Who else, if not Modi, in 2019? The dominant question in most social gatherings and its many answers.
What is the alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi? That is a question dominating almost every urban, ideologically diverse social gathering these days. Liberals who question the spate of mob lynching incidents, obscurantist ideas and rising religious extremism are confronted with the TINA factor, or ‘There Is No Alternative’.
I began a social experiment to chronicle such exchanges in recent months at social hangouts. Here are some interesting ways in which the TINA-Modi curveball is thrown and answered.
The TINA question is, at once, a literal question genuinely seeking an answer, and a rhetorical question — asked for the sake of asking and silencing. And it works as an effective argument-stopper most of the time.
The question has many versions.
Are you really saying that Rahul Gandhi is an alternative? Can the outdated Gandhi-Nehru dynasty be the solution to India’s 21st-century problems? Is a hotch-potch coalition good for a sagging economy? Who else, if not Modi?
A new, freshly minted version of this TINA question from James Crabtree’s book called The Billionaire Raj is also being quoted. Business historian Gurcharan Das says in the book that in 2014, not voting for Modi was a bigger risk than voting for him.
The TINA question is often followed by a sigh and an awkward silence so thick that you can cut it with a knife.
But some do reply.
Die-hard Congress supporter
If the BJP-baiter is a Congress supporter, she will put up a valiant but desperate attempt to counter the TINA rhetoric. She will speak about the earnestness of Rahul — the ‘he is a decent guy’ argument.
Some will also rustle up that old 1980s Congress party slogan of experience and inclusion: “Sarkar chalana aata hai, pure desh se naata hai”.
And some will argue that Rahul and the Congress party must be strengthened because a strong opposition is key to a healthy democracy.
Ask a counter question
One person tried to intellectualise the TINA factor and flummox the Modi fans. That’s what liberals do, unfortunately — intellectualise everything.
He asked a diversionary, counter question: “Do you know who invented the phrase ‘there is no alternative’?”
Because nobody knew the answer, he proceeded to enlighten them. A 19th-century British philosopher Herbert Spencer often replied with “there is no alternative” when critics questioned the flaws of democracy and capitalism. The TINA factor was later adopted in popular politics by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s to defend her economic decisions, he explained.
The conversation moved away seamlessly from Modi to Britain, from Thatcher to Theresa May and then, Brexit.
TINA can and has been defeated
One professor offered a dose of political history to show that complacency isn’t healthy and that democracy always throws up an alternative.
When former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced elections in January 1977, she was supremely confident. Her challengers were in jail. People said there was no alternative to her, even after the Emergency’s horrific excesses. But she was defeated.
Later when her son Rajiv Gandhi was besieged by the Bofors corruption scam and party dissidence, pollster Prannoy Roy conducted a nation-wide opinion survey for the India Today magazine in 1988.
India Today wrote, “The message of the poll is simple and direct: because of a fragmented opposition, There Is No Alternative (TINA) to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress(I).”
Sounds just like Modi and 2019. Of course, Roy got it horribly wrong and the Congress party was defeated.
Decoding the word ‘Alternative’
“The minute you answer my criticism of Modi with TINA, you are admitting that what you have is a flawed product,” said an activist. “If you are supporting a leader because the alternative is worse or non-existent, it means you are saying that you are overlooking the leader’s flaws.”
That it is an admission of a political compromise, not a demonstration of a free, unencumbered political choice. Are they supporting Modi out of a helpless state of choicelessness (majboori) then?
The Modi voters said, “Yes, kya karen (what to do)”.
If that is so, what is it exactly that they are overlooking, went on the conversation. They are willing to overlook the religious extremist politics for the sake of economy and national security.
“That means you are willing to live with religious fundamentalism. You are what you choose to overlook and make your bed with,” said the activist. “It says something about who you are, more than what it says about your leader.”
And then she added that she was willing to live with corruption but not mob lynchings and the daily display of hateful religious bigotry.
The citizen alternative
The best answer I have heard so far is this: “We are the alternative. In a democracy, people like you and I are the alternatives, not any leader. Keep your personal politics right, stay away from casteism, religious bigotry, and don’t support injustice, discrimination when you encounter it. Continue questioning. Keep your moral compass intact. Don’t wait for the leader to define and set your moral compass.”
This answer, by a writer, even had the Modi supporters nodding in agreement.