In a one-to-one personality contest, the opposition leaders are very weak vis-à-vis Narendra Modi. They need to define their own agendas.
Yogendra Yadav of Sawraj Abhiyan has raised the most relevant question with regard to the decline of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi municipal polls. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity was at its peak in early 2015 when AAP pulled off the most spectacular victory in the Delhi assembly polls. So what has changed since then for AAP to do so badly in the municipal polls?
The point is that Modi’s popularity has been constant between January 2015 and May 2017. Is there some other variable, then, that explains the decline of AAP? What is that variable? This is what AAP will have to introspect about honestly. In a way, other political outfits ruling in different states will also have to ponder whether their strategy of taking on Modi’s persona alone will help in the long run.
The electorate seems to be tiring of personality clashes and Modi, who himself fought a presidential-style election in 2014, is cleverly shifting his strategy by placing substantive issues before the people. At last he has started moving the central and state machinery to deliver targeted welfare schemes like subsidised cooking gas, low-cost housing and affordable generic medicines to the poor. Of course, he is not just doing that. He is also cleverly mixing welfare with aggressive nationalism and taking Hindutva to the subalterns.
By doing all this, Modi is also crafting a new identity for himself and the BJP. Of late, one has heard some ordinary voters saying Modi’s BJP is different from the earlier BJP. It is this phenomenon that the opposition parties need to examine closely before personally attacking Modi as the only political strategy. They are strengthening Modi by focusing on his personality. In a one-to-one personality contest, the opposition leaders are very weak vis-à-vis Modi. This is the point Yadav is making when he implies that Kejriwal clearly lost out in a personality contest. The personality contest successfully camouflaged the colossal non-performance of the BJP, which has ruled the Delhi municipal corporations since 2007. When did you last see a prime minister being projected as a face for the municipal polls?
The BJP will keep inviting a personality contest in all the ensuing assembly elections whether in Gujarat, Himachal or Karnataka over the next year or so. The opposition will have to play a different game, though it will be quite tough to avoid the temptation of joining issue with Modi personally. If Modi invites them for a game of football, the opposition must invite him to play hockey. This will be difficult because the prime minister enjoys a vantage point to set the agenda. But still the opposition must try to make Modi play a different game that he may not be entirely familiar with.
Nitish Kumar is one leader who has at least understood this. At the release of P. Chidambaram’s book in the capital a few months ago, he suggested that at least 90% of the time the opposition must pitch its own well-thought-through agenda instead of just responding to Modi all the time. Only 10% of the time should the opposition be in a purely reactive mode.
This is easier said than done. If the BJP pitches the issue of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the opposition will have to respond. It cannot avoid it or be seen as a quiet bystander. But it can find creative ways of fuelling a parallel discussion on the mandir-masjid issue. Mahatma Gandhi used to constantly engage the Hindutva outfits on the cow slaughter question, while proclaiming himself as a devout follower of the orthodox Vaishnav sect. Gandhi’s language was like that of the liberation theologists of latter-day Latin America. Indian polity, and more particularly the collective opposition to the hard Hindutva regime, needs a new language and idiom. This fight cannot be fought on the merits of development, economic growth and jobs alone. There is a need for a new political idiom which must come as an unpleasant surprise to the Sangh parivar. This is the only way to politically contest the Hindutva nationalists.