What Kind of Opposition Campaign can Work Against the BJP?
The crisis of India’s opposition parties is not about leadership. Changing a few leaders will not bring the results they desire anyway. What will work is a narrative with a purpose, conviction and a clear alternative. The Opposition is mostly indulging in a waiting game, where it expects the tide to turn it around as people might tire of the failures of the current regime. But the point is beginning with demonstrating that there is a failure. With a machine-like edifice, the ruling party is unrelenting in its campaign throughout the year. On top of it, it has the RSS active on the ground, fitting even the failures of the ruling regime into a set narrative. Unless that is changed, people will be unwilling to change and trust the parties that either do nothing or indulge in mere critiques of the ruling dispensation.
The BJP has succeeded in shifting the responsibility for the existential crisis that people face on the ground to the opposition parties. So, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi has occupied the position and speaks like a leader in the Opposition camp, members of opposition parties continue to represent the ruling elites even when they are not in power.
The template to interpret the social and political reality has changed from Congress-style accommodation to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-style assimilation. The accommodation approach itself has been delegitimised as it has not delivered results. It was based on a promise but indulged in tokenism instead of actual inclusion. By contrast, the BJP provides a more profound sense and symbolism of assimilation with its cultural inclusion and solidarity. The Opposition needs to bust this myth of belonging and inclusion. Merely remaining silent and avoiding it is symptomatic of growing anxiety and insecurity. It will only add to the optics of what the BJP purports to achieve. In the recent protest against the Karnataka High Court judgment on wearing the hijab, the Congress party remained silent because it did not want to hurt the Hindus or the Muslims. In the process, it aided the disillusionment with itself among both communities.
Most parties have a similar understanding of the Hindus and the Muslims as the BJP. And they are using similar strategies to draw their support. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav visited a temple and performed a puja on the final day of his party’s campaign, though he remained indifferent during the Muzaffarnagar riots and invoked Jinnah to compensate for it. But this was not the reason Muslims voted for the Samajwadi Party. Jinnah would not have attracted the Muslims, but Yadav’s reference to him surely irked the Hindus. Silence during the riots annoyed the Muslims but did not help change the Hindu attitude towards the Samajwadi Party or Yadav.
The Opposition strategy is failing not just in terms of Hindu-Muslim relations but also concerning caste, region, and other identities. The Congress party took a proactive decision to carve out the state of Telangana but did not claim it out of fear of losing out in Andhra Pradesh. In the process, they have lost in both states.
What will work is to turn the passive style of inclusion around into a more active mode. For this, the Opposition has to learn to call the bluff of the BJP, bust its myths, and offer more positive and substantive ideas of inclusion. The BJP uses the Hindu card selectively or exclusively to mobilise them against the Muslims. Beyond this, there are no Hindus for the BJP. This is where the Opposition needs to step in to highlight the duplicity of the BJP. The question to raise is: The BJP may hate Muslims but does the party necessarily love the Hindus? Why are the migrants not Hindus who walked for hundreds of kilometres without hope during the Covid-19 crisis? Why are the university students and jobless youth not Hindus for the BJP? There is a marginalised Muslim, but where is the empowered Hindu?
Unless the rivals of the BJP re-signify what being a Hindu means in social terms regarding economic benefits, merely demarcating Hinduism from Hindutva cannot provide a concrete imagination. It will remain a discourse. In showing commitment to those suffering as Hindus, the Opposition can become effective and secular, not merely a rival indulging in the optics of temple-hopping.
Similarly, the euphoria generated around the film Kashmir Files has invited tepid remarks from the Opposition. Yadav talked of making Lakhimpur Files, and others on social media demonstrated triumphalism when they demanded a film named Gujarat Files. If making Kashmir Files is about revenge, then the BJP could say demands about Gujarat Files also works on the same register. The point is not to deny the suffering of the Kashmiri Pandits or draw up a calculus of how many got killed. That is crass and does not create moral sentiment against hate. The point, here again, is that the BJP did pretty much little for the Kashmiri Pandits; it only mobilises hatred against Kashmiri Muslims. This point will carry meaning only if articulated alongside a zero-tolerance for militancy, which is essentially fundamentalist in character.
Critiquing militancy will not hurt Muslim sentiments. Opening a debate on patriarchal practices will not drive away Muslims because the conservatives are not the only voices of Muslims. The problem with secular parties is they harbour the same image and understanding of the Muslims as the BJP. Also, the secular parties have used such a narrative as compensation for doing nothing for Muslims. For instance, the Congress party set up the Sachar Committee but never implemented it. In the process, Muslims lost out on both counts. They were slighted over “appeasement” and gained no benefits. It is in implementing the Sachar Committee’s suggestions that the critique against obscurantist elements and practices within the Muslims will find solid ground to stand on. It is when we articulate the idea of separating Kashmiri Muslims from the militants that we provide space for a new imagination. This way, the excesses of the militants cannot be blamed on all Muslims, while those who do support militants will remain condemned. Without a position and conviction of this kind, one cannot break the glass ceiling that the BJP has created. Without this, it will not make space for the Hindus to distance themselves from hate. What the BJP does and encourages, in fact, will not feel like hate.
The Opposition can create a new narrative by combining the lack of compassion for the Hindus in BJP’s politics with an upfront critique of obscurantism of sections within the Muslims. There is sufficient space for this, as demonstrated by how Muslims rejected Asaduddin Owaisi and the Dalits left Mayawati in the just-concluded Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. While communities are willing to be discerning, Opposition parties are unwilling (or incapacitated) to mobilise them. This inability is because they have offered nothing better than the minimalist welfarism and token representation the BJP is prepared to offer. By contrast, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is, to an extent, offering something concrete in the spheres of health and education even while keeping ominously silent on religious and cultural issues.
As demonstrated in the Punjab Assembly polls this year, people responded positively to AAP imagining them as citizens—even if it does not directly take on the majoritarian psyche.
The BJP narrative appeals more in the way it is presented than what it really offers. It presents an unmediated, direct and explicit narrative that stands as a testimony to commitment and clean intentions—even if Modi no longer promises acchey din or good days. At the same time, the Opposition, through its old ifs and buts style gets rejected even if it promises the world.
The author is an associate professor at the Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His forthcoming book is Politics, Ethics and Emotions in `New India’ (Routledge, London, 2022). The views are personal.
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