N Sathiya Moorthy Chennai
11 January 2024
What the INDIA alliance needs is neither a counter to Modi’s tall personality and undiminished charisma nor a counter-narrative to his Hindutva agenda, now centred on the Ayodhya temple consecration on January 22, argues N Sathiya Moorthy.
Leaving other partners out of it for the moment, the self-anointed Congress leader of the anti-BJP INDIA combine has finally decided to boycott the Ayodhya consecration on January 22. Rather than tackling the issue head on, the nation’s weakened grand old party, one way or the other, has now fallen back on the Puri Shankaracharya, calling it a political affair.
In doing so, the seer also criticised the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party for rushing the consecration of an incomplete building only for political (read: electoral) reasons. The Congress has clung onto it.
However, in faraway Karnataka, where the Congress is the ruling party, strongman Deputy Chief Minister D K Shivakumar has confirmed day-long pujas that day. All of it reflecting remnants of the ‘umbrella organisation’ nature of the party during the freedom movement and beyond.
If the Congress or any other partner in the INDIA combine thought that they should and could take the BJP-NDA and Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi head-on in the Lok Sabha polls of 2024 on the Hindutva plank, as centred on Ayodhya for a second time in three decades, they are wrong.
One generation after the forgotten ‘rath yatra’ of even more forgotten L K Advani for elections 91, if Hindutva is the election issue, they don’t stand a chance. That is precisely what the BJP is attempting, as if they have more faith in religious politics than Modi’s achievements on the ground.
The INDIA combine has a successful template to fall back on, if one is needed and if one could prove useful and purposeful.
Sonia Gandhi’s ‘Aam Aadmi’ call in 2004 took the wind out of the then ruling BJP’s ‘India Shining!’ campaign.
It even laid the foundation for the Congress-led UPA to win a second term in 2009, especially around Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s achievements.
To the Indian voter at the time, the Hindutva portrayal of Dr Singh as a ‘dumb doll’, which the late Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia had coined for Indira Gandhi, did not matter.
They did not see Rahul Gandhi as a ‘Pappu’ as the BJP’s IT wing and its social media activists (real and fake) made him out to be, in 2004 or 2014.
Granting that the Congress-UPA lost in 2014 owing to the inevitability of inherent anti-incumbency, the alliance, then or since, has not sought to convince the voters that the BJP campaign that was centred on the 2G scam was fake and was based on an unproven, rather concocted argument that obtained certain legitimacy because of the Constitutional authority attaching to it all.
CAG Vinod Rai did to the 2G scam what his distant predecessor T N Chaturvedi did to the Bofors gun deal and HWD submarine deal during the Rajiv Gandhi regime (1984-1989).
According to Wikipedia, Rai is at present, the chairman of the UN Panel of External Auditors and honorary Advisor to the Indian Railways and a member of the Railway Kaya Kalp Council.
After retirement, Chaturvedi had become a BJP Rajya Sabha member and followed it up with a stint as Karnataka governor.
Of course, it all began with the Congress setting the precedents in all such matters, which included a former army chief, General Shankar Roychowdhury, and a former CEC, M S Gill, becoming a Rajya Sabha member of the party.
Gill also became a minister in Manmohan Singh’s UPA-2. Less said about tired and retired Congress chief ministers becoming governors in another state — an unhealthy precedent the BJP readily embraced in full, under PMs Vajpayee and Modi.
There cannot be a united/unified catch-phrase for the INDIA combine to sell without the Congress identity tagging along somewhere, in the front or at the back or both.
That is what their problem is all about. Barring the DMK in Tamil Nadu, and maybe a few others, no regional party wants the Congress to tag along, but they cannot present a national alternative to the BJP-NDA without the Congress in it.
The fear is that the Congress, if it crosses the 100-seat mark, which none of them can ever do, purely for reasons of facts and logic, would demand the PM’s job for the party and for Rahul Gandhi in particular.
The combined efforts of the Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi and Janata Dal-United leaders to promote Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge as the INDIA combine’s PM candidate did not find favour with the Congress working committee.
The fact is the INDIA combine can do without a prime ministerial nominee, but to have an ageing, faceless name like Kharge’s is not going to help.
The truth is there is no leader even half as tall as Modi, both inside the BJP and outside, to take him on in the popular game, in elections 2024.
