Very few will say it, but it needs to be told: India is still a struggling work-in-progress democracy. Besides the bromide factors, failed institutions, corrupt bureaucracy, vile politicians, compromised criminal justice system, rampant poverty, craven media, polarised society, acute income inequalities, aggressive nativism etc. there is another singular factor, the overarching dominance of a few blockbuster political personalities. These heavyweight leaders are obsessed with showboating. For them, everything is about creating an optical illusion that relies heavily on tear-jerking moments, loud rhetoric and a professional massaging of sensitive numbers to suit their narrative. The people don’t seem to mind, even if they are being pushed to the brink. Just one example will suffice; Indians have never been more devastated since last March 2020 beginning with that draconian lockdown. Since March 2021, it has become insufferable, a miasma of a horror story. Pictures of dead bodies in the Ganga are a recurring reminder of a systemic collapse. It has not ended yet.
It is time to embrace reality; governance is nothing short of a silly joke with the NDA government. They cannot run the country, especially when confronted with a grave crisis (the pandemic is tangible proof). I think many know that, and yet this question keeps cropping up: But what are our choices? The media then amplifies that famous Indian political acronym, TINA (There Is No Alternative). I think such hollow rhetoric feeds into human sensibilities which, instead of questioning a failed leadership that has brought them to their knees, begin to instead find faults by doing a biopsy of opposition leaders, instead.
A recent opinion poll done by C-Voter found that despite a wretched performance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi commanded a humongous lead as the leading PM choice at 60 per cent. His approval ratings, though, had fallen sharply, from 64 to 40 per cent. Of course, it would be naïve to expect Modi’s stranglehold of voter mindshare to drastically vanish overnight. He still holds hypnotising sway over his core base of Hindutva voters and an opportunistic middle-class that is perhaps unwilling to acknowledge the disappointment that Modi has been. But what was really fascinating about the survey was who came in second to Modi: Don’t Know Can’t Say (DKCS). Former Congress President Rahul Gandhi polled a distant third, hardly picking gains from Modi’s slippage.
While most pundits correctly extrapolated that it was a manifestation of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor, it actually reflected the reverse. If 60 per cent of pollsters were not impressed by Modi, it means they are open to change. And if DKCS is the second largest preference, it means anyone other than Modi is also in consideration. That is a stratospheric statement to make. There is no denying that Modi has overwhelmed public discourse because of his powerful oratory, petty but popular jibes, massive PR machinery, social media monarchy, and largely an uncritical media. One can survive on atmospherics, but only temporarily. It catches up. The fall can be equally steep.
I confess to being flabbergasted at the 2019 Lok Sabha results; that Modi increased BJP’s tally from 282 to 303 foxed the hell out of me. That people forgave him for the disastrous demonetisation, record unemployment, lynching murders, flawed GST execution, a crashed economy, flailing democracy and complete institutional degradation, among others, made no sense. But there it was. Doubtlessly, an enervated opposition helped boost Modi’s muscular imagery. And the ‘Balakot bump’ following the Pulwama terror attack clearly took the BJP across the half-way mark. As someone told me: There were alternatives but we chose to look the other way.
But 2021 is a defining moment for Indian politics. It is not just the magnitude of depravity and avoidable deaths (over 326,000) that has made television-watching a depressing ritual, it is the complete abdication of state responsibility. Death statistics are fudged and Ramdev ridicules allopathy, while the government is busy bulldozing Facebook and Twitter for better headlines. We are in a funk because Modi has failed. The BJP is incidental.
Make no mistake about it, the Gujarat model was always a chimera, now the chickens are coming home to roost. When really tested, Modi could not even order vaccine supplies, plunging both India (we are out with a begging bowl, as only 3.2 per cent of Indians are fully vaccinated)and the world (the COVAX programme for poor countries has been upended by India’s export bans) in a terrible crisis. And the less said about the 26 million caseload, bone-chilling stories of death and hopelessness and the tragic suffering of humanity, the better.
The cookie has crumbled. But government cheerleaders are already at the TINA factor, to alleviate a crashing political brand. That a country of 138 crore cannot produce an array of prime ministerial candidates reflects the dismal state of Indian politics. America, a quarter our size, throws up at least a dozen presidential candidates from both Republicans and Democrats every four years. And after eight years, White House must have a new face.
I find it amusing when people rationalise supporting BJP because ‘who is the alternative?’. That’s a lazy response. Really? Of course, the TINA factor has worked for Indira Gandhi, Congress too. But that still reflects our democratic fault line. In fact, we actually have a NITA (Numerous Individuals The Alternative) factor. We don’t see them (why not Capt. Amarinder Singh or Shashi Tharoor, Mamata Banerjee, Priyanka Gandhi, or a dark horse out there, waiting to surface) because we choose not to. Obviously, the leaders who wish to be in the running for India’s highest office need to be out there to make their work and story speak for themselves. They have a responsibility too.
Modi is a brilliant politician and a canny opponent but he is equally a terrible administrator, as has been further established after the pandemic mishandling. Modi will have to pull off a Houdini act to win 2024. But if anybody can still pull a rabbit out of a hat, he can. Already there is speculation of the BJP playing its electoral toolkit, which is a familiar cocktail: the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, low-intensity communal churn, and some cross-border skirmishes with old foe Pakistan. Hyper-nationalism, majoritarian bigotry and chauvinistic politics have always worked wonders for the BJP. But the people of India are hopefully more enlightened than they are usually given credit for.
Frankly speaking, very few world leaders can survive such long-lasting national trauma of its people (Donald Trump, for instance. And Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro look in serious trouble already). In 2024, if Modi wins again, it will not be because of any TINA factor, it will be because a nation will have chosen to be blindfolded on a bright sunny day. It is then easier to justify the selling of one’s soul.
The author is former spokesperson of the Congress party
(To receive our E-paper on WhatsApp daily, please click here. To receive it on Telegram, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)