Instead of debating who Modi’s principal challenger should be, the Opposition needs to craft a counter-narrative to Hindutva
There is ferment in the Opposition space on who will lead the Opposition in the upcoming 2024 election. Implicit in this ferment is the idea that there needs to be one principal challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This idea has some justification. With increasing complexity of governance and fragmentation of public discourse, personalisation of elections has become a way to simplify the choices for the voter. It is felt that this principal challenger will be the Opposition’s answer to the question, ‘If not Modi, then who?’ However, this is only half the question. The more substantive question is, ‘If not Hindutva, then what?’ It is only by articulating an electorally salient counter-narrative that the response to the question ‘if not Modi, then who?’ can emerge.
Major strands of the discourse
The Opposition discourse has two discernible strands. The first is that the Modi government is ‘killing democracy’ by upending norms on Centre-State relations and parliamentary procedures and toppling governments through the misuse of central agencies and money. However, it is unclear whether these issues, especially in their present articulation, are the basis of an electorally resonant agenda. Not only is there some preference for a strongman, but the Opposition has also not been able to showcase that predatory tactics are somehow unique to the Modi Government. The second strand is an aggregation of grievances against the Government. Inflation, unemployment, economic slowdown and pandemic mismanagement are important but the articulation lacks an overarching framework and the Opposition’s tendency to get in the weeds on a range of issues ends up as noise instead of undermining Mr. Modi’s credibility.
What is missing is a clear counter-narrative with a pan-Indian imagination. This is a central contradiction in the Opposition ranks and among liberals. Other than state welfare, the Opposition has no narrative to catch the imagination of the electorate. The problems with welfare as a national narrative are manifold. First, the narrative is not adequately different from the narrative of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which mixes welfare and Hindutva. Second, the state has a poor track record of implementing its own mandate. Third, welfare is not aspirational. The youth who spend a lot of time on social media cannot feel excited about an unemployment allowance of ₹3,500 a month.
Regional parties have been able to fight against the BJP juggernaut by doubling down on their regional identity but this makes it difficult for them to set a coherent narrative on the national stage. A strong cultural identity or a core caste base can be the basis of victory at the State level but does not have the carrying capacity for a national narrative. The Janata Dal (United) leader, Nitish Kumar, realised this and sought to use prohibition as a way to transcend Bihar’s borders but his own opportunism undercut his national aspirations. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has a more versatile narrative — a welfare model driven by the proceeds of savings from honest governance. However, this cannot bring all the Opposition parties together since this requires positioning AAP as a uniquely honest party among its peers.
An agenda that confuses people
Failing in its own national narrative, the Opposition is lapsing into an agenda set by the BJP — of overt Hinduism and hyper-nationalism. The Opposition may attempt to provide nuance within this framework but nuance neither lends itself well to mass communication nor is it an electorally salient strategy — voters may get confused. Most importantly, this strategy seems to concede that Hindus, as long as they are ‘good’ Hindus, have some special right to rule India, instead of holding the non-negotiable bottom line that India belongs equally to all Indians, with citizenship conferred by birth and not religion.
This brings us back to the question, if not Hindutva, then what? It is clear that the Opposition needs a coherent national narrative to mobilise public opinion. The national election is not an aggregate of different State elections. It is also facile to say that Mr. Modi got only 37% of the vote in 2019 because the BJP constructed its majority by securing over 50% vote share in 16 States. This underscores the limits of a plank constructed entirely around anti-BJPism because even if the Opposition had come together, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. The next step then is not backroom parleys to anoint the Leader of the Opposition but deliberation on a narrative and collaboration on political programmes. Public leaders lose legitimacy if they frame their personal ambitions without a broader appeal to public interest. In the absence of an expansive people’s agenda, this is a danger to the Opposition now.
Ruchi Gupta is co-founder and director, Future of India Foundation, and Advisor, Samruddha Bharat Foundation. Twitter: guptar
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