Opinion | How 'Victim' Mindset, Lack Of Narrative Is Hurting The INDIA Bloc

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On Sunday, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) parties held an impressive 'Loktantra Bachao' (Save Democracy) rally at Delhi's Ramlila Maidan. It presented no narrative to counter the Modi government's policies, nor was an alternative agenda put on the table. Instead, what was apparent was a 'victim' mindset, buttressed by allegations of being targeted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dispensation. 

'Match-Fixing' Allegations

The fairness of the 18th general election was challenged too. Rahul Gandhi stated that Modi, with the help of central agencies and "four capitalists", was indulging in 'match-fixing' by arresting leaders like Hemant Soren and Arvind Kejriwal. The fact that it was the Congress that had first accused the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi of facilitating a liquor scam - in connection with which Kejriwal is behind bars today - was easily papered over. The bonhomie between the AAP and the Congress leadership at this rally perhaps underscores the extent of the latter's plummeting fortunes.

On January 25, Sam Pitroda, the Congress's overseas chief, held a virtual press conference to question the fairness of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). During the presser, however, he skirted a question on the victory of his party in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana polls, where the same EVMs were used. Also, following Kejriwal's arrest, the US, Germany and even the United Nations have questioned India's fairness. Clearly, Rahul Gandhi's frequent trips overseas are paying off. 

Ironies Abound

The rally at Ramlila Maidan was the third such event held by the INDIA bloc. On March 3, they organised a mammoth 'Jan Chetna Rally' in Patna, and a fortnight later on March 17, the parties congregated in Mumbai to mark the culmination of Rahul's Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra. An impressive rally was held in Kolkata too on March 10, but it saw the Trinamool Congress (TMC) suo motu announce names for all 42 seats in the state. The TMC had stayed away from Rahul's Mumbai rally, and no bloc partners were invited by the party in Kolkata, whose spokesman Derek O'Brien declared at Ramlila Maidan on Sunday that "Trinamool was and is with the INDIA bloc".

The Ramlila Maidan was the venue of Anna Hazare's India Against Corruption (IAC) movement in 2011, which took on the then-Congress-led Central government. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which was an offshoot of the IAC, saw the emergence of Kejriwal as an anti-corruption crusader. That the same venue on Sunday saw a rally to protest against his incarceration in a corruption case is ironic. 

A hundred kilometres away in Meerut, Narendra Modi, flanked by the BJP's Uttar Pradesh alliance partners, including newcomer Jayant Choudhury of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), launched his 2024 campaign on the plank of fighting corruption and ensuring vikas (development). The difference between the BJP's agenda and that of its opponent is stark. Negativity continues to drive the Opposition, while Modi promotes his government's achievements and projects them as a "trailer" of things to come.

Mamata Maintains Distance

The Ramlila Maidan rally was attended by Sonia Gandhi, who due to ill health rarely makes public appearances now. Accompanied by Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra, she sat beside Sunita Kejriwal and Kalpana Soren, wives of the jailed Delhi and Jharkhand chief ministers. Two empty chairs were symbolically placed on the dais for Arvind Kejriwal and Hemant Soren. Two other chief ministers, Mamata Banerjee and M.K. Stalin, were absent from the stage. No empty chairs were placed in their honour. They were represented by their respective MPs. Mamata preferred to be in Krishnanagar on Sunday to campaign for Mohua Moitra, her party's candidate who lost her membership in the 17th Lok Sabha due to a cash-for-query case. Notably, this was Mamata's first public appearance in a fortnight after she suffered a head injury at home.

Mamata empathised with Kejriwal after his arrest. However, neither she nor her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, general secretary of her party who had been active in bloc meetings, found it worth their while to be at the Ramlila Maidan rally. Derek O'Brien and a new MP, Sagarika Ghose, represented Trinamool.

By declaring candidates for all 42 seats in Bengal, the TMC in effect sounded the death knell of the bloc in the state. At Krishnanagar, Mamata said, "There is an INDIA alliance in the country. In fact, I had given the name for the alliance (sic). Once the election is over, I shall look into it. But there is no bloc with CPI (M) (Communist Party of India-Marxist) and Congress in Bengal." In Bangla, she described the alliance as a 'ghont' (confusion) and not a 'jote' (alliance).

Internal Fissures

Mamata's statement is an honest one. Her candour was not shared by other parties present at the Ramlila Maidan dais. The CPI has put up a candidate against Rahul Gandhi in Kerala's Wayanad. In Bihar, it refused to accommodate the Congress's star campaigner and youth icon Kanhaiya Kumar from Begusarai; the RJD ultimately acquiesced and allotted the seat to the CPI. In Purnea, too, the RJD showed the thumb to the Congress by turning down the candidature of Pappu Yadav, who recently merged his party with the Congress, and nominating a recent defector to the RJD. In Maharashtra, the Congress state unit is contemplating 'friendly fights' in five seats, miffed by the outcome of alliance talks.

The INDIA bloc has many fissures on the ground. Except for Mamata, however, others prefer hypocrisy to cover these clefts.

A Crisis That Could've Been Avoided?

Soren and Kejriwal's arrests have invited no censure from courts. Kejriwal avoided nine summonses since November. Had he showed up ab initio, then by now he perhaps would have been free to lead his party in the elections. The day he was arrested, the Delhi High Court refused to grant him protection from arrest. His lawyers did not approach the Supreme Court immediately. The Enforcement Directorate (ED), in turn, seized the window provided by the court's refusal and moved in. Kejriwal had time since November to prepare his narrative. But the day he was arrested, he and his party did not have a strategy ready for the eventuality.

The Congress too is frustrated because of the income tax notices and seizure of its funds by tax authorities, who are acting on court orders in matters pending since 1994. Lethargy and incoherence of Congress managers are responsible for the current crisis.

The Feeble Response To The Arrests

It wasn't as if AAP workers closed down the markets or brought transport to a standstill in protest against Kejriwal's arrest. It led to little uproar. The few hundreds who demonstrated were detained, taken to distant places, and let off. Life went as usual in Delhi. In countries abroad, including in neighbouring Sri Lanka and Pakistan, mass protests are organised to mark public angst. India's opposition, meanwhile, limits itself to posting on X, holding 200-metre-long marches in the vicinity of Parliament, and sometimes congregating at the Ramlila Maidan.

United action is not an easy undertaking for the INDIA bloc. All talk of one-on-one fights against the BJP in 400 seats has fizzled out. The BJP and its allies have finalised almost the entire list of candidates. The INDIA alliance, meanwhile, is still grappling with internal bickering and bargaining.

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired editor and public affairs commentator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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