Adani, Rafale, Pegasus and the Question of What Concerns the Indian Voter

It would be meaningless for the opposition to sit back and speculate how quickly the voter might respond to its campaigns around these big wrongs. Teflon leaders have come and gone, and irrespective of a leader's popularity the opposition must do what is right.

Last week, a Congress spokesperson asked me whether the Adani issue would matter at all to the ordinary voter. Clearly, he had some self-doubt as to how the campaign against Gautam Adani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi would play out politically and electorally.

Will it affect Modi’s popularity?

Sections of the Congress party may be grappling with this question, especially after Rahul Gandhi upped the ante dramatically with his captivating speech in the Lok Sabha on the unique relationship between Gautam Adani and PM Modi. A large part of the speech stands expunged, showing that the issue is troubling Modi. But Modi has also shown the capacity to repeatedly emerge politically unscathed, and this causes self-doubt in the opposition camp.

On an earlier occasion, similar self-doubts were expressed by sections of the Congress when Rahul Gandhi had relentlessly campaigned against Modi’s handling of the Rafale deal. Even then, some opposition leaders felt that Modi was seen as personally incorruptible, so simply attacking him with corruption charges would not help. The same logic was used when the Pegasus issue exploded in parliament and a whole session was nearly washed out. How will the Pegasus issue impact the voter in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Rajasthan?

So the larger question is as follows ― should the opposition choose issues for political campaigning based purely on how they would play out electorally and how much they would impact Modi’s image? If this is the dominant consideration for doing opposition politics then it would be severely self-limiting, and even self-defeating.

Politics cannot work on such a narrow and instrumental basis.

True, Modi has a certain teflon quality, something they used to say about Atal Bihari Vajpayee, too. Many corruption scams in Vajpayee’s time did not stick to him personally. But that did not dissuade the Opposition from campaigning on those issues. Of course Vajpayee’s government was less centralised, which helped the Prime Minister’s Office to deflect the blame to coalition partners. It was then widely believed that Pramod Mahajan was the party’s chief fund collector and Vajpayee’s policy was to keep some distance from those activities.

But nothing is static in politics. Vajpayee did lose power in spite of retaining much of his aura of personal incorruptibility. So the opposition would do well not to get intimidated by what seems like Modi’s impenetrable teflon image. More importantly, it is the opposition’s dharma to campaign around issues without always weighing the outcome in terms of electoral dividends. In politics, outcomes generally don’t build up in a linear fashion. A lot of things accumulate in the electorate’s deeper consciousness before manifesting all at once.

Narendra Modi and Gautam Adani at the Vibrant Gujarat summit. Photo: Twitter/Files

So every issue which rightfully deserves intense campaigning must be taken up, irrespective of immediate electoral gains. Rafale was a big issue because it was apparent that all established procedures for defence procurement sanctified by the cabinet and the President of India were upended overnight. Corruption is not just about taking bribes. It is also about how established institutions are deliberately weakened and destroyed.

On Modi’s policy to actively help in the expansion of big business entities, the issue is not whether he has personally benefited from his close links with such businesses. It is more about how such a nexus with big business impacts democracy and key democratic institutions.

The opposition needs to properly nuance its messaging by suggesting that one need not be personally financially corrupt to perpetuate oneself in power by cornering over 85% of all big business funding in favour of one party. The people who vote and care for India’s democracy will eventually understand this logic. It is therefore not all about whether a leader is amassing personal wealth or not.

It seems like a no-brainer that the campaign around Modi’s nexus with big business has to be directly linked to the opaque manner in which electoral bonds are funding Indian politics. Hopefully, at some stage, the voter will clearly understand what is at stake. It would be meaningless for the opposition to sit back and speculate how quickly the voter might respond to such campaigns. The opposition must do what is right. It is as simple as that.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.