India’s national Opposition has a problem — it is a problem that was first spotted in 2014, and then got magnified in 2019. It does not have a leader with the same mass connect, political skills, and public acceptability as Narendra Modi. And till it is able to resolve this question — who will take on Modi in 2024 in what will, yet again, be a presidential-style contest? — the political script in India will be hard to alter.
Two events in the past week brought forth the Opposition conundrum. The Congress Working Committee met to take stock of its miserable electoral performance in the recent polls; party president, Sonia Gandhi, acknowledged the scale of the crisis and said that the party had to confront reality. But in the backdrop of the second wave of the pandemic, the party deferred its internal organisational election — thus leaving the question of leadership unresolved. Sonia Gandhi wants to quit and get her son, Rahul, to take charge. Rahul Gandhi is in charge of the party’s messaging and strategy, but does not want to take over officially. And the dissenters neither have a leader nor the required internal strength to challenge the Nehru-Gandhi family — and so the limbo continues.
Separately, a set of Opposition leaders, Sonia Gandhi, former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, veterans Sharad Pawar and Farooq Abdullah, chief ministers Mamata Banerjee, MK Stalin, Uddhav Thackeray, Hemant Soren, political figures from the Hindi heartland, Akhilesh Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav, and Left leaders Sitaram Yechury and D Raja, wrote a letter to PM Modi with a set of suggestions on India’s Covid management. At least three of the parties represented in the letter, the Congress, Trinamool Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, would like to see their leaders assume national power in 2024.
At this stage in a national crisis, nothing is more urgent than a democratic debate, with questions and constructive suggestions, on how India can beat the pandemic. And, so, the Opposition is right to challenge the government on its failure to anticipate the second wave and boost India’s health infrastructure sufficiently, and its flawed vaccination policy. But this is also driven, partly, by what Opposition parties sense as a possible shift in the national mood — visible in independent institutions taking on a more adversarial role, direct criticism of the Centre across platforms, and the agony-laced anger of those who have suffered and lost loved ones against what has come across as an insensitive regime.
But if the Opposition wants to move beyond the specifics of the current moment, it cannot avoid the key question which will enable a challenge in 2024 — if not Modi, then who?
Postponing the decision till after the elections did not work in either 2014 or 2019, for voters opted for what they thought would be strong and decisive leadership as opposed to a chaotic coalition headed by a weak figurehead — and repeating the same mistake in 2024 is unlikely to yield a different outcome. Postponing the decision will not work because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does better in national elections than in state elections due to Modi’s popularity, and having a credible challenger is key. And it will not work because just cobbling together state-level alliances, without a clear roadmap of who would assume national leadership, isn’t enough to win over voters (as witnessed in Uttar Pradesh in 2019).
And, so, that question will need to be answered now; all other Opposition forces will have to rally behind this mutually-agreed upon common leader; and in the next three years, this Opposition leader will have to expand his or her national appeal, with a conscious attempt at creating a brand and message and following, just as Narendra Modi did in the period between 2011 and 2014.
But arriving at a common choice is also, admittedly, the most difficult part.
In 2014, the Congress made the mistake of underestimating the power of Modi’s appeal. It did not have a prime ministerial candidate — Manmohan Singh was on his way out, Sonia Gandhi had not become PM when she had the opportunity to do so in 2004 and was not a contender, and Rahul Gandhi was campaigning but was not officially declared the PM candidate. In 2019, Rahul Gandhi was both party president and the party’s star campaigner — and thus de facto PM candidate. In 2024, while the party has not revealed its cards and internal elections may shape leadership possibilities, it will stake claim for leadership, with Rahul Gandhi the favourite to be the party face again.
The problem with Rahul Gandhi is not, contrary to what many outside the party fold think, that he is a fifth-generation dynast (voters continue to elect dynasts in India). Neither is it, contrary to what he may think himself, that the Congress organisation is weak and corrupt and cannot carry forward his message. Nor is it that he is not party president — the party can well have one leader in charge of organisational affairs, as distinct from another leader as the public face for 2024.
The main problem with Rahul Gandhi is that he is not seen as competent and does not have a political and administrative track record. To be sure, he may well be competent, but voters don’t know it and haven’t seen it. Take the last three prime ministers — Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been a parliamentarian for four decades, a foreign minister, leader of the Opposition, and party leader; Manmohan Singh lacked a mass base but had earned his spurs as a veteran technocrat turned finance minister turned leader of Opposition in the upper house and party functionary; Narendra Modi had been a Rashtriya Swayamsevak pracharak for 15 years (and irrespective of what one thinks about that role, it is hard grassroots work), a party organiser for over 13 years, and chief minister for 13 years.
Rahul Gandhi hasn’t led his party to electoral success. He hasn’t been a minister. His parliamentary record is patchy at best. How are voters supposed to know he can lead? Add to this his perceived inconsistency, in terms of commitment to the hard grind of politics, which appears to stem from his ambivalent relationship with power. Yes, Gandhi has made sensible suggestions on Covid-19, but his appeal outside the core Congress vote-base remains limited. And so, while he remains the Opposition’s most prominent face, he faces obstacles in winning across-the-board acceptability of his party, possible allies, and then Indian citizens.
On the other hand, the problem with regional leaders is that they are confined to their geographical pockets; that they are still too closely associated with their caste, regional or ethnic identity; that replicating state-level successes at the national level is difficult for any of them; and most of them lack urban and middle-class support. In addition, any leader who begins harbouring ambitions is undercut by all others — both from the Congress and other regional forces. And the BJP is only too glad to adroitly exploit these internal contradictions.
Given these difficulties, the Opposition has understandably chosen to focus on messaging and coordination, and left the most difficult question of leadership till later. But later will be too late.
To take on Narendra Modi in 2024, India’s Opposition needs to agree on its leader, one leader, in 2021