Why is the opposition so dead? Ask any opposition leader that question and they will blame the media. “When we do something, the media doesn’t show it,” they say. So, they don’t do much these days.
There is merit in this complaint. TV news is immensely powerful and most of it has become the government’s mouthpiece. The Indian media has never been such a blatant propaganda arm of the ruling party in the living memory of most Indians.
The mass media amplifies the message so that it could reach millions of people. As the mass media ignores the opposition, we are forced to ask: do opposition parties have no other way of making their message reach the masses? Where are their party workers, their cadres, their own small magazines? Whatever happened to the culture of pamphlets and wall paintings?
Most of the Indian media is by nature pro-establishment, sometimes more, sometimes less. They go in the direction they think the levers of power are shifting to, just like many politicians and businessmen do. That is how all elites are. That is how Indians enabled the British Raj.
If the opposition worked on the ground, and created a sense that the ground was shifting, the media would automatically take it more seriously. The opposition has lost air time not just because the media has Modi-fied, but also because the opposition itself is not doing much on the ground. The opposition doesn’t know what it wants to say or how to say it.
Take unemployment for instance, rated in every survey for the last 2-3 years as the number one concern among Indians. It’s an issue that affects both central and state politics, and reflects itself through caste quota agitations. The opposition thinks the way to raise the issue is by tweeting about it, and calling TV channels to give them a sound bite. TV channels don’t run it even if they record it.
That’s about it. That’s how politics is done, according to our opposition leaders.
A smart opposition would come up with solutions to the unemployment problem, organise youth meetings to discuss job creation. A smart opposition would focus on positive campaigning, suggesting that only the opposition knows how to create jobs. A smart opposition would organise one conclave after another with start-ups and small industrialists, making the industry interact with youth, and thereby drawing the attention of the media to the campaign. The campaign could involve making lakhs of unemployed youths send their CVs to the Prime Minister, and asking them to post visuals of the act on social media.
Tweeting and giving sound bites don’t make a campaign. They can only amplify a campaign. If the opposition just tells us there is high unemployment, they’re not telling us anything new. There’s nothing newsworthy in their sound bite.
The lazy opposition wants it easy. They want to sit in their comfortable homes and offices, enjoy their Europe holidays, and have the media come and do the job of the opposition.
On 12 September, the Congress party announced it would launch a nationwide agitation from 15 to 25 October on the issues of economic slowdown and unemployment. That gives the Narendra Modi government more than a month to plan diversions and deflections.
Nothing will come out of this agitation. TV channels will do Congress-bashing, some will show tame visuals, and everyone will go home. The focus is misplaced – the Congress wants to get space in the media, not in the voter’s mind, and both are not always the same.
The Congress party claims that P. Chidambaram and D.K. Shivakumar have been arrested for political vendetta, and that they are innocent. Note how the Congress hasn’t been able to put up a single protest for them. It took Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh more than a month to go and meet Chidambaram in jail. There’s no sense of urgency or an understanding of the magnitude of the problem at hand.
Opposition leaders also complain they are unable to match the BJP’s resources. Once again, people will give the opposition money if they think it is capable of doing something. Why would anyone bet on a horse that is not even willing to race?
There’s another excuse that’s often offered. The people are not with the opposition. From demonetisation to Article 370, from one surgical strike to another, Modi has unleashed a relentless blitzkrieg of populist moves. That leaves the opposition with no space in the voter’s mind. Many go a step further and say all Hindus have become bigoted Hindutvawaadis, and there’s no space left for secular politics.
The opposition won’t go to the people with an alternate programme, and then complain the people are not with them. And if all Hindus have become bigoted Hindutvawaadis who see Modi as a Hindu Hriday Samrat, why did the BJP get only 37 per cent vote share in 2019? Why did the BJP-led NDA win only 45 per cent vote share? Why not at least 75 per cent? If voters are so high on Hindutva that they don’t care about losing their jobs, why did they not elect the BJP in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Bihar and Karnataka?
Back to school
These are all excuses the opposition has to not work hard. But now there’s a new problem. After the arrests of P. Chidambaram and D.K. Shivakumar, the opposition has got a chilling message. Modi won’t stop at just making opposition leaders run around for anticipatory bails or spend long hours with lawyers to deal with ED, CBI and the Income Tax department. These extensions of the BJP masquerading as investigation agencies are actually going to arrest opposition leaders.
The fear is making opposition leaders go underground. They don’t even want to give those sound bites these days. What they don’t understand is that they’re more likely to go to jail by being timid. Governments are afraid of putting political leaders in jail if they think jail time can make them martyrs. But when a politician does not have a mass base, when a politician is not a leader, when leaders lose their followers, the government does not fear them.
Our lazy, entitled, dynast opposition leaders might benefit by spending quality time in that great nursery of politics, the prison. If Amit Shah has them all spend some time in jail, they will lose their fear of jail, and of using Indian-style toilets. They will get to interact with some real people in jail, not the Yes Men they are otherwise surrounded with. They will also feel personally humiliated and angry, which might give them the energy to strike back. It will also unite them. Just like Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, the opposition needs some jail time to get a reality check and come together.
Views are personal.