Ram Madhav
April 19, 2024

Playing By The Old Rules

(The article was originally published in Indian Express on April 20, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

As election fever peaks, political discourse in India is becoming shriller. The Opposition makes a curious argument about the lack of a “level playing field”. It also portrays the ruling party’s aim of securing 400 seats as a diabolical authoritarian agenda. The tone and tenor of the Opposition makes it seem as though it is the ruling party’s responsibility to bring them to power.

Aiming for 400 seats is not creeping authoritarianism. In fact, in the first four decades after Independence, the Congress party, which ruled the country for more than three-and-a-half decades, never secured less than 360 seats, except in 1967 and 1977. In the 1984 elections, riding on a sympathy wave that followed the unfortunate killing of Indira Gandhi, it secured over 400 seats in the Lok Sabha.

Just as none of this could be held against the Congress party, the BJP’s desire to cross the 400 seats mark or the Prime Minister’s hint that the party intends to remain in power until 2047 cannot be interpreted as a threat to democracy. Like the Congress in the first four decades after Independence, it is the BJP’s turn now to be the dominant party in Indian politics.

Democratic politics, globally, is about a dominant leadership, a dominant idea, and the ability to carry that idea to the masses. In the immediate aftermath of Independence, the Congress party had enjoyed all these advantages. It exploited its image as the “party of Independence” even though India’s freedom movement was the combined effort of disparate political, social and religious movements under the common umbrella of the Indian National Congress. Suspecting this possibility, Mahatma Gandhi said that Independence having been achieved, Congress had “outlived its use”. He advised that it be disbanded instead of being converted into a “political machine”.

Gandhi was disobeyed and a false narrative projecting Congress as the sole “party of Independence” was unleashed, denying a level playing field to other parties, including those led by stalwarts of the Independence movement like Jayaprakash Narayan, Sucheta Kripalani, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and even B R Ambedkar.

It took many decades for the Opposition to build an alternative narrative. The BJP had succeeded in building a wider consensus around the new and dominant idea of cultural nationalism, constitutional unity and a long-term vision for “Viksit Bharat”, developed India.

What the Opposition faces today is this new dominant idea championed by a popular leadership and an effective party mechanism that effortlessly communicates the idea to the masses. Instead of complaining about the new politics of the ruling party, the Opposition should try to build a counter-narrative, if it has one. Sadly, it is stuck in the old politics of caste and communal faultlines, dynastic entitlement and a general lack of a coherent vision. The field is level and very much open, but the players in the Opposition want to play by the old rules.

Election manifestos may not always fully translate into action, but they are an important indicator of the vision and priorities of a party and its leadership. A cursory look at the same released by both the BJP and the Congress reveals that when it comes to building a new aspirational narrative, the Opposition lags miles behind.

The Congress manifesto is as usual about many freebies. It contradicts itself by saying that it will conduct a caste-based census, while at the same time rhetorically asking people to “look beyond caste”. The BJP manifesto is bereft of any freebies but commits to continuing its welfare programmes.

The real contrast can be seen in the issues of the future. On environmental issues, the BJP promises to build on the PM’s clarion call for LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) and also calls for a fusion of traditional and modern methods to ensure adoption of a more sustainable lifestyle. The Congress manifesto talks of rolling out the Green New Deal Investment Programme aimed at providing green jobs. On the issue of conservation of rivers, the BJP talks in specific detail about the ways to improve the prevalent situation, whereas the Congress makes only a passing statement about greater collaboration with state governments. While the Congress manifesto lacks specifics about environmental governance, the BJP presents its approach in greater detail.

On issues relating to technology and innovation too, the Congress manifesto lacks a coherent approach. It does make a brief one-line mention of artificial intelligence being a future challenge. But a document that runs into almost 40 pages mentions innovation only twice, and technology four times.

The BJP manifesto, on the other hand, talks about leading in technological innovation and cutting-edge research. It talks about Gaganyaan, Bharat’s first human spaceflight mission, and landing an astronaut on the moon, a sign of Bharat’s progress and prosperity in Amrit Kaal. It talks about a comprehensive ecosystem under the India AI Mission to position Bharat as a global leader in AI innovation and build domestic capacities to ensure tech sovereignty. Building Digital Public Infrastructure for agriculture, advancing the growth of Open Network for Digital Commerce, and increasing digitisation of land records, are some of the other highlights from its manifesto.

One area where the Congress manifesto says more than BJP’s is on the LGBTQ+ issues. “The Congress will bring a law to recognise civil unions between couples belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community”, the Congress announced, while the BJP reiterated its earlier commitment of issuing identity cards to transgenders and including them in Ayushman Bharat scheme. On the question of same-sex marriages, all parties remain non-committal. While the Congress talked about a law to permit “civil union”, the government argued in the Supreme Court earlier that it was an agenda limited only to “urban elite”.

Prime Minister Modi insisted that elections are not about the manifestos of parties, but “the people and their dreams”. It is on this that the Opposition fails to impress.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

The Kite-Flying about RSS

The Kite-Flying about RSS

April 19, 2024
Please Choose Wisely

Please Choose Wisely

April 19, 2024

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

two + 4 =