Can BJP’s 3-pronged attack win in 2024?
PM Modi hinted dynastic politics, corruption and appeasement will be his 3 weapons for 2024. But after nine years, will they work as well as they did in 2014?
With an astute political communicator such as Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, the message often lies in deliberate wordplay. Which is why the use of the word parivarjan (family members) as many as 48 times in his Independence Day address this year is strategic. Moving away from mitron (friends) and bhaiyo aur behno (brothers and sisters) to parivarjan, the PM is setting himself up as a lead member of a family of 1.4 billion Indians. The contrast with his political rivals whom he accuses of parivarwaad or dynastic politics is sharpened. But does the PM’s trishul of parivarwaad, bhrashtachar (corruption) and appeasement resonate as effectively as it did nine years ago?
Let’s start with the original brahmastra of parivarwaad. In 2014, Modi was the archetypal outsider, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak turned chief minister who was a chaiwallah’s son and not part of the privileged Lutyens’ elite. His principal rival, Rahul Gandhi, was typecast as a fifth generation dynast, a shehzada (prince) of the so-called Delhi Sultanate. The kaamdar (worker) versus naamdar (dynast) binary narrative worked perfectly, especially as Gandhi did little to repudiate the popular view that he had the Congress’s reins only because he was Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi’s son.
In the last year though, the roles of the two principal players in the political fight may have imperceptibly reversed. Modi may still cast himself as a rooted Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader who is promising to build a new India based on merit and not lineage, but he is also now a two-time PM with the trappings of power. When a cricket stadium in Ahmedabad is named after him or he is seen feeding peacocks in a well-manicured garden, when he looms large on G20 hoardings or is photographed in front of the grand new Parliament, the transformation into an imperious figure is unmistakable. In contrast, Gandhi spent the last year criss-crossing the country on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, rushed to Manipur to embrace grieving families in a relief camp, and was seen in the company of truck drivers, mechanics, farmers and vegetable vendors. The well-packaged videos of Gandhi with the aam aadmi (common man) are clever optics, designed to project the Congress leader as someone who listens to the voices of ordinary Indians. The dynastic sense of entitlement may still haunt him, but it is no longer his sole badge of identity.
Moreover, while the Opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) is dominated by family-centric parties, can the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) still claim to be entirely above nepotism in public life? Around 40 BJP members in both Houses of Parliament have dynastic links. In the recent Karnataka elections, at least two dozen BJP tickets went to candidates from just 10 political families. And what of the BJP allies, old and new, from the Akalis in Punjab and Dushyant Chautala in Haryana to Chirag Paswan in Bihar and Ajit Pawar in Maharashtra? Aren’t they also part of the parivarwaad syndrome?
Interestingly, in a speech delivered in the central hall of Parliament on Constitution Day two years ago, the PM drew a distinction between dynastic parties and dynasts. The former, he said, were against the spirit of democracy but the latter could be acceptable if they had talent and public support. In effect, Modi was greenlighting the kin of politicians, if they could prove their electability.
Let’s turn to corruption as a campaign plank. In 2014, Modi was the prime beneficiary of the India Against Corruption movement that hobbled Manmohan Singh. Nine years later, there are serious question marks over the manner in which federal agencies have been used to single out Opposition politicians. When the Enforcement Directorate is hyperactive in non-BJP-ruled states but missing in BJP-governed states, can the Modi government claim to be even-handed in its na khaoonga na khane doonga (will not be bribed or allow bribes) stance? And what of numerous political defectors who seem to mysteriously escape the scrutiny of the investigative agencies the moment they switch sides? Greatly enriched by opaque electoral bonds, the BJP’s claim of being a party with a difference is now blighted by charges of cronyism.
The PM’s other trope of appeasement also needs a relook. If the Congress is accused of pandering to minorities, the BJP can’t escape the serious allegation of persecuting minority groups. When interfaith marriages are demonised as love jihad, when food and dress habits lead to social discrimination, when there is little political representation for some minorities, and when hate speech isn’t called out, questions will be raised about the threat of majoritarian politics. The recent targeted killing of Muslims in a train by a Railway Protection Force constable hardly evoked any public outrage within the ruling establishment.
The BJP, though, is convinced that its three-pronged attack on opponents will ensure a Modi hat-trick. With the Opposition still struggling to get its act together, Modi remains in pole position to return to power in 2024. But after almost a decade in office, the Modi government’s strategy can’t revolve around exposing Opposition frailties alone. The new BJP must define what it stands for, and not just against what the Opposition is seen to represent. The parivarjan deserve better.
Post-script: On the sidelines of an INDIA meeting, one senior politician offered an intriguing prospect in private conversation: “What if Rahul Gandhi is not our PM face? Don’t forget we have Mallikarjun Kharge, Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, and Arvind Kejriwal in our lineup: A Dalit, an OBC, a woman, an IITian. Can anyone call them beneficiaries of parivarwaad?” he asked pointedly.
Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal