From Kashmir to Ayodhya, the BJP’s total domination of politics
The failure of the Opposition is on display yet again. It needs a new leader, a new language, a new story
You had to be in Ayodhya this week, as I was, to understand the enormous political vindication the bhoomi pujan ceremony for the Ram Mandir affords the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The decision to build a temple and provide an alternative site for the Babri masjid may have been one delivered by the court, but for the party and its followers, the labour was entirely that of the Narendra Modi government. While the streets were dressed up in hues of saffron — balloons, festoons, flags — the dominant visual was that of Prime Minister (PM) Modi. He literally towered over the town with hoardings and posters on every street lamp. The day had spiritual resonance for millions of devotees. But, without needing any obvious iteration, the political messaging was unmissable. The cult of Modi was stronger than ever before.
Liberals and progressives lamented the triumphalism, the capture of the mainstream media space by hours of unquestioning wallpaper coverage and by the abject neglect of the other big story — the one-year anniversary of the effective nullification of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
But the inconvenient truth is this: From Kashmir to Ayodhya, it wasn’t just the BJP’s political supremacy that was on display; so also was the abject failure of alternative politics. Most of the other political players, led by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, spluttered to say “Me Too” on the mandir, in one form or the other. There were subtle differences in articulation. Some such as Rahul Gandhi chose to tweet about what lord Ram stood for. But mostly, the Congress, whose PM Rajiv Gandhi first unlocked the gates at the Ayodhya site, desperately wanted a slice of the pie. On J&K, save a few individual politicians (P Chidambaram among them), there was hardly any meaningful or noticeable alternative commentary. In effect, whether Ayodhya or Kashmir, the day underlined the BJP’s total capture of the dominant political narrative.
Opposition parties privately complain that no response from them is deemed good enough. If they object to developments in J&K, they are called anti-national. If they play along, they are termed pale imitations. If they act Nehruvian, they are called textbook secularists; if they support religious symbolism, they are called pseudo-liberals.
They need to get over this whining and whingeing. Their real failure is two-fold: The absence of a powerful personality who can take on Modi and the absence of a unique and compelling story to tell. You can’t define yourself either in shades of what you are contesting or entirely in antithesis to it. By doing so, what you reveal is that you have nothing to say for yourself. Or that you are unsure of your messaging.
India’s ideological Left may have been purer or more committed than the chameleon colours of the Congress. But when it comes to elections and politics, that is not especially effective either. Most progressives expend all their venom attacking people they don’t see as angry enough or Left enough, instead of channelling that same energy into finding a new lexicon of constitutional liberalism. Ironically, the Right-wing attacks the same individuals the Left-wing does, amounting to a zero-sum game.
By now, we know that nothing that the Modi government does is an innocuous coincidence. It is no accident that the temple bhoomi pujan was chosen for the very same day that J&K lost its special status within the Indian Union. It was the BJP signalling that two of its key ideological commitments had not just been fulfilled, but that there is widespread political support for them.
Even in Kashmir, where the detention of mainstream politicians has been arguably the most indefensible decision of the administration, parties were unable to drum up mass support or even an outpouring of local anger. The marginalisation of the mainstream is dangerous in my view, apart from being wrong in principle, but that does not diminish the hard truth — the BJP has not had to pay any political cost for it so far.
An idea you disagree with has to be fought with a better idea. A message you abhor has to be trumped with a more powerful one. An ideology you reject has to be contested with one that is more imaginative in expression. You cannot hurl textbook principles of right and wrong in the age of fake news, WhatsApp campaigns and personality-centric cult politics. Elections are not a moral science class.
But India’s Opposition parties appear to be doing one of three things: Setting themselves up as a minor variant of the BJP, giving up already, or countering the new politics with instruments that are rusty and old.
All three approaches are destined to fail.
India needs a new Opposition.