A democracy is one, only if it has a robust Opposition.
And as its actions show, the Modi-BJP combine gives two hoots for that.
So, the Opposition must learn to convince people why the BJP must go.
Else, it can count down to 2029, points out Shyam G Menon.
For those worried by the absence of an Opposition strong enough to counter the Bhartiya Janata Party -- or rather, Narendra D Modi -- the election results of December 3, 2023 would have been utterly disappointing.
What shocked were two. The continued under-estimation of the task at hand by the main opposition party, the Congress and the Modi cult, still going strong even if it means BJP-eclipsed.
Viewed from far, the reluctance the Congress showed in allowing a younger leadership to anchor proceedings in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh has resulted in what some political observers described (post polls) as a verdict foretold.
What makes this particularly terrible is that Rajasthan was lost despite good work done by the Congress state government and Madhya Pradesh having been under BJP rule for successive terms.
It won't be easy for the Gandhi family to wash its hands off this debacle.
Both the chief minister of Rajasthan (who served multiple tenures in power and yet sought to discipline his younger deputy for no more than wanting a bigger role) and the longstanding party top brass in Madhya Pradesh, have connections to the family. It won't end there.
Months ago, when a non-Gandhi party leader was made Congress president, the belief was that a professional vision would take hold.
To the extent such change wasn't felt, the party will find itself challenged to explain its pathetic showing at the recent state elections to both the opposition alliance it has dominated and the electorate, which has been desperately seeking an opposition that can take on the BJP.
For a feel of how grave the predicament comes across to Opposition watchers, one should revisit the two basic routes to containing the BJP that were always there.
The first was to defeat it in a straight battle in elections to Parliament.
The second was to fight elections well at the state level so that even if the Modi-BJP cocktail can't be checked nationally, it is checked at state level.
There would be enough state governments of different political inclination to oppose the Centre on contentious issues within our federal set-up.
With the rout the Congress faced in the recent state elections, the avenue of enhancing the number of states under rule by opposition parties has suffered a serious setback.
Sole cause for hope is Telangana, which went the Congress way. But then as many commentators have pointed out, the demographically and politically important Hindi heartland has slipped out of Congress hands.
Except for Himachal Pradesh, the Congress is absent in that geography.
The Opposition maintains a presence in this vast, highly populous region thanks to the Aam Admi Party in Punjab and Delhi, and the Mahagathbandan government in Bihar.
At the far east of the Hindi heartland, the Trinamul Congress has held steady despite recurrent attacks by the BJP.
The relatively better acceptance of the Congress in South India shows genuine worry there over what the Modi-BJP cocktail means to India as we have known it since independence.
The only way the BJP will be able to keep this chasm from widening (so that it is spared the blame of triggering the gulf) would be by making it impossible to articulate the existence of such danger.
Simply put -- by coming down harshly on political opinion and dissention. It's what Modi-BJP is famous for.
When a government rules by snuffing out criticism, the dictionary has matching descriptions for it.
All of these onslaughts on our democracy could be foreseen. And yet, the Congress went into the latest round of state elections with a political tussle on show in Rajasthan and little to make voters in Madhya Pradesh see the party differently. They even lost Chhattisgarh.
Further, the Opposition -- unified or otherwise -- is yet to throw up a personality that can take on the oratory and PR spins of Modi or lay down a down to earth, level headed challenge that exposes Modi's theatrics as hogwash.
With neither happening, for the moment, an Opposition cocktail to match the Modi-BJP combination, is missing.
For Modi-BJP (yes, it has to be written so because one is unsure which is the bigger half), the smashing electoral success of December 2023 comes timed to perfection.
The new year is just around the corner and some months thereafter, the general elections will happen.
In three big states from the demographically critical Hindi heartland, the party has shown that its organisation works.
Very importantly, it still has a face that draws in the crowds and to which it clings like a moon counting on the sun for light.
The BJP has become Modi, Modi, Modi... And this is despite the known, inherent intellectual shallowness of political cults.
Does the Opposition have anything -- ideally superior to a cult -- to match this?
For a brief while Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra and its grassroot level-impact seemed to offer an antidote for the Modi-BJP juggernaut. But with the Congress' own unwillingness to forgo its appetite for sycophancy or trade old blood for the young in crucial elections, that outreach now lay in tatters.
In this regard, the only good news heard in the aftermath of December's election results was that a platform of NGOs may try to do for the Opposition, the kind of people-connect and canvasing that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Hindutva outfits are known to do for the BJP.
Amidst this, political observers have pointed out a paradox.
It would seem that the faults heaped on the Congress, work perfectly for the BJP.
Opportunity denied to the young and the new, cost the Congress dearly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
In comparison, even if the BJP has new faces, it remains at heart a purveyor of traditions that are centuries old. It is an ambassador of conservatism.
Where is youthfulness, modernity or change in that milieu? Similarly, sycophancy around the Gandhis is quickly criticised. But if not extreme sycophancy, what is the Modi cult?
Perhaps the Congress and the wider Opposition must understand that instead of trying to outdo the BJP in conservative Hindutva, it should make a winning package of liberalism for after all, the only ones hankering for relief from Modi-BJP (and thereby praying for a robust opposition) are the liberal-minded and the minorities.
And as regards sycophancy and cult, they should be highlighted for exactly what they are -- the refuge of the insecure who don't rest till a whole world looks like them.
Unfortunately, neither the Congress nor the larger Opposition have understood those seeking them. As long as they don't do that, the Opposition will remain old wine in new bottle.
It is high time the Congress realised that the challenges faced by the country -- the situation the BJP is pushing India into -- far outweigh the fortunes of any one Opposition party in 2024 and most of all, the Congress' self-anointed right to see itself as the main Opposition party or the party offering the next prime minister.
It should right-size its ego to the fact that it is in power in three important states -- Karnataka, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh -- and settle down to being a partner in the Opposition alliance and be its secretariat.
A democracy is one, only if it has a robust Opposition. And as its actions show, the Modi-BJP combine gives two hoots for that.
So, the Opposition must help itself. It must learn to graduate from social media-worthy jibes at Modi and BJP to attracting crowds and convincing people why the BJP must go.
Else, it can spend the new year counting down to 2029. And knowing how being in power matters for politicians, the longer its tenure in wilderness, the more our Opposition will shrink.
The loser is democracy.
Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com