The phrase, “There Is No Alternative”, or its acronym, ‘TINA’, is famously attributed to former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher who used it to describe her conservative view that the free market economy was the only system that worked. Later in the 1980s, ‘TINA’ was in vogue in the Indian media, which used it frequently when Rajiv Gandhi emerged as the only alternative in various pre-election opinion polls in a scenario where the opposition was fractured and broken. With parliamentary elections approaching once again and Indian political parties moving rapidly into campaign mode, ‘TINA’ has re-surfaced, this time to describe how Mr Narendra Modi could be the only alternative that voters may opt for.
The outcomes of elections in India are notoriously difficult to predict. Pre-election surveys and opinion polls are usually hit-or-miss affairs that more often than not get it wrong. Still it is worth noting a recent survey carried out by the India Today group of publications. Its first weekly Political Stock Exchange, which is described by the group as a tracker of India’s political pulse, has found that nearly 79% of respondents in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state that is represented by 80 members of Parliament, and in Uttarakhand, another northern state that has five MPs, are not even aware of the controversy surrounding the Rafale deal for buying fighter aircraft from a French company. The Rafale deal has been the focus of media attention—grabbing headlines and airtime—and Mr Modi’s government is accused of not being transparent about details of the deal and whether conditions were tweaked to favour interested parties. The fact that just 21% of respondents were aware or concerned about the deal speaks volumes about the apparent disconnect between real public discourse and what India’s media and intelligentsia are bothered about.
The same tracker, which polled more than 30,000 respondents, also found that 48% of them preferred Mr Modi as the next Prime Minister, while his chief rival, Congress party’s president, Mr Rahul Gandhi, was preferred by only 22%. It would be imprecise to arrive at a generalised conclusion based on one poll in two states but it might be pertinent to take the tracker’s findings as a cue to gauge what India’s 670 million voters will be largely bothered about as they head to the polling booths when elections—officially scheduled for next May—are held. The Rafale affair may not be top of mind in their concerns. The extradition of defaulting a prominent businessman such as Mr Vijay Mallya who fled to Britain may not either.
The disconnection with what the general public’s perceptions are is not a problem that afflicts the media alone. Political parties, particularly those in the opposition who are trying to cobble together a united front to challenge Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have largely focused on issues such as the Rafale deal and Mr Mallya’s extradition or how he was allowed to flee the country after defaulting on thousands of crores of rupees. These issues may have little or no resonance for those whose votes really matter. In India, where a quarter of the population (or more than 300 million people) lives on less than $1.25 a day, the value of casting a vote is generally inversely proportional to the level or degree of economic and social privileges that a potential voter enjoys. The higher you are on the socio-economic scale, the less is a vote’s worth; the lower you are on it, the higher is the value of a vote.
For Indians who are struggling to break out of the shackles of poverty, the concerns rarely involve issues such as controversies over large aircraft deals or bringing an erring liquor baron to justice. Instead, whom they ultimately vote for depends on who they think can help make their lives and those of their families better. Random conversations with ordinary people—on the streets of India’s teeming cities and towns, or in its villages can reveal that they’re aren’t really as unhappy with Mr Modi’s government as is made out to be. In Mewat, a district in BJP-ruled Haryana where nearly 80% of the population is Muslim, there is surprising support for him. The ordinary Indian’s views on many “controversies” during his tenure over the past four years can be surprising. For instance, although there is little hard evidence that Mr Modi’s hasty demonetisation of large-denomination currency notes actually helped in reducing unaccounted for cash, the man on the street still believes it did.
There is also the human factor. Mr Modi fought the 2014 elections in a manner that recalled personality-centred presidential elections in democracies such as the US. He was projected as his alliance’s prime ministerial candidate; he deployed his oratorical skills and demagoguery to their fullest; and, at hundreds of massive rallies, made promises of development and progress that resonated with the common man. In contrast, the then ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) election campaign appeared feeble. It didn’t project a prime ministerial nominee; 10 years of its rule were pockmarked, particularly in the second inning, by scams and controversies; and its leader-by-default, Mr Gandhi, came across as a novice.
Four years later, not much has changed. It is true that cold hard facts can be used to argue that Mr Modi’s tall promises of development, progress and improvement of the ordinary Indian’s life have not all turned to be true. Unemployment and lack of job growth remain serious problems; prices, including that of fuel, have surged; the rupee’s value has fallen sharply; and, although quarterly GDP growth rates look good, viewed in the context of a very low base, they aren’t enough. But when millions of Indians head to the electronic voting machines when elections are held, these may not matter.
Consider first the tremendous confidence of the people that Mr Modi appears to command. In many Indian states, even those that are ruled by BJP or its allies, even people who are not happy with their state governments are willing to plump for Mr Modi at the Centre once again. The prime reason for that might be the apparent ‘TINA’ factor. As in the 1980s, India’s opposition parties, despite all their attempts to unite against the NDA, remain fragmented and rift-ridden. There is no clear “face” that the opposition has to challenge Mr Modi with.
If you thought Mr Gandhi could be that face, think again. The head of a prominent Indian media group told this writer recently that the problem with Mr Gandhi was that he’s “too eclectic”, which could be a reference to his unpredictable and diverse notions about issues. Think about it. Do you really know what Mr Gandhi’s views are on various things—on the economy, on international relations, on India’s internal security, or on societal issues? His public pronouncements, while less laden with gaffes than they used to be a few years ago, are often contradictory and imprecise. There is little clarity in public of what sort of governance he could deliver if he becomes Prime Minister. What is his vision or strategy for boosting job generation? Or, for reviving India’s farms? Or dealing with an irksome neighbour such as Pakistan?
In contrast, like him or not, when it comes to his public pronouncements, Mr Modi is WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). He may or may not have delivered on the promises he made in 2014, but anyone who hears him speak—in public meetings or on his monthly, informal radio speech to the people—knows what he thinks on the issues he talks about.
Mr Modi’s powerful personality and the clarity of purpose and thought he expresses are clear advantages when he heads towards the next elections but he has other help at hand. His regime may be routinely criticised in social and other niche digital media but these reach and are read by a small sliver of Indians. India’s larger mainstream media, which reaches a much wider audience, exudes deference towards him and his government and any criticism there—be it of the Rafale deal or of how Mr Mallya was allowed to flee the country –is usually remarkably mild. When it comes to fighting elections in India, that kind of implicit support is worth much more than pinpricks of criticism on social media platforms that neither an impoverished farmer nor an angry, unemployed youth can be bothered about.
Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan