It would indeed be a miracle if the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A) succeeds in dethroning Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024. Only about eight months are left before votes are cast, and the Opposition bloc does not have a satisfactory answer yet to the Modi voters’ argument: “He is doing good work. The economy is doing splendidly well. People’s lives are improving. He has ‘freed Hinduism from the secular prison’. Why should we not vote for him?”
It would have been easier to defeat Modi if he were an ordinary politician. But he is an extraordinary politician. His religious outlook comes entirely from his RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) schooling. But his economic outlook is largely his own. He is a great champion of a laissez-faire economy — “If we give everything to the market, the market will give us everything.” The RSS seeks a ‘nationalist’ (swadeshi) answer to economic problems. Modi too couches his economic policies in nationalist terms, but his basic approach is ultra liberal, more in sync with the champions of free market capitalism than the champions of swadeshi.
How does the I.N.D.I.A bloc combat a political foe who is a formidable amalgam of religious ultra illiberalism and economic ultra liberalism?
The I.N.D.I.A bloc is relying on its basic strength: aggregation of votes. Their calculation is that if the bloc sets up one candidate, the BJP will lose enough seats to lose power. However, there are many ifs and buts before this can be realised.
First, the I.N.D.I.A bloc is a very strange kind of alliance. The parties are enemies of each other in states but friends at the national level. The I.N.D.I.A bloc parties have agreed to make such a contradictory coalition, because they feel the BJP is out to decimate them, but we have to see how this alliance translates at the voters’ level. They might find it weird to hear the same parties crossing swords in states and dining at the same table in Delhi. Secondly, though the leaders of the I.N.D.I.A bloc parties might work unitedly at the top level, their district, constituency and panchayat officials might not overcome their local rivalries.
Thirdly, aggregation will not work unless the I.N.D.I.A bloc makes a strong case for dethroning Modi. As of now they do not seem to have found a credible answer to the Modi sphinx — body of economic lion and head of Hindu revivalism. They have been very cagey and careful about hitting at his head. The parties of the bloc do not use the same language as they were using against Hindu revivalism before. They know that Modi has succeeded in mobilising a vast number of Hindus with his open championing of Hindu revivalism, not only among higher castes but also lower castes, so they have been treading extra-cautiously and struggling to develop a grammar by which they could kill the snake and also keep the club in one piece. They want to batter the BJP but they do not want to hurt the Hindus. So they are going to the people and telling them, “Real Hinduism does not teach what the BJP is doing. The BJP is a party of fake Hindus. We are for real Hinduism. We are true Hindus.”
However, their grammar has failed to pull away any substantial number of voters from the BJP who were drawn to it on account of Modi’s gallant Hindu revivalism. The reason is that its Hindu revivalism draws its life-spirit from its antagonism to ‘foreign’ religions — mainly Islam and Christianity — that in their view have ‘inflicted cruelties on Hindus to subjugate them’ in the past and continue to ‘hatch conspiracies to dominate them.’ It is this alchemy of glorification of Hinduism and antagonism to Islam and Christianity served by the BJP which has inebriated a massive number of Hindus. The BJP has not stopped there: it has fed their minds with the notion that they cannot rely upon the ‘secular’ parties to ‘protect Hinduism and Hindus’ because they have a history of ‘shielding and promoting the forces out to dominate Hindus’.
The parties making the I.N.D.I.A bloc have not been able to provide convincing proof to the Hindus drawn to Modi’s BJP that they would not ‘shield and promote the forces out to dominate Hindus’ when they come to power at the Centre. Because their behaviour in the past has not been balanced in this regard. The I.N.D.I.A bloc parties need to accept that they did not shield and promote the liberal and progressive sections among the religious minorities but the dogmatic and blinkered ones. If they want to win back the Hindus who are under Modi’s hypnotic spell, they need to espouse the causes of liberals and progressives among the religious minorities. It is only then that the word ‘inclusive’ in I.N.D.I.A will have a real meaning to Modi’s voters.
As far as Modi’s economic strength goes, the I.N.D.I.A bloc does have a more credible plank. The parties in the bloc are not as radical as Modi’s BJP in promoting free market capitalism. They are of course for an open economy, but they are not for shutting down the public sector. They stand for a proactive role of the government in creating jobs, alleviating poverty and establishing social and economic equity.
Their best hope lies in building a case that the economy under the Modi regime has benefited only the big and the rich and not the small and the poor. They have been talking of the Adani group’s phenomenal growth during the Modi years, but that is symbolic and does not convey to the people that the Modi regime has been working for the rich. The I.N.D.I.A bloc must provide general evidence based on facts and figures. Ninety percent of voters are small and economically disadvantaged. If the bloc is able to convince them that the Modi regime has been working for the rich and not for them, it can dent the regime’s religious advantage. After all, bread comes first, the rest later.
(Arun Sinha is a journalist and writer.)