Faced with voter unrest, can Indian PM win their trust again?
Modi's oratory is not attracting large audiences as before, while Rahul Gandhi seems to have acquired more confidence.
By Rahul Singh (Perspective)
Published: Sun 20 Jan 2019, 10:02 PM
The Indian general election is still a few months away. But many thoughtful Indians have already started contemplating on the main issues that will be placed before the voting public by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition. First of all, if the opposition is to have any chance against the present government, led by perhaps the most formidable political campaigner the country has ever seen, namely Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it will have to stay united. Modi will obviously be the main face of the BJP and he is going to try his hardest to make it into a US-style presidential election, one-on-one. That is a trap the opposition must not fall into because it has nobody who can match him.
As matters stand, the Congress, though considerably weakened by the virtual rout it suffered in the 2014 general election, is still the main opposition party. And its president is Rahul Gandhi, with a great dynastic legacy behind him. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, though Italian-born and a Roman Catholic, has adapted herself seamlessly to India and its customs.
She speaks Hindi fluently, albeit with an accent. The surprise Congress victory in 2004 is largely ascribed to her astute tactics. To get the better of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the highly regarded leader of the BJP, was no mean feat. She could easily have become the prime minister of India. Instead, she earned even more respect by bringing in economist Dr Manmohan Singh, a low-key intellectual of unimpeachable integrity.
The Congress won again in 2009. But then the slide began, with scams surfacing one after the other, while a hapless Dr Manmohan Singh pleaded that this was due to the "compulsions of coalition politics". In other words, the political parties the Congress was compelled to ally with to stay in power were the real scamsters. Be that as it may, the BJP seized the opportunity and found their man of the moment who had been a highly successful Gujarat chief minister. He and his chief strategist, Amit Shah, rolled over the opposition juggernaut-like. Modi and Shah were only halted recently in five state elections, all of which the BJP lost.
Something has clearly gone wrong for the BJP and right for the Congress. The Indian public mood has shifted perceptibly. Modi's oratory is not attracting such large audiences as before and he sounds somewhat jaded, while Rahul Gandhi seems to have acquired more confidence and maturity.
The cow protection movement, which once had widespread support, has degenerated into vicious communalism, which goes against the secular fabric of India. Intolerance and hate have raised their ugly heads in various aspects of Indian life.
Here's a telling example from a recent news item. One Deepak Gaikwad, described as a 'leader' of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a BJP offshoot, is quoted as saying at a public meeting that if there were no Muslims in India, there would be no terrorism and that if Modi did not remain in power, Hindus would feel 'insecure'. He then goes on to utter another falsehood that the BJP has been spreading widely, which is that the Muslim population has been expanding exponentially and that by 2060 it would be larger than the Hindu population!
At present, Hindus constitute 80 per cent of the total Indian population, and Muslims 14 per cent. To say that 14 per cent would increase to over 50 per cent in 40 years, is not only preposterous but has no factual basis whatsoever. It also promotes hatred and a fear psychosis against a community, for which a person can be criminally prosecuted under the existing law in India. Gaikwad should have been prosecuted and expelled from the VHP for his baseless, toxic speech, so as to at least send out the message that such vile public talk will not be tolerated. But the BJP and the VHP have remained totally silent, allowing the lunatic right-wing fringe to do its worst and occupy centre stage. Little wonder that iconic and respected Indian film stars like Naseeruddin Shah and Aamir Khan - both of whom, incidentally, have married outside their community - have publicly voiced their anguish over the wave of intolerance and hatred being fanned by the BJP. Then, there is the polarising demand for the construction of a temple to the Hindu mythological hero, Ram, where a Muslim mosque had been destroyed by Hindu fanatics, which has lately become shriller, even though the Indian Supreme Court is still deliberating on the matter.
The reality is that a great many young, educated Indian voters had turned to Modi five years ago believing his promise of "better governance and less government". And of course, more jobs. Few signs of that, five years on. He assured them of a cleaner, corruption-free and brighter future, building the Ram temple and laws to prevent cow slaughter were of peripheral interest to them. I believe they feel badly let down. They also feel uneasy about the growing intolerance in a nation that has prided itself for its unity in diversity and secular, peaceful ways. Whether this unease will translate into votes at the coming general election only time will tell.
Rahul Singh is a former Editor of Khaleej Times