They should have paid more attention to the proverb right at the beginning. But they refused to stand united and, so, divided they fell and got bruised, if not battered. Now, after the last Assembly elections, with political extinction staring them in the face, some Opposition leaders are trying to regroup and put together at least a symbolic challenge to a seemingly unstoppable-Modi machine.
Truth be told, there is no leader who can even pretend to be an alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in popularity and power at the moment. The geographical and ideological boundaries of the Modi-baiters don’t extend beyond the walls of the offices they occupy. But politics is an unpredictable game of impossibilities and dreams. And they say there’s victory where there’s unity. Which is probably why Rahul Gandhi, Congress President-in-waiting, has suddenly become accessible to those with whom he has rarely exchanged pleasantries in his 13 years of parliamentary politics. Last week, he invited Communist leaders to his office for coffee and discussed the possibility of forging an alliance against the NDA government in Parliament.
Both the machinery and mathematics of elections are stacked in favour of the ruling dispensation. And Modi is keeping his choice of candidate close to his chest. He can afford to: he enjoys a legitimate monopoly over every administrative and political decision, and his political power exceeds that of even Indira Gandhi, who could make even a lamp-post win, they said. However, if the entire non-BJP political spectrum puts its resources together, it can perhaps bruise the Himalayan halo of the Prime Minister and set the tone for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. For, remember, despite enjoying a brute majority at the Centre and states, even India Gandhi couldn’t ensure an unopposed win for her candidate. In 1969, her candidate VV Giri defeated the official Congress candidate N Sanjiva Reddy. But in 1977, Gandhi (now in the opposition) couldn’t find a credible candidate to fight Reddy who was eventually elected unopposed.
While Modi maintains a royal silence, the entire opposition has begun hunting for a credible Presidential candidate. Before the assembly elections, Modi was expected to go in for a consensus and force a hardcore Hindutva personality as his choice. But Modi hasn’t started consultations even within his own party so far, leave alone with any known or unknown foes. A few weeks ago, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar was considered to be the consensus choice as he was also honoured with India’s second-highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan. Pawar has strong credentials as a member of the Rajya Sabha and as former president of the Janata Dal (U). But after his unprecedented electoral gains in UP and elsewhere, Modi is unlikely to accept anyone from the opposition ranks as the next president.
Nevertheless, structured and informal parleys on the matter have already begun in Lutyens’ Delhi. The idea among the Opposition leaders is to bring together some 35 political parties which have more than a 50 per cent share of the Electoral College. Since none of them enjoys a pan-India image or visibility, premium has been put on integrity, seniority and social background of a potential contestant. While Pawar appears to still be in the forefront, the Opposition is also toying with the idea of asking President Pranab Mukherjee to run for a second term. By all indications, he is unlikely to agree, unless requested to do so by both sides.
Another powerful contender could be Vice-President Hamid Ansari who was pushed by the Left parties in 2012. He enjoys a scholarly and secular image in India and abroad. But since he has never been involved in electoral politics, it won’t be easy to persuade him to get into a controversy at this stage of his unblemished career as an academic and diplomat. If the choice falls on a political leader, Sharad Yadav is the most credible and acceptable personality.
Not only does he enjoy a clean reputation, his backward background, coupled with his socialist ideology, makes him the most politically-acceptable claimant for the position. Of the 12 Presidents since Independence, only Zail Singh belonged to the backward community. India has had three Muslims, a Sikh, a Dalit and one woman as President so far. With backward politics dominating the political narrative, Yadav could be a strong uniting force. He would also be acceptable to the Left and other regional parties.
The Congress might also promote Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha speaker and a Dalit. In 2012, the NDA chose former speaker PA Sangma, a former Lok Sabha speaker and a Christian from the North-East, to fight Mukherjee but he lost badly as a large number of NDA allies chose to vote for Mukherjee. The latter got 7.13 lakh votes, or 69.3 per cent.
The story is different this time. The numbers are heavily loaded in favour of an NDA nominee. Of the 10.99 lakh-member electoral college, NDA has over 47 per cent votes (including that of the Shiv Sena), barely three per cent less than the majority needed to win in the first round. The credit for the BJP’s highly comfortable position goes to Uttar Pradesh, whose Assembly accounts for 7.6 per cent votes. By winning about 80 per cent seats, the party has added around 4 per cent to its tally. Moreover, the value of the UP Assembly seat is highest at 208. While the BJP’s tally in the Electoral College is 4,33,182, the figure touches 5,24,088 if all the allies are added. Plus, it won’t be difficult for Modi to garner extra votes from weaker parties like the AIADMK or the BJD.
As he believes in breaking records, he may push for an uncontested election by breaking the opposition ranks or ensuring the victory by a huge margin by polling over 75 per cent votes. His detractors will aim at minimising political authority of the Prime Minister by maximising their unity and arithmetic. Only outcome will determine the fate, futility, future and face of those aspiring to throw a spanner in the Modi mill.