political leaders, but to completely discredit Indian democracy itself and thus pave the way for the authoritarian rule he intends to usher in after the 2024 elections, in the guise of Hindu Rashtra.
The sheer savagery with which these are being used can be judged from two sets of data: Between 2004 when it was promulgated, and 2014, the governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh filed 112 cases, carried out 112 searches and made-up prosecution dockets in 104. By contrast, between 2014 and May 7, 2022 the Modi government has launched 5,310 investigations, 2,974 searches, attached Rs 95,432.08 crores worth of property arbitrarily declared “proceeds of crime”, and 839 prosecutions but secured only 23 convictions, a conviction rate of below 3.
The Modi government has paraded these figures to show how corrupt the political system of the country was till his government came to power. But when placed side by side with the 50-fold jump in prosecutions and the simultaneous passing of amendments to the PMLA that have virtually destroyed habeas corpus, they tell a different story. That is the story of a terror campaign designed to crush democracy and replace it with a Modi-cracy that will endure till the end of his natural life.
Modi has not revealed how he intends to do this, but the attacks by governors upon the autonomy of elected chief minister in opposition-ruled states, his casual violation of the safeguards placed by Article 324 of the constitution upon the independence of the Election Commission and above all, his direct assault upon elected chief ministers and ministers through the ED and the PMLA show that he will stop at nothing to retain his hold on power.
The AICC’s meeting in Raipur was an opportunity to highlight this drift towards tyranny, but it has proved to be an opportunity missed. The Congress must now join the opposition parties to create another. And it must do this soon, because the time to carry the message to the people has almost run out.
Prem Shankar Jha is a veteran journalist.
Courtesy The Wire