On Friday, when Congress leaders, including the Gandhi siblings, were all over TV screens, agitating against price rise, unemployment and GST on essential items, a video blogger posted an interesting meme. It showed a common man, aka aam aadmi, getting beaten by another wearing a saffron scarf—supposedly the government. As a bystander, the Opposition intervenes, the man getting thrashed pushes him away. “It’s my government beating me, who are you? Get out of here.” Then, there comes a TV reporter; “As you can see, people are suffering atrocities…. But the Opposition party is a mute spectator, not fulfilling its responsibility….”
Congress leaders must be loving this meme. For one, it shows the media targeting the Opposition for the government’s mistakes. More importantly, it’s a veiled rebuke to the janata for being in love with the Narendra Modi government even when they suffer. This is exactly what one hears from Congress leaders in their private conversations. And it’s not just Congress leaders who are despondent. Even West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on her home turf last year, seems to have her best hope in Modi’s party not getting a full majority in 2024.
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Indian Opposition is confused
There was a time when a steep rise in the price of one single commodity—onion—would bring down governments. Prices of several essential items have hit the roof now but there are no spontaneous demonstrations or agitation anywhere! Priyanka Gandhi Vadra might have jumped over a barricade, been dragged into a police van and Rahul Gandhi might have been detained in a police station, but there was no aam aadmi coming out on the roads to show solidarity.
So, what does the Opposition do if the people remain unimpressed even when they take up their causes. As a Congress MP told this author, “You people (media) keep saying the Opposition has no narrative. We can only expose the government’s failures. Modi did exactly that in 2014. You can say he had Gujarat model to sell. But Rahul Gandhi can’t sell the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) model that was rejected by voters. It’s easier to say Opposition has no narrative.”
The MP and his colleagues in the Opposition camp aren’t getting the point. They are telling the people why they should vote out the Modi government. But they are not telling them why they should reject Modi and elect Rahul Gandhi or Mamata Banerjee or Arvind Kejriwal. Everything they say or do to attack Modi ends up exposing their own vulnerabilities. Let’s look at the Opposition’s line of attack on the Modi government and see where its leaders stand as an alternative for voters.
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Senseless attacks on Centre
First, failure to manage the economy. The fact is Covid-19 has given the government a good excuse to erase any questions about the past. As for the situation at present, pro and anti-establishment experts have their convenient facts and figures, just enough to confuse the aam aadmi. Even if the people are in economic distress, who would they trust more than Modi to make things right—Gandhi, Banerjee, Kejriwal or K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR)? The Congress held agitations on price rise and unemployment on Friday but gone are the days when onion prices brought down governments.
The Hindu-CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey during 2022 assembly elections suggested that price rise and unemployment did concern the people but didn’t swing their voting behaviour. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, 38 per cent respondents listed development as the single most important voting issue, compared to seven per cent for unemployment and six per cent for inflation.
In Uttarakhand, four-fifths of the respondents said that unemployment and inflation had increased in the last five years, but it obviously didn’t matter much in the end.
This is not to suggest that the people don’t bother about the state of the economy. It’s just that even if they are economically so distressed by 2024 that they look around for Modi’s alternative, they might not find leaders with a creditable track record in economic management.
The second charge of the Opposition is that Modi/BJP/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) play communal, Hindu majoritarian politics, and are killing India’s pluralistic ethos. Well, and how are Opposition leaders countering the majoritarian politics? Rahul Gandhi becomes a janeu-dhari Brahmin. Mamata Banerjee recites Chandi path and starts giving stipends to priests. Arvind Kejriwal performs Diwali puja at a replica of the Ayodhya temple in Delhi and ensures that it is live telecast—with taxpayers’ money. Most of these Opposition leaders went silent when shots were fired at Asaduddin Owaisi’s vehicle in the run up to UP elections.
The first and last time Rahul Gandhi hosted an Iftar party was in 2018. And the last time he went to Ayodhya was in 2016. Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka is witnessing a spurt in communal violence, with a Hindu and two Muslims losing lives in what’s seen by the police as ‘communal’ and ‘retaliatory’ killings. Rahul Gandhi visited Karnataka last week but stayed away from Dakshina Kannada, choosing to deliver homilies elsewhere about the need for peace and harmony.
The so-called torchbearers of secularism in India—the Gandhis, the Mamatas and the KCRs—seem to be confused. They wouldn’t visit the under-construction Ram temple in Ayodhya. Nor would they visit the mosque under construction in Dhannipur, 30 kilometres from the temple. Call it Opposition leaders’ neo-secularism that appeals to neither the Hindus nor the Muslims.
The third charge of Opposition leaders is that the RSS/BJP is ‘playing havoc’ with institutions—from the election commission to the judiciary, educational and cultural institutions, the central investigation agencies et al. Some of that is for all to see. The problem is that the Opposition’s charges resonate with a select group of Left-liberal intelligentsia, at best. For ordinary voters, they are too complex and too distant from their daily lives to connect with.
How does it matter to them if a former associate of a Telugu Desam Party leader or a former legal counsel of a powerful BJP minister or a man with an RSS background becomes a judge in higher judiciary? What do these ordinary voters make of the alleged political vendetta through central agencies when they see bundles of high-value notes recovered from former West Bengal minister Partha Chatterjee’s associates on TV screens? How do they judge central agencies when Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal alleges they could frame his deputy, Manish Sisodia, in a fake case and then Sisodia demands that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conduct a probe against a former Lieutenant-Governor?
Opposition leaders are probably able to convince some of their political, ideological fellow travellers in drawing rooms, university campuses, seminars and workshops. But their big talks about the capture of institutions simply go over the heads of those who matter—the voters.
Opposition’s fourth charge against the Modi government is that it distributes the poor’s money among the rich. Well, people getting free ration and/or money in their accounts under different schemes don’t seem to be bothered, going by how they have been voting.
The fifth charge is that the Modi government has compromised national security. For the Opposition leaders who keep rueing the electoral impact of surgical strikes and the Balakot air strike, targeting PM Modi over national security is a tad ambitious. Even if the Modi government is on the backfoot over the Chinese army’s transgressions into Indian territory, it hasn’t dented his image. Talk about the Chinese intrusions in villages and people tell you how Modi has made China cringe with fear. Then they see how Rahul Gandhi endorses a book that says China could defeat India in 10 days if there is a war in near future.
How many Indians would want to vote for an Opposition leader with such an opinion about India’s military might?
The Opposition parties need political imagination to corner the Modi government. Their attempt to shorten Modi’s line by cutting it isn’t working, predictably. And they haven’t shown the willingness or capability to draw a bigger line. They don’t seem to know what may work against Modi and what may not. So, they keep raising one issue a day and forgetting them the next day–from demonetisation to electoral bonds, Pegasus, Chinese transgressions, Agnipath scheme, corrupt ministers, price rise and so on and so forth.
What India’s former envoy Ronen Sen had said about opponents of the Indo-US nuclear deal is acquiring a new meaning—headless chicken.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)