There's a lot of talk about Banerjee’s role in weakening Congress. If so, how can you be sure of opposition convergence?

Reality is, BJP cannot be challenged by Congress on its own. But it is equally true BJP cannot be challenged by excluding Congress. Congress has to be a part of any opposition unity.

In 2022 and 2023, in India, 21 out of 28 states are going to polls. If parties put up candidates against each other, how do you expect opposition unity in 2024?

There is one set of states where the contest is directly between Congress and the BJP where other parties do not matter, like in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh or Karnataka. There are another set of states where Congress is not in the picture at all. In such states the contest is between state-level parties and the BJP. West Bengal is a classic example and so is Andhra Pradesh or Telangana. There is a third set of states where Congress is competing with the regional parties but as a junior partner, like in Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu.

In states where Congress has a presence (with a local party), a contest between Congress and their potential ally is expected. But every party will have to make some compromises if they want to defeat BJP. I believe they will do so. Some parties will join the alliance (before the 2024 poll), while some may join after the election.

You have seen BJP closely. What is the difference between the BJP of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi?

There is no similarity between the BJP of today and the BJP of 1996-2004 when Vajpayee-ji was in command. He was very loyally supported by Lal Krishna Advani. That BJP and this BJP are two different parties with only one thing in common– the name. It is still called Bharatiya Janata Party. There are many differences.

Firstly, there is nothing like a collective leadership in today’s BJP. Vajpayee was a charismatic leader but he was a democrat and thus the party was run in a democratic manner. That culture has disappeared. There is no internal democracy in BJP anymore. It is run by two persons (Narendra Modi and Amit Shah) and the party president (JP Nadda) is a formality. There is hardly any discussion on major issues, the leadership dictates and the rest follows. Secondly, Vajpayee-ji was a very popular leader, yet he was not turned into a demigod. Narendra Modi is projected at the expense of the exchequer as some kind of a messiah. Thirdly, Vajpayee-ji and Advani-ji groomed the next generation of leaders. That is how Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Govindacharya, Pramod Mahajan and – in fact – Narendra Modi emerged. Now, there is a total leadership vacuum after Modi.

What about Yogi Adityanath? He epitomized the new and aggressive Hindutva which was promised by the BJP and thus Adityanath is emerging as the leader of the next generation?

It is absolutely impossible. India will never accept him. We have seen a certain endpoint to the politics of religious polarization which can be stretched to a certain point but not beyond. After a particular point it is going to cause visible and enormous harm to both the society and the politics. Modi has a similar agenda and he is indeed a polarizing politician. But there is a difference. He is a shrewd politician. Adityanath is not. Thus, even though Adityanath is projected as the chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh, the main burden of campaign is on Modi.

But the new Hindutva– led by men like Yati Narsinghanand– is emerging. It is publicly threatening minorities and advocating attacks on former prime ministers. Are they not strengthening the BJP?

There is no social approval for this. There is a political approval.

Are they not linked?

They are linked but yet somewhat different. These people won't dare say such incendiary things had the ruling party not have sanctioned it. So there is a political intent but no societal approval. The majority of the Hindu society does not approve this and majority of the Muslim community has shown commendable restraint in the face of grave provocation.

But prime minister Modi’s popularity is not decreasing in surveys.

The popularity seems to be up only because there is no credible alternative. But a large section of Modi’s supporters are also questioning the economic mismanagement, price rise, unemployment or mishandling of Covid situation. There is also an unprecedented fear factor for those who oppose the BJP.

But these supporters finally vote for the BJP, don't they?

BJP's dedicated support base will always work for them. But we are talking about the BJP's popularity outside its core support base– which is a huge vote. It is on the decline.

Let us talk about the foreign policy. In the neighborhood, India– as it appears– is losing popularity. Though India was never very popular in the neighbourhood, now even in friendly Bangladesh, we can sense a strong anti-India sentiment.

You are right. India's relationship with all its neighbors has nose-dived. It happened because of polarizing politics of BJP. Take the case of CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act 2019) and the NRC (National Register of Citizens). To say that only particular communities can settle in India but not the Muslims is discrimination on basis of religion. This surely would displease India’s neighbours.

Secondly, in the last seven years India has done very little to integrate South Asia economically. Since 2014 there has not been one summit meeting of SAARC because India does not want it. This is because India wants animosity with Pakistan to conduct its domestic politics in anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan terms.

Thirdly, everyone knows, in 1971 Pakistan committed enormous atrocities. Yet after five decades, there is a feeling in both Pakistan and Bangladesh that they should establish normal relations, but that is not happening because the Indian government does not want it. This is not how you bring South Asia together. This is also why China is playing such a major role in South Asia.

The expectation of connecting the subcontinent may also have remained unfulfilled

Yes. When I was in Kolkata last year, I went to Petrapole. I was very disappointed that there is so little trade between India and Bangladesh at this crucial border trading point. I have been to the China-Vietnam and the China-Myanmar border. Trans-border trade has helped both the countries. Last month a bullet train from China to Laos was started connecting Singapore. The train will ultimately connect people of Southeast Asia. We too talk about connecting people in South Asia and Southeast Asia, but do not even connect with Bangladesh properly as visible in Petrapole. India could have eliminated narrow politics and moved forward to connect South Asia which it did not.