The BJP did not take the Opposition's first meeting in Patna very seriously but went into hyperactive mode when preparations began for the Bengaluru meet | File photo: The Federal

INDIA has alarmed Narendra Modi, and it is evident from his reaction

Twenty-six Opposition parties have finally announced a formal alliance with the objective of ousting the BJP-led government in the next parliamentary elections, and chosen a name — INDIA — that can be vilified at grave risk. Any assessment of the Opposition’s potential in this regard can be best made by examining the reaction it evoked from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But before examining the likely impact of the second meeting of the Opposition parties in Bengaluru recently, a recap of events in recent months and the BJP-Modi combine’s responses is in order.

How the Opposition came together

Opposition parties, which for years failed to find common ground, began joining hands on issues over which there was little disagreement. As a first move, 14 political parties filed a petition in the Supreme Court against alleged weaponisation of central investigating agencies, mainly the ED and the CBI.

This was the first instance of across-the-board convergence of interest among opposition parties before next year’s parliamentary election. Significantly, it was preceded by the swift disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Lok Sabha, widely considered as a response to the support garnered by the Bharat Jodo Yatra, his fiery speeches in Parliament, and assertions while touring the United Kingdom in February.

The move also followed raids on leaders of various parties, including the arrest of Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister, Manish Sisodia. The petition was not admitted by the apex court but it paved the way for further joint action.

Also read: With INDIA in mind, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu set aside water row

The initial hiccups

The baton was picked up at this stage by Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, who began one-on-one parleys with leaders of varied and antagonistic parties.

Initially, the BJP did not take these developments very seriously because of conflicting electoral interests among these parties in several states — for instance between Aam Aadmi Party and Congress in Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi and, again, between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress-Left combine in West Bengal. Postponement of the meeting convened in Patna by Kumar, from early June to the third week, did not add to creating a loud enough buzz to worry the ruling party.

Disagreements between the AAP and the Congress over the Delhi Ordinance, promulgated by the Modi government in the wake of the Supreme Court siding with the Arvind Kejriwal government on powers to appoint civil servants to key positions, dampened the spirit of Patna, and the BJP breathed easy.

It, however, went into hyperactive mode when preparatory activities started for the Bengaluru meet. This time, it was the Congress that took the lead with matriarch Sonia Gandhi playing a role. The Congress declared it would oppose the Delhi Ordinance in Parliament.

Moreover, her presence in Bengaluru added to the heft of her party, and she acted as glue for the Opposition owing to her past role in knitting alliances tightly.

Wake-up time for BJP

Alarmed by these moves and indications that various opposition parties were finding ways to get past divergences, the BJP-Modi combine, too, shed its belief in the principle in “ekla chalo”. Besides engineering the dramatic crossover in Maharashtra of Ajit Pawar, Praful Patel, Chhagan Bhujbal, and several legislators of the Nationalist Congress Party, the party appointed leaders like Sunil Jakhar and Daggubati Purandeswari as state unit presidents in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, respectively, even though they are from outside the Sangh Parivar.

Although these moves may result in new conflicts that the BJP will have to hereafter manage, it demonstrated that Hindutva-rooted leaders were looking for new partners, within the party and outside. The BJP also decided to not only revive the virtually defunct National Democratic Alliance, but also scheduled its meeting in Delhi on the second day of the Bengaluru Opposition meet.

Additionally, the Centre also scheduled the inaugural of a new terminal building at the Veer Savarkar International Airport in Port Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands. This otherwise “official” and routine inaugural would not have attracted much attention but for Modi’s decision to deliver a speech by video conference.

Also read: NDA vs INDIA: Who are the fence-sitters ahead of 2024 Lok Sabha polls?

The first symptom of worry

As it happens on such occasions, his primary audience did not solely comprise the people who gathered at Port Blair, including Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia. Instead, he virtually delivered an address to the nation.

Aware that the speech was telecast live by news channels, Modi delivered, despite it being an official speech as the Prime Minister, a politically rhetorical speech running down previous government and listing out achievements of his government. He also spoke critically about the parties that were gathered in Karnataka’s capital.

