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Is There Really No Alternative To Modi?

By PREM PANICKER
May 14, 2024 11:52 IST
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Are we so ready to believe that in this country whose virtues we constantly shout from the rooftops, there is no single person -- other than Modi -- in a minimum of 272 elected MPs with the talent and ability to lead this country, asks Prem Panicker.

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi and Uttar Pradesh leader Yogi Adityanath greet supporters during a roadshow in Varanasi, May 13, 2024. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
 

Much has happened since my previous post, but what has fascinated me the most is an interview ANI's Smita Prakash did with K T Rama Rao of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi.

Where to begin? Maybe start with Prakash's opening gambit -- that there is Modi, but no alternative.

This 'TINA' trope has been a constant during the ten-year rule of Narendra Modi, and I personally find it baffling that so many people are so willing and eager to buy into it.

What does 'TINA' actually mean? 140 crore Indians (or at least, those among the population who actually turn up to vote), elect 543 members of Parliament. Of this, the party or alliance that attains a simple majority has a minimum of 272 MPs.

Are we so ready to believe that in this country whose virtues we constantly shout from the rooftops, there is no single person -- other than Modi -- in a minimum of 272 elected MPs with the talent and ability to lead this country?

Have the proponents of 'TINA' considered the implications of what they are saying about the country they are so shrilly proud to belong to?

***

A couple of days earlier, Amit Shah during a rally in Telangana had said this is a Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi election, though no Opposition party, least of all the Congress, has projected Gandhi as the PM face.

In passing, it is worth noting that Gandhi has consistently said he has no desire to be the PM. He said as much, as far back as 2013, again in 2014 in the run up to the elections, even more recently in 2018, and he also said the same at the start of this latest electoral campaign.

I'd written about why the BJP wants to make this a one-on-one contest here -- what is significant is that as each successive phase ends, the BJP gets increasingly desperate to frame the election to its advantage.

The most telling comment on the BJP was made by Ms Prakash herself: 'For this, they will vote for the Samajwadi Party, or they will vote for the DMK, or they will vote for Modi... they are voting for people...'

Two of the three names she invokes are parties, not people. And therein lies the problem. The SP, the DMK, BRS, CPM, RJD, TMC, AAP, Shiv Sena (UBT), NCP (Sharad Pawar), Congress... these are all parties, with an ideology (that you may or may not agree with, but that is another argument). The electorate is not just voting for the candidate but for a party, and for the ideology that party stands for.

Against that, there is no BJP as a party -- there is just Modi, and a ragtag cohort whose sole stated purpose is to perpetuate Modi's hold on power.

Candidate after BJP candidate has said as much: Tejaswi Surya in Bangalore said that a vote for him is actually a vote for Modi; Kangana Ranaut said the same thing in Mandi; Amit Shah has repeatedly said the same thing... why, even Modi on the stump says a vote for X candidate is actually a vote for him.

The BJP is clearly a party in name only, packed with people who owe their careers to Modi. Hell, a sizeable chunk of them are not even BJP -- an April 5 report in Business Standard points out that of 417 candidates announced as on that date, 116 (28%) are turncoats from other parties.

In other words, more than one in four BJP candidates are not wedded to the party ideology, such as it is, but are opportunistic imports. In phase four of the elections, 50 opportunists are in the fray.

The BJP does not campaign on its ideology because it no longer has a recognisable one. The BJP does not campaign on its achievements because it has no landmark achievements worth boasting about. The BJP does not campaign on its manifesto because that is a hastily put together document shorn of substance.

This leaves just one trope for the BJP to campaign on: Modi. And to make it work, there needs to be an opposing face. The Opposition is stubbornly refusing to give Modi that satisfaction -- and that is telling on a ruling party that is increasingly mired in mud fights with local leaders conversant with local issues, and who are fighting on their chosen battleground.

IMAGE: Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at the Nyay Sankalp Sabha in Nandurbar, May 11, 2024. Photograph: Mohd Zakir/ANI Photo

***

Staying with that theme, if the BJP using its tame agencies to put Arvind Kejriwal in jail was a blunder, failing to keep him there is a worse misstep.

The very first thing Kejriwal did on being released was to set the cat among the pigeons. The BJP, he pointed out, has a rule that no one over 75 will be given tickets, or party responsibilities. And so, he argued, when Modi turns 75 in September next year he will quit, and Amit Shah will become PM -- so you are actually voting for Shah.

It was a blow below the belt. Under Modi and Shah, the BJP had as far back as 2014 conjured up this 'rule' (which, by the way, does not exist in the party's constitution) to sideline the likes of L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and other senior leaders with a mass base and standing of their own. The idea then was to eliminate any potential challenger to Modi's supremacy.

In 2018 Shah, then the party president, had said that no official responsibilities would be given to those above 75. And in the run-up to the 2019 election, when the question of tickets being denied to Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi came up, Shah explicitly said it was a party decision that no one above 75 would be given tickets to contest.

In the wake of Kejriwal's body blow the likes of Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman, Rajnath Singh, J P Nadda, Amit Malviya and others all rushed to declare that Modi would complete his third term and be PM till 2029. (In doing this, they forgot that Modi's self-declared goal is to bring in 'Viksit Bharat' in 2047 -- 'I am already planning for 2047,' Modi had boasted at the recent India Today conclave).

Not for the first time in this campaign, the BJP has been forced on the defensive -- never a good thing for a party that wants to be front-runner.

