Jairam Ramesh’s remark that PM Narendra Modi should not be demonised carries two very different suggestions. The first is newsy, full of masala, but of fleeting significance. The second is bland, but critical to thinking politics in our times.
The first way is to read his remark as a gesture of ‘soft-Moditva’, of anti-leadership rumblings within the Congress, as shuffling of feet in order to buy one’s peace with the regime, if not a preparation for joining the long queue outside the BJP office. This is how many Congress members and commentators have read his remarks and those by Shashi Tharoor and Abhishek Manu Singhvi who spoke in his defence. This is why that throwaway remark at a book launch grabbed headlines and invited criticism within the Congress.
Knowing whatever little I do about Jairam Ramesh, I would be shocked if this were to be even half-true. But these are strange times when shocking things happen at uncanny regularity. In any case, it is clear that some of the noise around his statement may well be a plea for going soft on Modi. Many Congress and opposition leaders are looking for a fig leaf to switch sides. Jairam Ramesh may have, unwittingly, offered that. But all this is of fleeting interest, the routine stuff of everyday politics.
I am interested in the second reading of that remark, as an invitation to strategic rethinking. At least on the face of it, this is what Jairam Ramesh meant. He is reported to have said: “If you are going to demonise him all the time, you are not going to be able to confront him…. Unless we recognise that he is doing things, which people recognise and which have not been done in the past, we are not going to be able to confront this guy”. This reading is of critical importance as it puts its finger on perils of anti-Modism that passes for opposition politics these days.
The three mistakes of Modi critics
Modi critics like me make at least three big mistakes. First of all, their obsession with Narendra Modi makes him a larger-than-life figure. In their desire to counter Modi’s attempt to take credit for everything positive, they end up producing a mirror image: Modi critics tend to blame Modi for everything. A lynching in some corner of the country, the failure of one agricultural policy, badly managed balance sheet in the Budget – everything is blamed on Narendra Modi. I am also guilty of this. My short book, a critique of the BJP government’s agricultural policy, was titled ‘Modi Raj Me Kisan’. Modi critics do as much publicity for him as his fawning supporters.
Second, most Modi critics suffer from knee-jerk anti-Modism. Since a policy or an action is associated with him or his government, we must oppose him. The recent Draft National Education Policy is a case in point. It may be a good document or a bad one, depending on one’s viewpoint. But it is certainly not a diabolic RSS blueprint to saffronise education. I suspect that much of the criticism of this document is because it was produced under the Modi government. Besides, Modi critics tend to have it both ways. If he travels abroad frequently, we attack him. If he were not to do so, we would have attacked him even more furiously. The trouble with this routine, knee-jerk opposition is that it loses the public. People see it for what it is: opposition for the sake of opposition.
Third, and most importantly, Modi critics fail to acknowledge Modi’s popularity and fail to understand the reasons behind it. The inability to foresee the outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was a classic illustration of this failure. No doubt, Modi’s popularity had dipped in the second half of 2018. But post-Pulwama and post-Balakot, his popularity was head and shoulder above all the opposition leaders put together. After that, the election was no contest at all. But most Modi critics were disconnected from this reality. Even after the election results, many Modi critics continue to live in denial. They find it hard to acknowledge that the BJP won, not because of any EVM manipulation but because people wanted to give Modi another chance.
Such a failure to acknowledge Modi’s popularity leaves little room to understand reasons for it. It is nearly impossible for Modi critics to see that ordinary voters may have had good reasons to vote for Modi. Just as American liberals find it impossible to believe that anyone within their senses could vote for Donald Trump, Modi critics find it impossible to make sense of an ordinary Indian voter. Modi critics find themselves in a smaller and yet smaller circle of opinion, culturally cut off from the rest of society. The end result is disbelief, anxiety and angst, but no meaningful action. This is a recipe for political paralysis.
Lessons from Turkey
What, then, should Modi critics do? For starters, we should turn our attention to Turkey. When Ates Ilyas Bassoy, the national campaign manager for Republican People’s Party (CHP), was asked about his strategy that led to the defeat of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party in the Istanbul elections this year, he said: “We had two simple rules: Ignore Erdogan and love those who love Erdogan.” Spelling out the implications of this brilliant political strategy for India would require another article. And long political debates.
It is vital that we start those debates now. For it is not just about an individual called Narendra Modi and a bunch of his critics. This is about the very future of our republic. The opposition has lost not just an election, but its sense of direction altogether. The major non-BJP parties seem to have no tactics, no strategy, indeed no doctrine to take on the BJP’s hegemony. Learning to deal with Narendra Modi is the first step towards developing a politics that could counter this hegemony.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.