Is ideology going to be the final arbiter of India’s destiny in 2024? Is a country of nearly 140 crore people today hypnotised by one individual largely because they know what he stands for? That it has nothing to do with moral grandstanding, rhetorical promises, oratorical flourish, campaigning style etc?
Who cares for a V-shaped economy and transparent governance? All they want is a leader who walks the talk. They may not agree with him, they may even dislike him, but there are no hidden surprises. What you see is what you get.
BJP has adroitly made a reductionist argument to explain its political ideology: pro-Hindu or pro-Muslim? It is an uncomplicated binary. It is easily understood, and more importantly, felt. The communication strategy of the party has always been the simplification of political idioms, which is then deeply fried with emotional fervour to inflame passions.
It is an electoral template that delivers results consistently for BJP, which begs the question: Why has the opposition (Congress, in particular) not figured out a robust response?
There are two reasons for this.
First is fear. Congress has ducked and dodged the Hindutva vs Hinduism debate, listening to the unwise counsel of conservative calcified leaders in their midst who prefer the status quo. They have convinced the leadership that doing a deep dive into the delicate religious debate will boomerang against the party. The result is that BJP gets a free pass, it remains totally uncontested.
The saffron narrative gets a huge tailwind as the principal opposition party avoids asking the tough questions: Hindutva is not Hinduism, isn’t it just a vote mobilisation strategy? Who has appointed RSS/BJP as the custodians of such an eclectic, tolerant and ecumenical religion as Hinduism? If minority appeasement was indeed true, would Muslims truly be as worse off as they are today? Can India truly psychologically ghettoise and socially marginalise a population of 200 million Muslims?
These and innumerable related questions challenging BJP’s bigoted politics have not been publicly raised. Congress has meekly surrendered to being branded as a pseudo-secular party. The opposition parties have become collateral damage to Congress’s waffling. Consequently, an emboldened BJP has given its majoritarian nationalism a bigger booster shot. A polarised country plays into its hands.
The second reason is leadership. Even PM Modi’s bitterest critics will agree that he has never been uncomfortable with being called the Hindu Hriday Samrat. And several institutions have been gradually taken over by religious affiliates of Sangh Parivar. Whether it is Article 370 or the Ram Mandir, BJP has stuck to its manifesto commitment. Honestly, the discerning know that a Hindu Rashtra has already been imperceptibly established in India, sans ceremonial fanfare.
Thus, to take the bull by the horns, the opposition needs a leader who encapsulates vigour, self-belief, passion, articulation and a genuine ideological commitment to secularism. The Janeu-dhari Hindutva-lite approach plays into the BJP playbook that opposition parties play minority-vote bank politics. Paradoxically, it is BJP that plays majoritarian politics, but no one has questioned them. The one leader who did, won.
Mamata Banerjee was called a Muslim-sympathiser, an ally of Bangladesh, and someone who was uncomfortable with the chant of Jai Shri Ram. BJP deployed a massive Big Media push, social media barrage, door-to-door knocking by RSS, massive rallies by the PM, and it’s entire financial resources. TMC still won handsomely, routing BJP and winning the bulk of both Hindu and Muslim votes in the process.
Secularism survived a litmus test, giving the opposition parties a winnable model. To defeat BJP, you have to wear your secular badge proudly and carry everyone along, without parochial considerations – fearlessly and with someone who enjoys the big fight. That is the only way forward. There is hope yet.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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