The opposition in India hopefully and happily draws parallels between Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, it has no real answers to why the former lost in 2020 and the latter won in 2019.
A new year and a new decade began for the United States, and perhaps for the entire world, in the third week of November. The not-so-expected victory of Joseph Biden in the presidential election of the United States was the only, but a great, change that occurred in the contemporary world. The subsequent developments in the United States underlined the significance of the Democratic party’s victory. Yet, there is little discussion, particularly in India, on how Biden and his team achieved this feat. Although the opposition in India hopefully and happily draws parallels between Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it has no real answers to why the former lost in 2020 and the latter won in 2019.
One of the reasons for Modi’s electoral successes is that ordinary Indians don’t consider him anti-democratic, unlike what his hardened opponents think of him. Does it mean that the transfer of power in India, in the event of the electoral defeat of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), will be smooth and without problems? The fact that the power transfer from the NDA to the Congress-led opposition in 2004 was not smooth says a lot about the prospective scenario in India. The resoundingly defeated BJP attempted to stall the formation of the new government in 2004 by whipping up a frenzy on the issue of the foreign origin of Sonia Gandhi. It was not very dissimilar to what Trump and his supporters have been doing in the United States in the last two months. Nonetheless, the most important question is whether the opposition in India would be able to dislodge the NDA in the next Lok Sabha election the way Democratic Party has in the United States? To put it another way, are there any takeaways for the Congress-led opposition from Biden’s triumph?
Joe Biden is not a charismatic leader. His party strategized on not creating a charismatic aura around him. Their victory was a result of strategic campaigning focused on the consolidation of anti-Trump & disillusioned voters and convincing the new voters. The Democratic Party made the best use of its under-grad volunteers to push the Democrat voters to cast their votes. It required weeks of state-wise planning and training. In India, the opposition acted in the exact opposite way before the 2019 Lok Sabha election. It mostly banked on anti-incumbency against the government, on the non-existent charisma of Rahul Gandhi and on creating sensationalism on issues like the Rafale deal, while largely ignoring campaign planning, resource mobilization and training of workers. There are no signs, either, that it would be doing anything else, or different, from now until the 2024 election.
Joe Biden was able to garner the support of non-Democrat voters, who wanted to oust Donald Trump. This, however, didn’t happen only because of the two dominant party system in the US. Biden and his team made concerted efforts to reach out to disgruntled voters and anti-establishment organizations to involve them in the campaigning. In many places, the balance tilted in Joe Biden’s favour mostly because of the vigorous involvement of non-Democratic Party volunteers. Can the opposition in India reach out to each and every individual and organization wanting to see the defeat of the Modi-Shah BJP? Or does it still consider itself as the beneficiary of the TINA factor as far as anti-Modi voters are concerned? Such complacency had cost it the 2019 Lok Sabha election and there will be a repeat performance in 2024 if the opposition doesn’t reach out to all the non-party people and organizations in the country, who are eager to see a change.
Biden’s campaign was definite on reversing some of the key decisions and policies of the Trump presidency. His campaign was deliberately not aggressive on those issues, but, at the same time, consistent and resolute. From the Iran nuclear deal to the Paris climate agreement and from the response to the Coronavirus pandemic to the very risky immigration issue, Biden promised a reversal of Trump’s policies. His choice of his cabinet and the early decisions of his administration indicate Biden’s resolve to stay true to his words. In India, what will be the policy promises of the opposition? What steps does it intend to take to undo what it considers the Modi government’s measures against the idea of India? Can it promise action against the Uttar Pradesh government’s act intending to prevent inter-faith marriages? Can it talk against inhuman provisions in the cow-protection acts of different state governments? Will it undo the religious bias in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019? Can it, will it, promise an enquiry into the alleged corruption involved in the demonetization process? Will it promise the release of activists or crusaders, ranging from Sanjeev Bhatt to Omar Khalid? Unless and until the Congress and other parties firm up their opposition in terms of changes they would be making to policies of the Modi government, people would not find a good reason to stand with them. The opposition needs to go beyond relying on the cycle of change in electoral politics. The Modi team knows how to beat the anti-incumbency arising out of economic hardship. It is not clear whether the opposition understands the scale and nature of the BJP’s election machinery. Either it doesn’t or it doesn’t have the will or resilience to stand up to it.
The Biden victory was also a result of his team’s determined choice of the states that it wanted to snatch back from the Republicans. Even though the electoral system of India and the US are thoroughly different, the national elections are fought state by state in both countries. The BJP has imbibed this system in and out. It already knows that it may face big losses in the key states of Maharashtra, Bihar and Karnataka in 2024. It already has a plan in place to make up for those possible losses by making inroads into Telangana and Andhra and by capturing further space in Bengal and Odisha.
The equation is very simple and straightforward for the Congress. The grand old party just need to cut the BJP to half its strength in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. Can it even make a plan towards this? Rejoicing Biden’s victory is a classic case of Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne for the Indian opposition. It must not be forgotten that Modi won national election much before Trump did it in the US; and that Modi ensured his re-election while Trump could not!
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
23rd Jan 2021