Modi is an oracle but not invincible

The Opposition has his image to battle along with his politics, however

File picture of Prime Minister Modi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi (photo: T. Narayan/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
File picture of Prime Minister Modi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi (photo: T. Narayan/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Kumar Ketkar

With the first meeting of Opposition parties having taken place in Patna on Friday,  the obvious question to ask here is: can the politics of “Anti-Congressism” be replaced by rebranding the formula and marketing the new product as “Anti-BJPism” or anti-Modism”?

There is a fundamental flaw in this rhetorical question. However, it can be argued that this is possible if most of the opposition parties agree to have the strategy, now actively promoted by Nitish Kumar, of having “one-on-one” candidates against the BJP in 2024. From his conversation with Mamata Banerjee, it appears she has relented and suggested that the regional parties must be roped in to participate with the same political maths. It is easier said than implemented. Two examples are often cited in support of this strategy.

The 1977 election against Indira Gandhi’s Congress, led and orchestrated by Jayaprakash Narayan, and the 1989 face-off between Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress and the so-called “National Front” led by the rebel Congressman V P Singh. Let us not forget that in both cases, the Congress breakaway groups were crucial in bringing about opposition unity. In 1977, Jagjivan Ram, Hemavati Nandan Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy rebelled against Indira Gandhi on the eve of the elections (just about 45 plus days before the polls).

In 1989, Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Arun Nehru and their ilk left the party and formed the “Front” to oppose Rajiv. The issue he picked up was that of the Bofors scam (though finally, nothing came out of it, and Rajiv was exonerated). The BJP joined the VP bandwagon by focusing on Bofors and the Ayodhya issue (Mandir wahin Banaenge). Thus corruption and communalism were the twin issues riding on the so-called theory of “Anti-Congressism” proposed by Ram Manohar Lohia in 1967. It had taken ten years for the opposition eggs to get incubated.

The “Anti-Congressism” was not an ideological position, but it was political utilitarianism, not just opportunism. The Indian National Congress was an ideological-political construct, essentially built on the moral foundation of Gandhiji and the political-historical Idea of India then.

Both these positions (moral as well as political) were opposed by the then-political outfits - the communists, Hindutva types and Free Market Right-wingers. They all opposed the idea of secularism, pluralism and centrist multiculturalism, or at least some of them were. The Congress still had active social and political bases all across the country.

Today, the BJP, though masquerading as a national party, has no roots in the South, except the manipulated one like In Karnataka. It has no base in the North East. Even when defeated, the Congress had a base in all parts of the country. Indeed, the BJP of today consists of many disgruntled Congress leaders. The Sangh Parivar needs them to carve out a façade of its national presence.

The “Anti-BJPism” today is neither ideological nor social. It is only power centric.  There are no signs of discontent in the BJP (or RSS) reaching a climactic point of rebellion. So the opposition has no direct or indirect support from the tightly held fortress of Narendra Modi. The BJP today has no elements of liberalism in its ranks, unlike during the Vajpayee rule.

Modi-led BJP not only has a full majority and a few loyal allies (like AIADMK, YRS Congress, Lok Janashakti Party (LJP-Paswan), Apna Dal and so on). Then there are one-night stand parties like Biju Janata Dal, Akali Dal, etc. So not only the BJP but even the NDA does not seem to be breaking up. Then there are parties which keep their options open, like  Chauthala’s Indian National Lok Dal. Not far in the distance is Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party.  The line-up of the BJP-NDA and their supporters is thus strong even today.

Therefore, a one-on-one formula can work only in the case of Stalin’s DMK, Mamata’s TMC, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), Abdullah’s National Conference, and a couple of some small parties stand firm together. The NDA strength is 353, with a 45 per cent vote share. The BJP is 303. Unless the BJP is brought down to 200 seats and NDA to all told 225, it is impossible to have a “regime change”.

And yet the anti-fascist optimism is not baseless. In 1980 defeating the Janata Party (though broken) with a landslide was not considered possible. But it happened. In 2004, defeating the Vajpayee-led BJP and its 24-party combination was considered impossible. The “shining India” with the towering leadership of Atalji was seen as invincible vis-à-vis the inexperienced, immature 'foreigner' Sonia Gandhi.

But the formula being promoted today by Nitish Kumar was promoted by no less than Sonia Gandhi, persuading, convincing and bringing them on a common platform. The strategy was to go to people directly over the heads of the ruling coalition partners. That worked in  Karnataka last month. Therefore Rahul Gandhi has begun to reach out to people directly. Finally, it will not be the party leaders who will defeat the ruling parties, but the people, enlightened and disillusioned with the Modi-Shah regime, will oust the fascist rulers.

What is the future of political parties other than the BJP in India? The BJP orchestrated a Front of various regional and small parties in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, JD(U) and LJP in Bihar, Akali Dal in Punjab and several local parties in the seven states in the North East.

Then there are other parties, like YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh TRS in Telangana Janata Dal in Odisha, ready to be their fellow travellers. Together, with partners and fellow travellers, they have a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha and have proven “floor management skills (read subterfuge)” to manoeuvre one in the Rajya Sabha. Some independents and a few small parties have shown enough inclination to back the NDA. They help the ruling alliance by abstaining, absenting or staging walkouts on crucial occasions.