If the question is about a parallel to Modi just pushing incumbent Manmohan Singh to the background, it is not a valid argument.
Unlike the BJP of 2012-2014, the INDIA combine is yet to identify and accept one.
Even if one is chosen unanimously — which is a big ‘if’ — they do not have the time to market the face unless it is a Nehru-Gandhi.
Anyway, a personality-centred fight with Modi will remain a one-sided affair. The battle would have been lost even before it was joined.
Arguments, if any, to a Krishna-Kansa or a David-Goliath comparison will have to remain mythological, not real or even surreal.
What else could be the alternative for the INDIA combine if they have to have even a fighting chance, or to be counted in as a serious challenger?
The high credibility attaching to the Modi imagery, and the unilateral and at times over-rated ‘nationalist’ perceptions attaching to his government leadership and the party — and not the other way round, as used to be considered before his time at the helm — all will continue to show an Opposition fight will be a reminder of Don Quixote and the Windmill.
What the INDIA alliance needs is neither a counter to Modi’s tall personality and undiminished charisma, nor a counter-narrative to his Hindutva agenda, just now centred on the Ayodhya temple consecration on January 22.
Through endless discussions within and debates in the open, as only the Congress culture from Gandhiji’s times permits, the party is only keeping the Hindutva discourse more alive than what its proprietor-propagators may have intended.
For the Congress, and even other partners in INDIA and their leaders, continuing the discourses on their leaders participating in the consecration, where Modi will be the presiding deity, is not going to get one extra vote.
Instead, it can only cause doubts, if not outright concerns, about their secularist credentials.
It will not be confined to the minorities but also to those in the majority Hindu religion who subscribe to the ideology. But like those Hindutva/RSS ideologues who may not be wholly happy with Modi, despite Article 370, the uniform civil code and Ayodhya, these segments of the anti-BJP and/or secularist constituencies do not have an option if they still intend casting the vote on D-day. But it stops there.
The combined Opposition, if it stays together until polling day, instead, needs a parallel narrative to Modi’s charisma and leadership and the BJP’s Hindutva narrative.
Even that would sell if and only if it gels with the voter and sells itself. Time for marketing is a factor but in this social media era, heavy pumping can still help.
It happened to the ‘Aam Aadmi’ call in 2004, when again, the coinage, and whatever it may have stood for in the voter’s imagination, hit the streets only after the Congress-UPA campaign commenced after the EC notification.
Even then, it remained only a Congress slogan, confined to Sonia Gandhi. It was like Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ in 1971, which the urban elite mocked yet did electoral wonders.
But the benefits of the two slogans were for all alliance partners to share. It’s the same with Modi’s ‘Achche Din’ in 2014.
The question is if the Congress manifesto committee has a convincing package for the poor in the country, who has become poorer over the past decades of economic reforms, which anyway was ushered in by the party government of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao in 1991.
After losing the subsequent 1996 elections, and not to the Ayodhya demolition that might have come too early in end-1992, finance minister Manmohan Singh rephrased his policies as ‘Reforms with a human face’. That was the secret behind the ‘Aam Aadmi’ appeal and the UPA’s successive electoral victories in 2004 and 2009.
Today, the Modi government is precisely practising ‘Reforms with a human face’ ideology (bordering on ‘socialism with a capitalist tendencies’) more intensely, on the strength of greater economic prosperity that the GDP figures shows — though may not be as real as is being made out to be.
That is a weak spot still for the Congress and the INDIA combine, whether together or separately.
But a narrative built around prices, jobs and family incomes, or ‘money in the pocket’ or M-3 for the economic planners, is what politics outside of Hindutva is still about.
The Opposition need not shy away from putting down its ideas in its election manifesto, fearing that the proactive government that Modi’s is would order implementation of its salient points the very next day.
Whether the Election Commission takes cognisance of such violations, if any, of the Model Code of Conduct, or divines new interpretations favouring the ruling party and government, the voter does see through such games.
That could well be a negative point for the BJP, not for the Opposition. Maybe, such a course will market the INDIA combine’s electoral offerings more than their leaders and social media platforms are capable of doing — that is, if they are as serious and as efficient as the BJP’s IT wing.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.