The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is more than half way into its term. So far, it has been a term of extraordinary disruptions – political, economic, religious, cultural and social. Whether or not you find yourself in conformity with the agenda of the administration, you cannot deny the sheer impact of the premiership of Narendra Modi.
His rise to the top elected office in India has also entailed a virtual vacuum of leadership in the opposition. The Indian National Congress (INC), the de facto principal opposition party has found itself in tatters. Its leader, a seemingly uninterested politician, Rahul Gandhi, has been unable to find credibility among the national public. Other parties have done reasonably well at the regional level, but they still have not the kind of support that BJP does.
In the last two and a half years, there has been a noticeable uptick in the incidences of religious violence, social tensions and hatred-filled nationalistic tendencies on display. Despite all this, the BJP seems to be decently poised for the 2019 elections. The Congress has been very shaky in its role as the opposition. It finds itself in a tricky situation of having to condemn the violence and intolerance regularly while not appearing to condemn nationalistic and religious emotions. And this is where it seems to be losing the battle.
One of the unrealized weaknesses of the Congress has been, for the sake of pluralism and in the face of tolerance, it has insisted on a morally ambiguous politics. While the BJP talks of religious values and morality publicly, the Congress limits itself to condemning those values. It falls short of articulating its own values and morals. This form of non-judgmental value-free politics that it has tried to pursue has created a moral vacuum which has been invariably filled with narrow, intolerant moralities.
Pluralism, Secularism and tolerance are not just talking points for TV debates. They need to be articulated using a language which resonates with the people. The BJP has its own notions (or lack thereof) of these words, and it has communicated it cleverly, using imagery of leaders whose ideologies it has no intentions of pursuing, in a way that convinces its supporters and many whom it passively harms.
Unemployment, falling standards of living and poverty are surely a concern for the common man. But that is not all. People crave for recognition and identity in society and as a citizen of the country. For better or for worse, religion and caste is one source of that identity. By choosing to not talk about these issues in a constructive way, instead of simply opposing and condemning the BJP, the Congress finds itself in a moral desert. It leaves itself vulnerable to the politically unfavourable appearance of trying to dissociate a person from something with which it identifies, namely caste, religion and nation.
In the absence of an alternative construction of moral values, people invariably gravitate to the divisive aspects of identity. Congress needs to ideate and find a coherent, cohesive message on how it views religion and nation, one that it can position in response to those of the BJP. It has not the option to sit idly while the BJP simply crowds out the space with its corrosive morality – to the point that BJP and it ilk appropriate these sentiments.
Demagoguery is occupying the language of the common good. The default way of filling the emptiness – of the meaning of caste, religion and nation – in public discourse has become strident nationalism. BJP also has crystal clear slogans, eye-catching scheme names and a leader who communicates effectively. The Congress has none of these.
The vicious election campaign that BJP ran in 2013-14 is yet to be challenged ideologically. Surely, they have moderated their voices. But they have consolidated it too, making the rhetoric subtle, in dog-whistles and providing a morally narrow carpet for the people to tread on. They have essentially held the moral reigns of the political discourse tightly.
When our Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks – on issues of technology or economy, it is not value-free nor is it elitist. He has found a way of blending technocratic talk with a subtle appeal to our morality – throwing in elements of solidarity and the common good. The Congress needs to wake up from its smug slumber of value-free politics and formulate a strategy that talks of pluralism, secularism and tolerance in an appealing way.
As George Orwell once wrote – “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”