Neither Fish Nor Fowl Won’t Work
It’s not working, for either the INDIA alliance or the Congress. Current trends and mood postulate that 2024 is lost for them, and after that they are dead in any case. The problem is that INDIA stands for everything and therefore for nothing; one can’t be all things for all voters and still hope to retain a distinct identity and appeal. The BJP has proven this time and again: rightly or wrongly, it stands for something which distinguishes it from the rest of the pack- aggressive nationalism, unapologetic majoritarianism, authoritarian governance, naked Hindutva, centralised unitarianism. What you see is what you get, there is no confusion in the minds of the voters as to what they can expect. The INDIA alliance, on the other hand, is a smorgasbord of half-baked and contrary, if not competing, dishes and leaders, a veritable dog’s breakfast. What would you choose?
INDIA has to narrow down its menu to just five or six predominant issues (not 300 point manifestos) and then develop a unanimity on them, offer the voter a table d hote instead of a buffet. In fact, take on the BJP’s own winning menu of majoritarianism etc. and repeatedly question its deficiencies, unconstitutional underpinnings, anti-citizen implications, unaccountability, trappings of bhakti, their effects on unemployment, inflation and increasing inequality. Discard the losing strategy of name-calling, dependence on freebies, Adani and Ambani, failed foreign policy, competing Hinduism. Old whine in old (or even new) bottles just doesn’t work in the new India that Modi has fashioned.
The alliance should realise it can’t run with the secular hare and hunt with the religious hounds at the same time, this appears too much like rank opportunism and will cut no ice with the voter. Take a stand; after all 50% of even the Hindu voter is not comfortable with the BJP’s violent and hate filled religious agenda, show them that a balance can be struck without any appeasement of any religion. Confront Hindutva, don’t coopt it in some sanitised form. The Kamalnath type of Hanuman bhakti convinces no one, nor does the Mamta Bannerjee type of minority pandering. In this respect, it is creditable that the Karnataka govt. has announced that it is rolling back the ban on hijab imposed by the previous BJP govt. Promise more of the same, whether it is recalling the bulldozers or rescinding the “halal” ban.
It doesn’t matter whether the alliance is able to put up single candidates in 400 constituencies or not. The fact is that the Congress has historically always had a direct contest with the BJP in about 200 Parliamentary seats in the North; in 2019 it lost 95% of them. It is these seats which will determine the fate of 2024. If the Congress can win even 40% of them, about 80, it will seal the BJP’s fate. The Congress-not just the Alliance- has to work on these seats, and let the regional parties take care of the others, which they can if the GOP stays off their turf. There is nothing to worry about in the South, it is already lost to the BJP.
The voting universe is not one homogenous entity, it is divided into different components: women, youth, businessmen, farmers, teachers, govt. employees. Congress and INDIA will have to develop a distinct campaign/ product for each of them, and then sell them in a targeted manner, like the BJP does so successfully with its toxic capsules. Of particular importance is the hitherto ignored First Time Voter (FTV) who constitute anything between 10% and 14% of the electorate, big enough to swing any seat. This segment has many issues- unemployment, leaked exam papers, cuts in government recruitment on a massive scale, tinkering with syllabi, clamp downs on any form of protest- which need to be highlighted. Similarly, the inability of the Opposition to capture the farmer vote after all that the NDA govt. has done to them is a singular failure. Ditto with the women, small business/MSMEs which had suffered the most under this regime.
Not only the wine in the bottle, even some of the labels on it have to be changed. Learn from the BJP’s ruthlessness in benching old faces and bringing in new ones. Granted that the BJP can do so at will because it is Mr. Modi who brings in the votes by the bucketful, not individual candidates who nobody has even heard of. Neither the Alliance nor the Congress can afford this luxury because they don’t have a Modi like Colossus, but they need to take selective chances in some states. The choice, and resounding victory, of Mr. Reddy in Telangana is the proof of the pudding. The timidity of the status quo mindset has to be replaced with an inventive and risk-taking one if the BJP juggernaut has to be defeated.
The EVM issue is a festering problem which the ECI will not acknowledge and the Supreme Court will not address; it is time to change tack on this. More affirmative action is needed; one course is for INDIA ruled states to announce that they will henceforth conduct panchayat and urban local body elections (over which the state Election Commissions, and not the ECI have jurisdiction) on the VVPAT model, i.e. the voter slip generated by the EVM will be given to the voter who will then deposit it in the drop box. Results shall be declared on the basis of physical counting of these VVPAT slips and not the count recorded in the EVM. This shall be in line with the resolution recently passed by the INDIA alliance (and the challenge in the Supreme Court by ADR and some civil society activists); it will show that the Opposition is prepared to walk the talk, believes in transparency, and respects the voter’s right to know how his vote is cast, recorded and counted. This could generate public demand for a similar practice to be followed by other states and may even awaken the ECI from its slumber.
Finally, of course, no amount of back room strategising or witty Twitter/ Facebook ripostes or angry press briefings can make up for boots on the ground. The BJP wins because of its grass roots cadres, while Congress continues to lose because it has too many “leaders” and not enough foot soldiers. It was expected that the Bharat Jodo Yatra would remove this deficiency, but that did not happen. This should be ensured with BJY II, which has just been announced. 2024 depends on the Congress, the other INDIA parties will hold their turf, of that I have no doubt. The GOP has to be the agent of change; if it cannot reinvent itself it needs to perish. That is the law of nature, and of politics also.
|The author retired from the IAS in December 2010. A keen environmentalist and trekker he has published a book on high altitude trekking in the Himachal Himalayas: THE TRAILS LESS TRAVELLED.
His second book- SPECTRE OF CHOOR DHAR is a collection of short stories based in Himachal and was published in July 2019. His third book was released in August 2020: POLYTICKS, DEMOCKRAZY AND MUMBO JUMBO is a compilation of satirical and humorous articles on the state of our nation. His fourth book was published on 6th July 2021. Titled INDIA: THE WASTED YEARS , the book is a chronicle of missed opportunities in the last nine years. Shukla’s fifth book – THE DEPUTY COMMISSIONER’S DOG AND OTHER COLLEAGUES- was released on 12th September 2023. It portrays the lighter side of life in the IAS and in Himachal.
He writes for various publications and websites on the environment, governance and social issues. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla.
He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/