Returning to national politics after a sizeable ‘Afghan-Taliban’ break, we raise three questions. With the caution that the first two will be irrelevant unless we square up to the third first. Here we go:
• Is Narendra Modi beatable, or unbeatable, sort of cast-in-titanium as I might have described him sometimes, not merely Teflon-coated?
• If he’s beatable, what will it take to defeat him? A face, a slogan, a manifesto, an ideology, or all of the above?
• Is anyone even trying to beat Narendra Modi?
Hand on your heart, face up to the third first. Who among the opposition maharathis is working on defeating him nationally?
Rahul Gandhi has the party with the second largest vote-base in the country. And too many would jump instinctively to say but hey, Rahul himself doesn’t seem ready. That is ducking the larger question: Is the Congress party ready? Infighting, dissensions, weakening grip over the states are pains all parties endure in a long spell out of power. But does the party have a face, a slogan, a manifesto, or even an ideology to challenge Modi?
Sharad Pawar said the Congress is like an old feudal (zamindar) who’s lost his lands but hangs on to his haveli and no longer has the wherewithal to maintain it. But he’s seen decaying old parties, unlike the feudals, revived and rebuilt. It’s happened in India and elsewhere in the democratic world. There was the new Labour, the new Republicans, the always renewable centrist Democrats. And why go so far? The new BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Any resemblance with the old, please go and check with L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi.
As in the market of consumer goods, in the cut-throat competition of politics, the first thing a challenger needs is a clear product differentiation. Today, the Congress is confused about its ideology — hard secular, or Hindutva Lite? Hard Left, or calm centrist? Or slogan: A new garibi hatao or chowkidar chor hai? Who knows.
I know what I am saying will trigger its many supporters — it still collects 20 per cent of all votes in the country, which is more than the next six parties together. But if so, please do write in about 1,200 words, that is as many words as this column generally contains, how you think your product is different from Modi and his BJP. At ThePrint, we will be happy to publish it.
The Congress has to first accept the deep crisis and how, increasingly, its committed voters are looking for alternatives. It isn’t necessarily the BJP. Its 20 per cent national voter base has been impregnable even in the 2014 and 2019 debacles. But, its leaders know it was more earlier, and the erosion began way before Modi.
Some has gone to the BJP, especially some of the OBCs and Dalits in the heartland. But the rest is being salami-sliced by other, much smaller anti-BJP parties, particularly with more credible claims to being secular. Mamata Banerjee has vacuum-cleaned the voter base in West Bengal, and for practical purposes, is already the new Congress — in fact Congress-plus-Left — in Tripura.
Its other bastion of old Andhra is now totally lost to those who used to be its own, like in Mamata’s case. In Tamil Nadu, M.K. Stalin will be checking the use-by date on his alliance with the Congress on a weekly basis. Kejriwal is the Congress in Delhi, just a lot stronger, and is now eyeing its Fortress Punjab. Patiently, AAP is infiltrating and building a foothold in its many surviving bastions, Uttarakhand and Goa included.
What about the rest? Stalin comes across as a nice enough guy. For a lot on the anti-Modi side, he passes the ‘mera neta aisa ho’ test. Tamil Nadu is also among our five largest states, with Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Bihar, in its share of seats in the Lok Sabha. But, does he count outside his state?
None of the anti-BJP leaders in the heartland count today. Mayawati, we aren’t even sure we can safely call anti-BJP. None of the Yadavs is a challenge. Nitish? Would he want to challenge Modi?
Temperamentally, there are two leaders with the strength, skill and will-to-power to fight Modi. Sharad Pawar isn’t one of these. They are Mamata Banerjee and Kejriwal. It’s a bit early in the evolution of Kejriwal’s party to back his formidable cult. But, being the youngest of the lot, he has time. In fact, he’s younger than all other key leaders in the country except one. But that one, Yogi Adityanath, is in the BJP.
Mamata Banerjee’s defeat of Modi-Shah was of enormously greater significance than Kejriwal’s repeat success in Delhi. She’s still fighting them harder than any other leader in the country. She’s also right when she mocks other opposition leaders for being quiet or guarded, probably in the fear of the agencies. She’s building traction at a larger level. But her political reach is still geographically limited.
She isn’t old by the standards of Indian politics — she’s a few years younger than Modi — but she cannot easily scale up a purely Bengali party into a pan-national one. Unless, an opportunity for a leveraged buyout comes up. Will the shareholders of the largest opposition political party revolt and ask for a change of CEO? Forget it.
Where are we then, with an answer to the third question we had raised? There are many who can beat Modi, but only in their respective boroughs. Some might have the smarts to pool forces together to wrest power from the BJP, as in Maharashtra. But nationally, across states, nobody has the fuel to outrun Modi. None can, without the Congress party’s 20 per cent vote as initial capital.
Can the Congress change? We don’t know. Can it play the venture capitalist and invest its vote capital in someone more likely to challenge Modi credibly? It won’t.
How do we answer the first two questions then?
First of all, anybody in a democracy is beatable. The history of democracy is dotted with the decline of those who believed — and for good reason — that they were unbeatable. Take Donald Trump as the most recent example, although America isn’t the ideal comparison for India.
If we look back on our own politics, we find more relevant comparisons. Did Indira Gandhi believe she could be beaten in 1977? Did Rajiv Gandhi think he would sit in the opposition in 1989 after his incredible 1984 sweep? Did Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his people believe the 2004 poll would throw any result other than a larger majority for his NDA?
There is one thing common to these dramatic reversals. In each case, no challenger defeated them. It was instead the unbeatable leader who defeated themselves. Indira Gandhi with her Emergency arrogance, Rajiv with his many missteps, and Vajpayee with his party’s callous loss of coalition partners.
Is the opposition now going to sit back hoping Modi will defeat himself? Bad news, but there are no signs yet. He and his party are constantly addressing and protecting their base, campaigning for every state as if a question of life and death. They are happy to fight the opposition one state at a time, never mind if they lose the odd one.
Anybody who talks of a third front, a non-Congress coalition, is giving Modi a walkover. A coalition under the Congress, who will lead it? For more than two years now Congress hasn’t even found someone to lead itself.
Here’s a final thought. Does someone in the opposition have it in them to play electoral jujitsu with Modi, use his strengths against him, combine diverse forces and defeat, or at least greatly weaken him, in one state crucial to his party first? Say, Uttar Pradesh? That someone might have a different answer to our first two questions.