Editor’s Note: Will India vote for what really matters?

Published : May 02, 2024 11:00 IST - 3 MINS READ

As Prime Minister Modi stokes divisive fears, can the opposition offer a compelling alternative focused on lives, livelihoods and liberties?

As I write this, a blazing summer is well underway across the country accompanied by the return of vitriol to the campaign trail. Prime Minister Modi’s brazenly communal reference to “ghuspaithiye” (infiltrators) and “those who have more children” forced even the otherwise pliant Election Commission to take cognisance. Albeit timorously conveyed to BJP president J.P. Nadda alone, it marks the first time the EC has had to recognise a code of conduct violation by a Prime Minister.

The rise in communal dog whistling is being read as a fallout of the BJP’s anxiety after the first phase’s low turnout indicated that it might not win as many seats as the ambitious target it had set. Whether the BJP is truly rattled or if it is merely going back to its real DNA of divisiveness is not yet clear, but what is evident is the increasingly bizarre excess in Modi’s oratory. His tone is more conspiratorial, the self-pity and victimhood are more pronounced, and it all peaks with the by now familiar invoking of fear and dread.

Of the many hallucinatory images Modi has summoned up recently, one is particularly striking: that of the opposition robbing the Indian woman’s mangalsutra. If one considers the journey of hatred and fear that began with the destruction of the Babri Masjid to have reached a certain pinnacle with the construction of the Ram temple on that spot, then it is logical that the Prime Minister now needs to brandish a new spectre of fear. And what better than to claim that the Hindu woman’s very mangalsutra is under threat, which is not just her last financial resort but whose loss symbolically means the loss of the family’s breadwinner.

In reality, of course, not just Hindu women but all women of the lower and middle classes are facing severe financial hardship even as unemployment races out of control. But this cannot whip up the kind of existential fear that Modi needs, like all autocrats, to make every other concern seem inconsequential. How well this works is seen, for instance, in Mathura where despite widespread displeasure with the vacuous Hema Malini people still say they will vote for the BJP—because this has, over the past decade, been carefully constructed as a vote for Hinduism itself. Therefore, what is significant is not that Mathura might again vote saffron but that some of its voters are expressing discontentment at all.

“The challenge for the opposition is to ignore the red herrings and consistently offer an alternative that goes beyond communal politics.”

Such grumbles in the teeth of staunch faith-based voting are being heard across north India. Taken in tandem with the small revolts by Jats, Rajputs, and farmers in parts of the Hindi belt, and the purported return of the Dalit vote to the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, it seems like a tiny ripple of discontent is disturbing the smooth surface of Modi’s popularity.

On the BJP’s part, its near-complete fetishisation of Modi, with his face on every surface and the party manifesto literally chanting his name, cues under-confidence. While one could argue that what we are seeing is the full flowering of megalomania, it is more likely a sign that the party is a one-trick pony that is struggling to sell anything besides the one name.

It is in this tantalising context that one asks when India will finally begin to vote for what really matters: lives, livelihoods, liberties. The challenge for the opposition is to ignore the red herrings and consistently offer an alternative that goes beyond communal politics. After that, it is up to the electorate. As graffiti on a wall in West Bengal pithily reads: “If your boyfriend is not getting a government job, change the government, not your boyfriend.”

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