Barely eight months ago, a pall of gloom hung over the Opposition parties when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) swept the 2019 Lok Sabha election with 353 seats, including 303 for the BJP, its highest tally ever. Today, with new activism in the air, the opposition parties are a much more enthused lot. Two currents-one emanating from the east and other from the west-have gathered enough tailwinds to propel a grand coalition (mahagathbandhan) of opposition parties into a confrontation with the Narendra Modi-led central government.
The eastern current emerges from Assam where a flawed National Register of Citizens (NRC) effectively declared 1.9 million Indians “stateless”. In both Assam and Tripura, the resultant churn led to violent protests, suspension of internet and train services and deployment of army units. The anger spread like wildfire across the country as soon as the NDA government at the Centre rammed through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 in Parliament declared that a National Population Register (NPR) would follow soon.
The western current took shape late last year in Maharashtra, where a Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance (the Maha Vikas Aghadi), pulled the rug from under the BJP’s feet. The swearing-in of the Uddhav Thackeray-led government on November 28, 2019, was a game-changer for the opposition. The ‘invincible’ BJP had lost one of India’s largest states, and that too, ironically, by the Opposition splitting the NDA, a game which until now the saffron party had perfected. The very next month, in Jharkhand, a fierce anti-incumbency wave unseated the Raghubar Das-led government. Twice in a row, BJP state governments lost power to an opposition coalition.
The anti-incumbency against BJP state governments can be traced back to the winter of 2018 when the party lost assembly elections in MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. The general election victory in May 2019 reversed the process before Maharashtra and Jharkhand once again turned the tide. To sum up, today, the BJP’s footprint in the states has halved from 71 per cent in December 2018 to about 35 per cent now.
The Maha Vikas Aghadi was dismissed as an “opportunist alliance” by BJP leaders, but in the first Mood of the Nation (MOTN) survey of 2020, 44 per cent respondents were convinced it was the rebirth of an opposition-led mahagathbandhan.
Mumbai and Ranchi have proved to be the great catalysts for a Grand Coalition. As a result, 20 opposition parties, at a meeting convened by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, put out a carefully-crafted resolution on January 13 demanding that the NDA government immediately withdraw the CAA and stop the NRC-NPR. The BSP, SP, TMC, AAP and Congress allies in two states, DMK (Tamil Nadu) and Shiv Sena (Maharashtra), missed the meeting, but the broad outlines of the way forward had been decided (even though these parties did not attend, they have all professed an anti-BJP/ CAA stand).
‘The CAA, NPR and NRC are a package that is unconstitutional, which specifically targets the poor, the downtrodden, the scheduled castes/ scheduled tribes and the linguistic and religious minorities,’ said the resolution. The mahagathbandhan has also asked chief ministers who have promised not to implement NRC in their states to stop the NPR enumeration process too, alleging it is a “prelude to the citizens’ register”.
The statement also broadened the opposition agenda by including key economic and political issues. It pointed to the crisis which has “pushed the economy to the verge of a recession”. It also talked about Jammu and Kashmir being “under a virtual siege” in the past five months.
The inclusion of core economic issues was pertinent. Despite a good monsoon, agriculture is in a crisis with high food inflation, falling rural wages and terms of trade pitted against the farmer. Close to half the MOTN respondents (48 per cent) felt the condition of farmers had deteriorated or remained the same since Modi came to power in 2014.
Two alternative scenarios
The anger with the CAA-NRC-NPR is so palpable that state governments such as Kerala, West Bengal, Punjab and others have officially challenged the Centre, claiming they will not implement the Act despite the CAA being in the Union list, a situation that threatens federal relations in the country. The protests also seem to have created a new axis in Indian politics: the Hindutva Nationalists versus the Constitutional Secularists. The MOTN poll used this new axis to explore two hypothetical scenarios by disaggregating ‘the Others’ category and redefining the UPA and the NDA.
The Shiv Sena, which walked out of the NDA in November is now part of ‘Others’ (see That Uneasy Feeling). In the first hypothetical scenario, the Left parties which attended the coalition meeting and the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP and Mayawati-led BSP join the UPA cohorts from 2019 in a mahagathbandhan. The hypothetical results then, if Lok Sabha elections were held today, would leave the NDA with 282 seats, and UPA with 172, with almost matching vote shares: NDA’s 41 per cent to UPA’s 40.
In Scenario 2, the Shiv Sena, AAP and TMC also form part of the mahagathbandhan. The hypothetical results then are a huge challenge to the NDA-it comes in below the majority mark at 264 seats, the UPA gets 230. Vote share now favours the UPA, 46 per cent to NDA’s 41. In both situations, the BJP-led NDA is the dominant axis. In scenario 1, the NDA can form a government; in scenario 2, everything is up for grabs.
Anger on the streets
The CAA-NRC-NPR protests are the main glue for Mahagathbandhan 2.0. A state-by-state survey by the india today data intelligence unit suggests that 10 states with 44 per cent of the population are against the NRC, while 15 states with 33 per cent population are in support. The 10 opposing states also include those where key NDA allies are ranged against the NRC, like the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) in Bihar, the Akali Dal in Punjab and the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD in Odisha. If the BJP presses on with NRC as a main agenda, it runs the risk of alienating these NDA partners.
The MOTN survey shows that on all Kashmir-related issues, the majority are in favour of the actions taken by the Modi government. On the issue of Ayodhya, a still larger majority (59 per cent) are in favour of the Supreme Court decision to award the site to Ram Lalla. Why then have the citizenship-related laws and initiatives generated such anger among citizens?
The main reason is that the CAA-NRC-NPR are perceived as a series of laws that undermine key constitutional values. During the Constituent Assembly debates, it was agreed that the basis of citizenship would be jus soli or citizenship by birth. The CAA alters this to religion, thus impairing its constitutional basis. It challenges Article 14, a fundamental right guaranteeing all persons equality before the law. “A state that separates individuals and treats them unequally violates the prescription of Article 14, and the heart and soul of the Constitution,” argues legal theorist Gautam Bhatia.
On whether minorities were insecure over the proposed implementation of CAA-NRC, 52 per cent MOTN respondents said yes, with 14 per cent also agreeing that “not just minorities, even the general population is feeling insecure”. Compare this to the cynical dismissal by a BJP Rajya Sabha MP, who compared the protests to “the 1921 Mapilla rebellion in Malabar (Kerala) where Muslim farmworkers and small farmers had rebelled against the Hindu landlords”.
The MOTN survey suggests the protests are much wider in ambition and scope, and act as a glue in uniting the mahagathbandhan. The question is, can the two popular currents of ire-anti-incumbency in the states and citizenship protests nationwide-form a tide against the NDA government? Can the Opposition parties turn this into a wave in the next series of state assembly elections?
Can the protests sustain themselves? Protest politics combined with parliamentary politics have proved game-changers in Indian history: the Jayaprakash Narayan-led Sampoorna Kranti Movement in the 1970s and the Anna Hazare-led agitation in 2014 are enough proof of this. Can the mahagathbandhan channel this popular anger to challenge the NDA government, or will individual egos and power politics squander a historic oppor