West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has taken the lead in bringing opposition parties together. She seems determined to change the opposition strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls after her first-hand experience with the Modi-Shah duo, who treat their opponents as if they are enemies who must get vanquished. Her energetic politicking is the right place to begin rethinking strategy. However, the opposition parties now need a more concrete blueprint capable of meeting three targets: assess the strengths of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, get clarity over his weaknesses and three, to provide an effective alternative.
The alternative the opposition offers must have a symbolic appeal and the capacity to forge a mass connection. At the same time, it must generate emotional fervency, create a sense of cultural belonging, and proffer a viable economic programme. Then the opposition will have to communicate all these on the ground, effectively and with substance and glamour. Opposition parties need a spectacle that can convince the man or woman on the street that even if he or she does not wish to be critical of Modi, there is an impending need for change. The next election need not be Modi-versus-the-rest but a change despite Modi. The tone of a campaign that can make this happen must be positive and produce optimism. Recall Chilean director Pablo Larrain, whose 2012 film, No, is about voting to determine whether the dictator Pinochet should remain in power for eight more years. A young advertising man suggests the opposition campaign focuses more on the future than the atrocities of Pinochet, which people are tired of discussing.
Indians, too, know where the current regime is wanting. Yet, they feel the opposition parties are no better either. They know rejecting Modi could mean rebuffing the specific kind of belonging—in terms of religion, nation, family and region—that they have imagined over the last seven years. So, the opposition needs to convince people to vote Modi out without losing this sense of belonging. Modi will try to mix the two themes of belonging and development to brew a potent cocktail, and it is the task of the opposition to separate these.
A starting point for the opposition would be to do better than Modi at what he has promised, even as rhetoric and then to promise what he has failed to offer. For instance, Modi promises a sense of belonging but stays away from the masses. This highly disempowering reality has to get exposed, and the only way is to reach out to people. Perhaps leaders in the opposition camp need to plan a padyatra [march] from Punjab to Kanyakumari, with Punjab as a symbol of rural nationalism. It needs to bring the farmers of Punjab on board and declare a white paper to revive agriculture and non-farm sectors across the rural hinterlands. This time, the opposition campaign must be organised jointly by political parties, students, farmers and social activists across the board.
It is equally crucial that their campaign has a structure that gets it heard on both universal and particularistic registers. Put another way, the opposition needs to promise people concrete universal needs and a shared cultural ethos, but without overlooking the need to accommodate particularistic demands and potential points of conflict. Modi has the advantage of having appropriated the Hindu identity. It has allowed him space to include and exclude groups and identities, depending on the need of the hour. We saw how he dropped Cabinet ministers and did not fulfil promises and yet has retained his legitimacy. The opposition parties may not have this ready advantage. Many in the opposition camp have found a way out of this riddle in distancing themselves from minorities and appropriating Hindu religiosity. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal read the Hanuman Chalisa, while Banerjee recited hymns honouring the goddess Durga and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi did some temple hopping. Thus the question, what can counter the language of Hindu supremacy, remains unanswered.
The opposition is confused, swinging between distancing from and debunking the Hindu identity to appropriating it. It may need to reinvent so that cultural symbolism can connect with social and economic demands. It may also have to promise a radical social agenda: universal schooling, a basic income scheme, and so on. These can renew the hope and optimism that the current regime has almost dismembered. Universal concerns often lack symbolic and emotional appeal, but then, it is the task of the opposition to invent a language that can link a particularistic location and imagination with universal expectations.
The opposition may have to call the bluff of the supposed threat to Hindus and project the track record of the current regime as ridden with failures. For example, it can focus on how the government has failed to make Hindus more secure. Instead, the majority community has only slipped into more insecurity and misery. It will have to convince the majority community that not chance but the compulsions of majoritarian politics are the reason for their growing insecurity. It will have to put across that they have been less fortunate in the last nearly one decade and slipped on all critical indicators. It may also have to remind the Hindus that they were doing better between 2004 and 2014. Keeping this complex narrative simple yet cogent is the key to their success.
The Modi-Shah combine, alongside the RSS, have made concerted efforts to disempower the electorate so that they feel dependent on Modi. The self-confidence of the nation is at an all-time low. The voter needs to feel empowered again, regain dignity and self-esteem. The opposition needs to wrest voters from the circle of disempowerment, which feeds their urge for bold, masculine leadership. Mamata at the helm of such a campaign in itself marks a new symbolism. But the opposition camp needs to be conscious that voters have been pushed into this underlying vortex.
Only after it has thrashed out the nuances of a concrete strategy will information, data and constituency-wise analysis work. More important than any of these is the appeal of a new political formation. Drawing clues from Mamata’s campaign; she retorted to every narrative the BJP manufactured, not ignoring even the slightest criticism or false campaign. And this eventually built the necessary momentum for her electoral gains in the recent West Bengal Assembly election. It is a strength of the authoritarian politics of the BJP that it takes every possible critique seriously to counter it, not necessarily address it. Every criticism offers the voter a vantage point from where to imagine and make sense of the remaining campaign. Issues need to be understood as a way to frame reality.
Since 2024 will be, by far, the most crucial election, beginning early to get all these factors right is indispensable for the opposition.
The writer is Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The views are personal.