IMAGE: Aam Aadmi Party leaders Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann at a roadshow for the Lok Sabha polls at Moti Nagar in New Delhi, May 12, 2024. Photograph: Mohd Zakir/ANI Photo

What has gone almost unnoticed is the other shiv that Kejriwal stuck in the BJP's ribs in course of that same speech. Naming the many BJP chief ministers with local stature who have been sidelined by Modi and Shah, Kejriwal said that within two months of assuming office, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath would also be among the discards.

The thing is, Adityanath's fate in the event of a Modi third term is already the subject of considerable buzz.

Everyone is aware of this rumour possibility, which has been doing the rounds not just in BJP circles and among Opposition leaders, but also in the media. (It is not like I have some extra special source of information -- I first heard this from a local reporter from Lucknow, who told me he hadn't filed a story on these lines because no one would want to publish).

Whether there is truth in the rumour or not, it has given the BJP's ground troops in UP pause for thought, and created some distance between Adityanath and Modi/Shah at a time when the party can least afford it.

No one was speaking about this publicly, though -- until Kejriwal came along and let the genie out of the bottle.

Significantly, none in the BJP hierarchy has thus far addressed the Adityanath question Kejriwal raised -- not even the senior leaders who were quick off the blocks to give assurance of Modi's continuance in office. And on the ground in UP, this is being noted with increasing concern.

IMAGE: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at a public meeting in support of Y S Sharmila, the party's candidate from Kadappa. Photograph: ANI Photo

***

The cumulative impact of all this is a Modi campaign that increasingly sounds unhinged.

The first sign of stress came on May 8 when, out of the blue, in course of a speech in Telangana, Modi said that Rahul Gandhi has not, since elections were announced, referenced Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani.

I want to know, Modi said in his characteristic up-tempo style, how much black money the Congress has received from them, how many gunny bags of cash has been sent in tempos...

Modi had scored a monumental self-goal. Rahul Gandhi was quick to capitalise on it when he asked Modi why he hadn't sent the Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax officials to raid the two industrialists he was accusing of trafficking in black money.

Modi went into hibernation for a day -- the first day since the start of this election cycle when he did not address a single election rally -- and the buzz was that he spent part of the time mending fences with the two industrialists he had intemperately attacked.

Then, on May 10, he was back on the stump. He steered well clear of the themes of Ambani, Adani and black money; what he did have to say is instructive of where the party's campaign is at.

At a rally in Nandurbar, he told Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar that rather than die with the Congress, it would be better for them to join the NDA. This came just a few days after he had called Pawar a bhatakti aatma and Thackeray a nakli santaan of Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray.

This gave Uddhav Thackeray the opportunity to frame Modi's words as a grave insult to the memory of the late Balasaheb -- always an emotive chord to strike in Maharashtra.

Unmindful of cognitive dissonance, Modi simultaneously accused the Uddhav Sena of wanting to bury him and the Congress of wanting to dig his grave.

Modi teri khabar khudegi is one of the prime minister's greatest hits. It makes an appearance every time an election is in the offing. The trope dates back to February 2023 -- when, not coincidentally, assembly elections were being held in Meghalaya.

It was recycled again in the run-up to the Karnataka elections in a speech in Parliament on August 10, 2023 -- and the odds are good that this is not the last time we will hear this particular peeve.

A day after Modi's Nandurbar rally, Priyanka Gandhi addressed a rally as big or bigger at the same place -- and brutally mocked Modi for 'crying like a baby'. That is the last thing the people of that constituency heard before Nandurbar voted on Monday, May 13.

So now you have an upset Adityanath and worried UP cadres. You have an angry Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, with Uddhav liberally pouring oil on the flames. You have Kejriwal on the loose -- and the AAP leader has a singular gift for spotting the BJP's weak points and sticking the stiletto in, deep.

As if all this wasn't enough, Modi went to Odisha and gratuitously called out Naveen Patnaik, who promptly converted it into an issue of Odia pride.

The bottomline is that at this point, the BJP has lost complete control of the narrative, and it is the Opposition setting the agenda.

If only it were a Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi battle, after all...

IMAGE: People walk next to a cutout of Modi in Varanasi, May 13, 2024. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

PostScript:

Recently, retired Justices Madan Lokur and Ajit Prakash Shah along with N Ram of The Hindu issued an invitation to Modi and Rahul Gandhi to engage in a public debate.

Gandhi was quick to accept. Modi has not been heard from.

BJP spokesperson Sudanshu Trivedi questioned Gandhi's standing and his knowledge of issues and pointed out that he is neither the leader of his party, nor of the Opposition.

Fair point, but Trivedi needs to pass this message on to their party leader, who appears to be so singularly obsessed with this 'nobody' that since campaigning began, he has not let a single rally, speech, or scripted interview pass without bringing Rahul Gandhi up, not by name but by the slighting, communal shehzada tag.

Modi -- and his party -- knows that he cannot engage in public, unscripted debate because his track record does not stand up to even amateur scrutiny.

So, nice try by the two judges and Ram, but the debate is a no-starter, more is the pity.

As to the 'Who is Gandhi?' question, besides the obvious response that he must be someone for Modi and his cohort to be so obsessed with him, will the BJP then agree to a debate between Modi and, say, Mallikarjun Kharge who is both president of the Congress and leader of the Opposition alliance?

You know the answer to that one as well as I do.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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PREM PANICKER / Rediff.com
 
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