If the acrimony continues, it would ensure Hindu right’s victory for the third straight term in 2024.
A recent public spat between India’s main opposition party Indian National Congress and a powerful regional party has once again underscored that left-to-centre parties are far from fighting the 2014 national election in unison and nowhere near throwing a tough electoral challenge to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The spat between Congress and an important member of a future coalition All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) broke out at a time when India is stepping into its five-yearly election cycle.
Although both parties are anti-right political parties, they were expected to stitch an alliance to resuscitate a non-existent opposition coalition to stop the march of their common rival – the BJP-led Hindutva brigade.
AITC has emphatically defeated the centrally ruling BJP recently in West Bengal, the third-largest province in India.
For regional analysts, it would have been a lethal partnership if they join hands as a weak Congress is still the main opposition in most of India’s 28 provinces while AITC’s chief, a firebrand Bengali woman Mamata Banerjee, is considered to be the grittiest of challengers of Narendra Modi, the prime minister.
However, within a week of being sworn in as the chief minister of Bengal for the third time, Banerjee published an article in her party’s mouthpiece and indicated that Congress “cannot be allowed” to lead an opposition coalition in 2024.
Days before she penned the piece,Banerjee’s party engineered splits in Congress in at least three states of India – Goa, Tripura and Assam – and allegedly lured Congress leaders away by offering nominated membership in India’s upper house.
Eventually a public spat broke out between a senior minister of Congress Bhupesh Baghel and AITC’s leadership, with both sides exchanging barbs on social media, exposing the fault lines in the anti-BJP camp.
If the acrimony continues, it would ensure Hindu right’s victory for the third straight term in 2024. It may also hasten India’s transformation from a religion-neutral to a theocratic state with unequal access to democratic provisions.
It is difficult to argue against AITC's ambitious expansion plans and Congress' refusal to accept Banerjee as the leader of the future coalition, despite their common disdain for the BJP.
In her career spanning over four decades, Banerjee defeated the left – in power for three decades – and the right, twice, in West Bengal, despite being acutely confronted by Modi in her home turf.
The victories catapulted Banerjee from one among a dozen top Indian leaders to a position of preeminence when she was considered by all – from pundits to politicians – as the opposition’s main leader against Modi in the 2024 poll.
Realising that she may have an outside chance to lead the opposition, Banerjee is exploring options to form her own coalition with the support from a section of disgruntled Congressmen and self-styled regional leaders. She is even accruing support from a tiny section of the BJP annoyed with Modi.
Such a formula to bring together a mishmash of opposing political forces to form a ruling coalition has worked in the past as the fulcrum of Indian politics oscillates between tenures of strong centrist parties like Congress or BJP to small but temporarily powerful dispensations like Janata Party or Janata Dal.
Among them, Janata Party and Janata Dal produced six of 18 Indian prime ministers.
Mamata Banerjee is working hard to emerge as a similar, non-centrist, third alternative to Congress and the BJP.
For Congress, it is difficult to accept Banerjee as the leader of the opposition as the party – as yet – is the main opposition to the BJP despite a shaky leadership.
Rahul Gandhi – Congress’ former president who is expected to make a comeback as the party chief – is interpreted as "a well-intentioned dilettante" who is not tough enough to take on Modi who routinely projects his combative resilience.
But, despite having a non-aggressive leader, Congress is either in power or the main opposition party in most of India’s 28 states. No other party – in the opposition – has such an outstanding footprint. Congress needs to bag at least a hundred of 543 seats in the national poll for the coalition to defeat the BJP.
While Banerjee is aware of the value of the grand old party, it seems to be her best opportunity to lead the opposition. In case the opposition wins, the leader of the opposition – Gandhi or Banerjee – would emerge as the prime ministerial candidate.
As of now, Banerjee’s party is occupying the third spot in terms of political perception after BJP and Congress. To challenge the BJP, Banerjee first needs to displace the Congress and thus her objective is to accrue enough support from the breakaway Congress and non-Congress leaders to lead the coalition.
India has witnessed a convergence of religion-neutral and Hindutva-driven politics over the last decade. The convergence made the movement of political leaders from the left to the right or vice versa seamless than ever before.
Top Congress or AITC leaders – considered secularists – made a beeline for the BJP offices and even the Communist party members joined the right in large numbers. Important leaders of the Hindu right joined the AITC as the wall between the religion-neutral politics and political Hindutva disappeared.
With the rise of the BJP, all ‘secular’ anti-BJP political leaders from Rahul Gandhi or Mamata Banerjee to M K Stalin, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu whose father named him after Soviet Communist leader Joseph Stalin, turned overtly religious. The growing attachment of the anti-right leaders to their faith has stopped them from adopting any major political programmes when the minorities – predominantly the Muslims – are targeted.
Following the 2020 Delhi riot when more than 50 people – mostly Muslims – were killed, the parties largely remained silent. When Indian administered Kashmir’s special status was revoked in 2019 or when many Indians were branded as "doubtful citizens" or plain foreigners and sent to detention centers, not even one discernible political event to resist the unilateral action was visible. Recent attacks on Muslims went unnoticed.
Few weeks ago, when a government photographer was seen stomping the body of a Bengali Muslim man in east Indian state of Assam the opposition carefully worded its response, albeit locally.
This is the post-ideology moment of India when all parties propagate the same faith in public life by promoting Hindu ‘way of life’ and refuse to condemn the atrocities committed against the religious minorities or steady dilution of minority rights. This is possibly the biggest success of Modi and the BJP when religion-neutral politics was replaced by a faith-based one within a decade.
Following the demise of Communism in 1989, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued in his much-debated essay The End of History that the rise of liberal democracy has led to “end of mankind’s ideological evolution.” In India, another victory for the BJP in 2024 would decisively decelerate its ideological exploration.
It would thus be a step forward towards a Hindu Rashtra or state by 2047 when India completes one hundred years of its independence, noted Sunil Ambekar, an activist of Hindu nationalist social organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
In his book The RSS Roadmaps for the 21st Century, Ambekar indicated that by the centenary year, “the merger” of the RSS and Indian society would be “as complete as the mixing of sugar in milk.”
The RSS “would become coterminous with all of Indian society and the need for it to exist as a distinct entity would be obviated”, noted Ambekar in his authoritative study.
The management of Congress and the AITC are as yet hopeful of striking a deal before the national poll. The other opinion is India – as yet a secular state by the definition of its constitution – for all practical purposes, has emerged as a Hindu state and the politicians from the left to the centre are aligning themselves with the reality for the fear of losing popular support.
The acrimonious division between Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee is only fueling the consolidation of a Hindu state.