Narendra Modi’s image as a “decisive” leader, systematically built and maintained by the media,  is still intact. Ironically as a “divisive” or rather polarising leader is also quite strong among the detractors. However, the majoritarian mindset has become entrenched even among the OBCs, SCs and STs.

The “perception management” through manipulation of the television media and mobilising the huge social media army have helped build the image of Modi as a kind of “avatar”, the incarnation of the divine. It is significant that not only among the less educated but even the highly educated people believe that Modi is the equivalent of some supernatural power!

It has to be recognised that while confronting the Modi phenomenon, one is dealing with perhaps an “occult-driven” messiah image. He wants to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. He gets angry and even frustrated that even Rahul (Pappu!) makes fun of him and does not accept his super-omni persona.

He has “successfully” projected himself as a “transcendental” phenomenon. Those opposing him are mere mortals without any supernatural possessions! This image has been evolving steadily since 2012 and particularly after 2014. The 2019 victory and his visit to Kedarnath, just a day before the results that year, exhibited on all TV channels, in his meditating pose with the “sanyasi” robe, further helped consolidate that well-constructed image. His exhibitionist visit to Leh-Ladakh was in the same pattern.  Indeed, he wants to be taller in image than the tallest statue he has built! He is not a Prime Minister but an Oracle! The “ Oracle” does not have to prove results or achievements. He has mesmerised the educated, but gullible middle class, paralysed his own party men, benumbed the bureaucracy and judiciary, and enslaved the media.

That is a journey of the image-building exercise since the 2014 election. Interestingly though he has managed to create a halo around him, he has not been able to raise his stature. He is widely recognised, but not as widely respected. He has been able to create awe but not elitist acceptance.

No wonder he despises even so-called Khan Market gatherings. He has contempt for the “intellectual” and hence for the India International Centre or JNU. He is obsessed with Jawaharlal Nehru because he knows that though he has the power and “designation”, he does not have the status and erudition!

In 2014 he was conventional and ambitious but a more aggressive politician. But now his self-image is that he is in the league of Winston Churchill or Vladimir Putin! (For that, he need not know the history of the World War or Russia or the Russian Revolution).

The Opposition, therefore, has to fight not just a politician in power, but an image with haloed hubris! In 2014, though distinctly abrasive, he was a leader of the BJP. He was not in the “acceptable” school of Vajpayee or even Advani. They never aimed at “Congress-Mukt” Bharat. They criticised Nehru but never condemned his legacy or engaged in obscene character assassination. They had accepted the political and constitutional frame (though Advani often broke the norms).

In 2014, when he (rather than the BJP) won a majority with 282 seats in the Lok Sabha, the vote share was just 31 per cent. That means 69 per cent of the voters were not impressed with Modi’s hyped high-voltage campaign of so-called development and cunningly hidden communal Hindutva agenda.

Just for comparison, one can point out that forgetting 282 seats in the Lok Sabha in 1967, Indira Gandhi had to win 41 per cent votes. That means 10 per cent votes more than Modi could win in 2014.

In 2019, Modi has been able to come to power with a 37 per cent vote, meaning still 63 per cent of voters were outside his charismatic grip.  Yet Modi-led BJP has won only 303 seats in the Lok Sabha.

Except in 1967 and 1977,  the Congress used to win more than 350 seats till 1984. But from Day One, Modi has always claimed that he has the mandate of 130 crore people. Congress was not that audacious even when Rajiv Gandhi had 414 seats in the Lok Sabha and had a 49 per cent vote share.

So far, no study has been able to show, in statistical terms, how much contribution has been there of the allied parties to the BJP vote share of 31 and 37 per cent.  Though in 2019, the NDA received 43 per cent votes. It is possible that the incremental vote of Modi in 2019 is either negligible or perhaps the same though the seats have increased from 282 to 303. Nor can anybody “prove” that the increase is mainly because of the Pulwama-Balakot-driven jingoism.

Be that as it may. The electoral politics hereafter will not be like in the past. Not only because “image” is now more important than “ideology”. Media management is more crucial than anytime before and money power is far more significant than anywhere in the world. Modi is in command of money, media and muscle, with the RSS in tow.

Does that make the Modi-Shah-led BJP invincible? Certainly not. The invasion of Covid-19 and its economic consequences are beyond the Modi-Shah algorithms. The devastating social impact of the pandemic has not even manifested. The cracks in the federal polity, caused by the financial crisis, have still not surfaced. The suppressed discontent in the BJP and the NDA may not implode but can internally cause corrosion in the so-called steel-framed organisation. And it is too early to assess the electoral impact of the India-China conflict, which has further cracked the Superman-Omnipotent and invincible image of Narendra Modi.

Remember the famous dialogue in “Enter the Dragon?”.
The Teacher tells Bruce Lee, “Now, you must remember: the enemy has only images and illusions, behind which he hides his true motives. Destroy the Image and you will break the enemy.”

The author is a former editor and a current member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.

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