This was the first symptom of worry over the number of eyeballs that news related to the Opposition conclave was gathering. The effort was to push out the coverage of the Bengaluru meeting by hosting a bigger jamboree in Delhi with Modi leading the ceremonies.

Numbers game

The second sign that the BJP was worried over the Opposition parties increasing their numbers from the count in Patna was when party president JP Nadda announced a day before their meeting that it would be attended by 38 parties — eventually another party was added to make it 39.

The tom-tomming of “more parties” being at the meet was a clear sign that the BJP was attempting to better the Opposition by showing that more parties were with the BJP than against it. It is a different matter that a large number of parties gathered in Delhi were of little electoral consequence.

Twenty-five of the 39 parties that attended the NDA meeting did not have parliamentary presence. They were invited because of the BJP’s failure to get big regional parties on board.

In recent weeks, little has come out of its parleys with parties like Shiromani Akali Dal, Telugu Desam Party, and the Janata Dal (Secular). Of these, the first two were part of the Modi government but quit the BJP fold after differences on issues, as well as the style of functioning. Adding small players to the list of attendees underscores the BJP’s urgency to showcase numbers.

Also read: Nitish Kumar agreed to alliance name INDIA after initial hesitation

Modi’s new-found love for NDA

The BJP did not convene a single meeting of its allies since its re-election in 2019. But in his speech, Modi suddenly displayed extraordinary commitment to the NDA. He reminded listeners that the alliance is now 25 years old, having been established in March 1998 to enable the formation of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. He glossed over the fact that several initial members are now absent from its ranks.

Not only that, Modi also spoke glowingly about the deceased former Prime Minister and was also warm in his remarks on Lal Krishna Advani, sidelined by him after he assumed leadership of the party.

Modi’s new-found love for the NDA and the BJP’s alliance partners is at complete odds with his views on allies a decade ago. Back in 2012, when working on his biography, I had asked him if he was not worried that the number of BJP’s allies had dwindled from the numbers when the party led the NDA government at the Centre.

He was candid in his reply. Alliances were forged by BJP, as well as the allies, he said, to increase their own “winnability. If allies become confident that by associating with the BJP their chances will increase, that they will win more seats, they will come and join. But if they think that BJP will become a burden and that we will be able to save a few seats by going it alone, then they will not join hands with BJP”.

Not on cloud nine?

It goes without saying that the same argument holds true for the BJP as well. If they are on cloud nine and feel little need for partners, BJP leaders ignore allies, and decision-making is not only non-consultative, but also non-consensual.

This was the case with the Farm Bills that finally led to the SAD resigning from government. Not being sensitive to aspiration of its allies is also another factor for alienation from partners. This was the principal reason why Uddhav Thackeray parted ways.

The BJP’s frantic efforts to line up parties, regardless of size, on its side reflect the realisation that the party, at this stage, is unlikely to secure a majority on its own. This is a complete reversal of the consensual political sense across the board that the BJP was a near certainty to return to office in 2024.

While the BJP remains the largest party, dropping below the 272 mark is fraught with hazards because if the fall is fairly large, it would open up other political possibilities than what existed in 2014 and 2019, when there was no challenge to Modi, inside the party as well as outside.

Also read: Opposition front’s alliance INDIA now has a tagline – ‘Jeetega Bharat’

Failing to “set the agenda”?

The third and the final symptom of Modi losing the initiative is that in his speeches, too, he is using the vocabulary of the Opposition. In his address on the inaugural of the airport terminal, he used the word “shop” in response to the use of this word regularly by Rahul Gandhi.

The Congress leader, in speeches during BJY and even now, routinely refers to the need to set up a “mohabbat ki dukan” (shop of love) in the “nafrat ke bazaar”. Modi in his speech said: “Two things are guaranteed in their shops. First, they sell the poison of casteism in their shop. And second, these people indulge in unlimited corruption.”

The use of words that are routinely used and part of his adversaries’ phraseology is normally not Modi’s style. But, his use of these words, along with the aforesaid symptoms, indicates that in this round at least, Modi and his party are failing to “set the agenda” — a euphemism used by his supporters to argue that Modi sets the political framework for debate. The longer the initiative stays with the Opposition, the more difficult it will become for Modi and BJP.

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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