A rash of proclamations

The tendency to overstate trends is widespread in India

One of the great charms of 'quality' British newspapers is the Obituaries page where the lives of a few recently departed notables are celebrated. It is a page that commemorates both the truly famous - politicians, actors, scientists, sports personalities et al - and the many unsung heroes - war heroes, lesser-known county cricketers, the school teacher who inspired generations and eccentric specialists of obscure subjects. The Daily Telegraph has published at least 10 volumes of collections of obituaries, and together they are a better social commentary than many ponderous academic treatises.

There is much to commend about India's newspapers that most outsiders find 'lively'. Alas, the well-researched celebration of past lives, written in lively prose, isn't one of the known attributes of the Indian media. At one time, The Statesman used to possess a 'morgue' - the colloquial term for a room where the Obituaries Editor was based. This was a relic from the days the newspaper was suitably grand and British-controlled. With indigenization, the 'morgue' fell into disuse and was subsequently junked. Reports of deaths of yesterday's famous, or even interesting, people resemble a potted biodata - like the ones the presiding officer reads out in Parliament on the death of an MP or a former member of the House. The personality of the departed is subsumed in a lifeless list of what school and college he attended and which offices he occupied.

I guess the Indian media compensate for their inability to craft telling obituaries with a rash of proclamations of premature deaths. India's first-past-the-post election system invariably leads to outcomes whose conclusiveness is highly exaggerated. These, in turn, lead to the proliferation of commentaries announcing the demise of political parties that only a day before seemed fighting fit, if not winners. The Tripura assembly outcome, for example, has generated commentaries either celebrating or mourning the final death of the communist movement in India. The devastatingly bad performance of the Congress -down to just 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha - produced an epidemic of commentaries proclaiming both the death and cremation of dynastic politics. And yet, last week, at the Congress plenary in Delhi, there were equal numbers of editorials gloating over Rahul Gandhi's second or third coming of age and jubilation over the Grand Old Party being on a comeback trail with the anointment of the Congress president as prime minister in 2019.

India's increasingly shrill TV channels that accord no space for subtlety, understatement and circumspection, are unquestionably the worst culprits, but the tendency to overstate trends and convert them into decisive and unshakable conclusions are widespread. This was certainly the case with the Bharatiya Janata Party's shock defeats in the Phulpur and Gorakhpur by-elections in Uttar Pradesh - Lok Sabha seats that the party had won with large margins in 2014. Read with the ruling party's drubbing in two Rajasthan Lok Sabha seats - also won by it in 2014 - the resounding buzz in Lutyens' Delhi and among the editorial classes is that the Narendra Modi government is on its last legs and readying for a clear electoral rejection in 2019. Indeed, the debate over where the Modi government erred has begun and will probably reach feverish pitch later this summer in the event the Congress pulls off a victory in the Karnataka assembly election.

If the consensus among the non-BJP regulars in the Central Hall of Parliament is taken as a guide, the end of the Modi era is a tale foretold. The general election has been as good as lost by the BJP. The question still open is what will replace it. Will it be a replica of the 1996 to 1998 United Front with the Congress offering outside support? After all, this is the implication of the federal front that the chief minister of Telangana, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, tried to sell to his West Bengal counterpart earlier this week, with mixed results. Or will it be, as the drum-beaters at the Congress plenary session broadcast so emphatically, a Rahul Gandhi (or at least a Congress)-led government with the participation of everyone, from the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party to the Trinamul Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam? That would be the inescapable logic of the everyone- versus-Modi scenario that the likes of Mamata Banerjee would like to paint in her more loquacious moments.

That a replay of the hoary Index of Opposition Unity will be a factor in the outcome in 2019 is undeniable. The present indications are that a buoyant Opposition will try to make the general election an aggregation of state polls. Thus, the Congress will be the main challenger to the BJP in the states of Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Assam; an SP-BSP united front will take on the BJP in Uttar Pradesh; and the regional parties will be the main anti-BJP combatants in states such as West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Telangana. The state of play is a little more uncertain in states such as Delhi, Jharkhand, Haryana, Maharashtra and Kerala. And the contest in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh will have an exclusively regional dimension.

At the heart of the calculations are two key assumptions. First, that Mayavati and Akhilesh Yadav will maintain their Phulpur-Gorakhpur bonhomie and have a convivial seat-sharing arrangement that will lead to automatic vote transfers, as happened in the assembly elections of 1993. Secondly, that all the regional players in the fray, particularly in southern India, will automatically throw in their weight against the BJP. Both these assumptions will have to be tested in the coming months.

There is another imponderable. Experience suggests that non-ruling parties are more likely to engage in give-and-take politics when it is a question of their very survival. This was why the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was inclined to have an alliance with the Janata Party in 1977 and with the Congress in the West Bengal assembly election of 2016. In the event of the ruling dispensation appearing fragile, there is a greater tendency to be less accommodative to the compulsions of seat-sharing. As of today, the Opposition parties appear to have convinced themselves that 2019 will see the exit of the Modi government. The mood in the Opposition is triumphalist. If this mood persists, it will be a major stumbling block to a united fight against Modi.

Finally, there is the question of chemistry. The analogy for this is the 1971 general election when it was assumed that a divided Congress would never be able to withstand the, albeit imperfect, Grand Alliance. Indira Gandhi won that election famously not merely because she had a better slogan but because she epitomized change.

For Modi, the promise of change, coupled with the energy of performance, remains the most attractive calling card. Much will, however, depend on the extent the prime minister manages to persuade the electorate to rise above localism and vote nationally. It will also depend on his party's ability to make the 2019 general election even more presidential than 2014 was. If he manages to persuade the voters that they are not voting to select an MP but choosing a prime minister to lead India, he would have negated the potential impact of caste and other local factors. The Congress may be tempted to make it a Modi-Rahul face-off, but that runs the risk of projecting the regional parties as junior partners and dampening the national ambitions of the likes of Banerjee and that permanent hopeful, Sharad Pawar.


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