Who Can Challenge The Modi Regime In India?

The origin of the acronym, TINA (or There is No Alternative) is credited to the late British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party leader who was in office from 1979 to 1990. Thatcher used it as a slogan to lend credence to her belief that there was no alternative to a market economy where free trade and free markets were the only way to build and distribute wealth. Later, the phrase “TINA factor” was appropriated by Indian political commentators who have used it to describe situations where one powerful party or head of government seems so strong that there seems to be virtually no alternative to replace him or her.

Famously, the phrase was used for the late Indira Gandhi who was the second longest-serving Prime Minister of India (she served from January 1966 to March 1977 and again from January 1980 until her assassination in October 1984). More recently, even as the present Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, is serving his second term, the phrase has been cropping up again with various political analysts speculating whether there is a TINA factor at work and whether there is in reality no alternative to Modi.

With the near decimation of the only other significant national party, the Indian National Congress, which after decades of being in power, is now reduced to holding a mere 52 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha; and 36 of the 245 seats in the Rajya Sabha, the question of whether the Modi-led, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-dominant regime has anyone to challenge it in elections. In addition, the BJP, or alliances in which it participates, is part of the government in 18 of India’s 31 states and Union Territories and the party has publicly proclaimed its mission to have a “Congress-free” India.

In the absence of a comparably strong and cohesive party to challenge the BJP at the national level, the alternative in the form of a challenger could, at least theoretically, be a coalition of parties—strong regional ones or one that can be led by the Congress but comprising many smaller parties. Some political analysts have punted for the Mamata Banerjee-led All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) as a possible key player in evolving a coalition of regional parties. That view has gained ground in the aftermath of the recent West Bengal elections in which despite the BJP’s deployment of a high-powered campaign, Ms. Banerjee comfortably cruised to victory, effectively retaining chief ministership for the third term.

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Stable coalition governments are common in many parts of the world, including, in particular, in Europe where in countries such as Switzerland, Finland, Belgium, Italy, and Germany, it is almost a given. In India, both at the national as well as the regional levels, coalitions are not novel arrangements. They have been tried but the outcomes, at least in terms of stability, have been mixed. Unless led by a single party that has a significant clout in terms of the number of seats it wins in Parliament, coalition governments have been short-lived in India. In 1996, after a fractured electoral verdict, when the BJP, led by the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, emerged as the single largest party in Parliament and was invited to form a government and cobble together a majority (by wooing other smaller parties), it failed to do so and collapsed in 13 days.

It was replaced by the United Front, which was closest to a copybook version of a political coalition with 13 different parties coming together to form an alliance. The coalition formed two governments between 1996 and 1998, the first headed by Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, and the second by I. K. Gujral. The United Front managed to stay in power for less than two years.

The current crisis in terms of finding a worthy challenger to the BJP is accentuated by the fact that the Indian National Congress’ strength has been getting dissipated over the past few years. Its leadership, which for all practical purposes, rests with the Nehru-Gandhi family, has been unable to provide either cohesion or expansion. Rahul Gandhi, who briefly became head of the party between 2017 and 2019 has been an enigmatic leader, often appearing reluctant or indecisive. In recent months, the party has witnessed an exodus of key young leaders, many of whom could have been groomed to lead the historic party whose origins go back to 1885. Many of these young leaders have left to actually join the BJP, the Congress’ arch rival.

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Partly it is hard to make the concept of a coalition government functional at India’s national level because of the nature of the nation. India is a pluralistic society that is like few others. The sheer diversity of a country with a population of 1.4 billion that is more like a continent made up of several “countries” is what makes things particularly difficult when it comes to forging alliances between different parties. The differences in languages, cultures, economic development, among several other parameters, is so wide-ranging that very often it is difficult for outsiders to grasp the enormity of the complex politics in the country. There are differences between regions (north and south, is an example); between states that can be neighbouring ones (each of the southern states has a different language); and between castes and gender.

Coalitions work better in countries where the population is small and less diverse. In Europe, governments made up by alliances of political parties with seemingly different views and ideologies have been comparably more stable than similar arrangements in India. Besides being easier to govern because of their size (some European countries have populations that are smaller than those of large Indian cities), the degree of plurality when it comes to ethnic diversity, cultures, language, and so on, is much smaller than those that exist in India.

To be sure, however, even the ruling BJP-led government is a coalition. Modi is the Prime Minister of a coalition government formed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which comprises at least 14 different parties. Besides being united by ideology (most of the NDA’s constituents are right wing oriented), in the BJP it has a powerful leader: of the 334 seats in Lok Sabha that the NDA now controls, 301 are BJP members. That is the kind of strong glue that makes coalitions work in India. For regional parties, such as Ms. Banerjee’s AITC, it can be difficult to achieve a position where it can provide such a cohesive glue. The same goes for other regional parties such as, for example, the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh; or the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar. All of them have the potential to score electoral victories in their respective regions but have little political leverage when it comes to making it big on the national scene.

Is There Really No Alternative To Mr Modi?

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    ]]>