Capturing the Centre-Left: Is Akhilesh Up the Street?

In Akhilesh Yadav

By Dr DK Giri

The Indian politics is unprecedentedly polarised impacting each sector of our country and each walk of life. The ruling BJP represents a Right-wing populist as well as a conservative strand, and the Congress a Left-wing status quoist one. Both now run counter to the Indian culture which is based on the middle-of-the-road and often a consensual trait which is broadly internationally called Centre-Left. The stability of the system and harmony in the society is maintained at the Centre, whereas progress is made through a Centre-Left strategy. Sadly, the present ruling regime has thrown Indian politics into a binary through its systematic polarisation, that is, either you are with us, or you are the enemy of the nation, you are a nationalist of our kind or you are anti-nationalist; we are the majority and you are in minority and so on.

We have just witnessed the incredible incident in Capitol Hill, the so-called citadel of democracy. The visuals of white supremacist Trump supporters storming the Congress building and causing mayhem were too hard to swallow. The pathetic sights of the law-makers cowering under the tables and behind the doors were alarming, to say the least. All these happened due to polarisation between ‘us and them’ whites and the rest, engineered by no other than the incumbent President himself. Small wonder, he is facing impeachment for the second time in his tenure of four years. It is another thing that the institutions of democracy fought back swiftly to restore order and exposed the President attempting a non-military coup.

The lesson from the ‘greatest democracy’, the United States of America, is to strive for building robust institutions, creating informed citizenry and initiating felicitous processes which will sustain democracy.  If not, democracy could devour its children, the incompetent and ill-informed citizens under the spell of Right-wing populist leaders. The scenario is not different in many other countries: Turkey under Erdogan, Brazil under Bolsonaro, Hungry under Orban, Russia under Putin, even Britain under Johnson and India under Modi. But only difference is populism prevails in those countries without such polarisation as witnessed in US.

Coming back home, polarisation seems to be complete. Political discourse, debates in the media, in work places, in the universities and other public forums are centred on whether you are with the right-wing BJP or against it. The dilemma however, is if you are against BJP, what is your alternative. By default, the Indian National Congress, being the biggest non-BJP party is seen as the alternative to BJP. But in a binary politics both parties are on the extreme Left and Right and are hard to embrace. They resemble the joke that Donald Trump was told by his doctor that he had two chambers in his brain – Left and Right. As Trump reasoned with his doctor that this is normal with any human being, the doctor exclaimed, “but there is nothing left in your right, and nothing right in your left.” To draw another metaphor, accepting BJP or Congress is like asking someone, “Would you like to be run over by a truck or a train?”

Obviously, Congress is being influenced by the Communists in India. They have entered into a pre-election alliance in West Bengal whereas they are in direct opposition to each other in Kerala. This is incomprehensible as the common enemy of both is BJP which is pulling all stops to enter West Bengal. Even the first UPA government was backed by Communists until the latter withdrew support following the nuclear deal between India and US. It is no secret that Communists influenced quite a few decisions during their alliance with ruling dispensation between 2004-2008.

In a leadership based politics Narendra Modi is the tallest leader like perhaps Indira Gandhi was in early 1970s. Even if Congress is perceived by default as the main opposition, it pales into insignificance when Rahul Gandhi is projected as the alternative to Narendra Modi. Historian and a political commentator Ramchandra Guha said, “The only qualification of Rahul Gandhi for leading over a century-old Congress Party is that he is the blood-relation of former Prime Ministers – son of Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of Indira Gandhi and great-grandson of Nehru.” He adds that Rahul’s incompetence is seen all over, he shrunk the party to 50-odd seats the Parliament, not even an official Opposition, lost his ‘family borough’ in Amethi and migrated to Wayanad in Kerala.

What is the alternative to BJP and Prime Minister Modi? To be sure, the country cannot afford to have another term of BJP in government as it has destroyed our economy, divided the society in the middle, disrupted the institutions and distanced our close friends in the neighbourhood and elsewhere. However, on an optimistic note, no leader is infallible however powerful one is. Many authoritarian leaders have fallen under the weight of their own contradiction, arrogance and reckless overconfidence. But that is a fatalist position, waiting for things to happen. Political leadership need not bank on such providence like perhaps Congress is doing.

The leadership might emerge from the civil society behind whom the Opposition forces could rally. It did happen in 1975-77 with Jaya Prakash Narayan, who had given up politics but re-emerged from retirement to take over the leadership to fight the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi. Such a possibility may not be ruled out, but again it is awaiting such a leader to emerge from somewhere. Let us, in the meantime, reckon with existing forces, we could pontificate on the choice of such a leadership.

Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal a courageous and a combative leader, credited with ousting 32-year old hegemony of Communists in Bengal is one such prospect. But she is a fragment of Indian National Congress, stuck inevitably in Bengal politics and is reluctant to see beyond. Naveen Patnaik is a figure with an aura of honesty and integrity, in contrast with the heavily-corrupt and debauched leadership of JB Patnaik, the then Chief Minister belonging to Congress Party. But Naveen is frail, ageing and is Orissa bound. Jagan Mohan Reddy, who created history in Andhra Pradesh by sidelining TDP, BJP and Congress, is a raw hand, having first term as a Chief Minister. Sharad Pawar is a veteran, the tallest leader in the Opposition, could lead the charge against Modi and he might, but again, he is unwell and ageing. That leaves Akhilesh Yadav, the former Chief Minister of the biggest state of the country.

Akhilesh Yadav, the youngest of the lot among the opposition leaders, representing the largest state with maximum number of Members of Parliament, leading a Centre-Left socialist party, foots the bill to be an alternative to Modi. He has many pluses going in his favour. If he is unable to emerge as the opposition leader replace Modi, it is his lack of self-confidence, strategic planning and reluctance to sound out his purpose. He leads a Centre-Left party appropriate to current Indian politics, he has the experience of leading the biggest state for five years; his ideology is part of the biggest international political force called social democracy or progressive politics. He represents a social justice platform which incorporates the majority of population in electoral terms, and encompasses everyone in its fold. This ideology builds consensus by encouraging synergetic partnership between the individuals and institutions of state, business and the civil society, cutting out the adversarial, irreconcilable left and right forces in the binary.

Organisationally, Akhilesh Yadav has to rethink whether he should spend all his time in Uttar Pradesh regaining his position as the Chief Minister or he should step out to build the party across the country. Regional leaders like the ones mentioned above including him strive to retain their stronghold in their respective states before they could move beyond them. This is a strategy which may not work any longer. Owing to the radical change in the communication technologies, most events are national in terms of publicity and reactions of the people.

The overriding issues are national security, foreign direct investment, international cooperation, which are all handled at the national level. Also, each regional leader is pitted against the Prime Minister Modi as the lead campaigner in each election; council, state or national.  In order to counter Modi, each leader including Akhilesh has to raise their profile to the national level. This means they will have to react to each of the national issue, comment on foreign, economic and security policy and other international developments involving India.

Akhilesh Yadav has had adequate international exposure unlike many others with his education abroad. He is capable of commenting on the international developments. At national level, he is the All India President of Samajwadi Party. But is he behaving as one? Not really. One has heard grievances from Samajwadi leaders from other states that their All India President hardly visits them. That is not good for the morale of the leaders and cadres in other states than Uttar Pradesh.

In management, the principle is, “pitch your tent high” so that if you slip down a bit you are still achieving considerable height. Likewise, in politics, in order to retain the base in the state, one needs to play at national level. Also, people in Uttar Pradesh, by virtue of being the largest population, sending highest number of MPs to the Parliament would like to see their leader at the top of national politics. That is why perhaps even Modi came to Uttar Pradesh to become a Member of Parliament before being the Prime Minister.

To sum up, Akhilesh has the brighter chance than any other leader to be the Opposition face against Narendra Modi. He has to convince himself that this is the call he must take to retrieve his base in Uttar Pradesh and meet the aspirations of his supporters from the state and from across the country. Three things are needed to succeed in politics – a message (samvad), an organisation (sangathan), and resources (sansadhan). Akhilesh has all three of them which he has to upgrade to a national level. Great are the leaders who grab the opportunity with both their hands when it knocks at their door. One wished that Akhilesh Yadav senses this historic opportunity and heeds the calling.

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