By Harihar Swarup
With day-long protests by Congress across the country recently, the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Parliament has given shape to political chessboard, setting up the opening pieces for the 2024 election battle. How events pan out depends on subsequent moves of various protagonists. We can, however, make preliminary observations.
One, the next national election may not depart substantially from the previous two in their broad framing as “Modi vs Congress” and “Modi vs Gandhi” elections. After Bharat Jodo Yatra campaign, Congress has occupied increasing opposition space. Meanwhile, the brief spurt of regional parties such as TMC and AAP on the national stage last year got cut off through election reverses and corruption investigations. Political headlines, well after Bharat Jodo Yatra, all belong to Rahul Gandhi.
Disqualification of Gandhi scion which prompted cross party walkouts in state assemblies of Maharashtra and Bihar, has only appeared to boost his political status within the opposition space. Even traditional Congress baiters such as BRS,TMC and AAP came out strongly in condemnation — Arvind Kejriwal termed BJP government as a more “oppressive” than British rule — all repeating the narrative of “corrosion” of democratic institutions, which was the centrepiece of Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY). Congress, of course, pressed its charge that the “dictatorial” move validated Gandhi’s attack and showed the government was increasingly “afraid” of Rahul.
BJP perhaps does not mind fuelling a “Modi vs Gandhi” narrative ahead of state contests such as Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, where it faces considerable anti-incumbency. It does have some electoral logic as Narendra Modi is still much more popular than Gandhi— in recent India Today Mood of the national survey, 53% preferred Modi for PM as the opposed to 43% respondents for Gandhi.
Two, the neta narratives for next year’s election is increasingly coalescing around a contest between what the governing party pitches as a “nationalist” vision and opposition parties pitch as a “democratic” vision.
The PM is leading BJP’s political campaign on the plank of national pride, show casing the G20 summit as the crowning jewel of India’s “dazzling” rise to “great power” status. With post—pandemic economic recovery encountering heavy headwinds, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is keeping a low profile while foreign minister Jaishankar leads the government’s charge. Meanwhile, the opposition is portrayed not just as “corrupt” but often accused of colluding with “anti national” forces opposed to this national progress. The political storm over Gandhi’s comments in the UK was one instance of this emerging narrative.
The problem the opposition faces is that unlike BJP’s clear articulation of a singular vision, the opposition’s vision is an ambiguous, disjointed formulation. This is not necessarily its fault— democracy is inherently a multi-valued concept that lends itself multiple meanings, articulations. For example, BJP presents its own democratic vision as one of empowerment say the celebration of a tribal President, and national pride India as “the mother democracy”.
That is not to say a democratic narrative is politically fruitless, particularly in front of the governing party trumpeting hard nationalism. Electoral decimating of the Congress in 1977 and 1989 prove it. In 1977, Congress defended Emergency claiming anarchist in opposition ranks threatened in the national security. Before 1989 elections, Congress celebrated the emergence of a modern India with an aggressive foreign policy under Rajiv Gandhi, while squabbling opportunists unfit to deal with the “serious challenges” to national integrity in Kashmir and Punjab. In a characteristic campaign attack, a full page Congress advertisement showed a broken doll with the caption: “My heart beats for India! And I won’t let anyone break it to pieces.” (IPA Service)