PM Modi has never been more politically vulnerable. Even the proverbial uncles in family WhatsApp groups aren't standing up for him anymore. Some say this is the Modi government's 'Anna moment'. That agitation cost the UPA its street-cred within just two years of returning to power with a bigger mandate. Now, exactly two years after Modi seemed invincible, his poor handling of Covid has opened up a chink in the BJP's armour. If India was against corruption in 2011, today it is united against incompetence.
Till now the PM has ridden on his TINA factor - There is No Alternative. This had kept fence-sitters, especially amongst India's affluent middle-class, on the BJP's side in 2019. Now these people are beginning to question their choice. Rahul Gandhi is suddenly getting good press from liberals who considered him a ninny. The political atmosphere is such that there have been no calls for the Gandhis to quit the Congress, despite the party's abysmal performance in the recent assembly polls.
However, just a sudden anti-Modi tide is not enough. Several other things have to turn in the opposition's favour for it to put up any serious challenge. The most crucial among these is India Inc. There are two reasons for this. The first, and most crucial, is that they provide the funds for election campaigns. The second is that India's corporates have a huge influence over a large part of our national media, partly through ownership and partly through advertising.
Let us begin with the issue of campaign finance. India had about 91 crore eligible voters in 2019. This is likely to rise to about 96 crore by 2024. If one assumes a similar turnout, we can assume that about 64 crore people will actually vote in the next Lok Sabha elections. If the Congress wants to lead a coalition government at the centre, it will need at least 100 seats and a 25 percent vote-share. That means getting about 16 crore people to vote for the party.
Let's look at the math: In 2019, the BJP spent an estimated Rs 27,000 crore and won about 23 crore votes. That means it spent about Rs 1,200 per vote. That's equal to roughly Rs 1,500 per voter in 2024 prices. So, to keep pace, the Congress will need about Rs 24,000 crore to get 25 percent votes in the next election. All it managed to spend in 2019 was Rs 10-12,000 crore, less than half of what the BJP spent. This is because India's moneybags did not trust Rahul Gandhi's politics. His anti-corporate and overtly socialist rhetoric wasn't going to win him any fans in FICCI or CII. This also alienated India's ruling elite - from opinion-builders such as journalists, columnists, lawyers and public intellectuals, to the opinion-consuming middle-classes. The consistent bad press that Rahul Gandhi has got over the years has a lot to do with his perceived 'left-wing' tendencies.
There is little doubt that the Congress is the only pan-national party that can challenge the BJP. It won close to 20 percent of the popular vote in 2019. The closest that any other non-BJP party came to that was the Trinamool with 4 percent. There is equally little doubt that the Congress will find it very tough to cross 100 seats. So, it needs to position itself as the leader of a new opposition alliance that can together win a majority.
The problem with the Congress is that the Gandhis are its only pan-India brand. Rahul is both the party's best bet and its biggest liability. If the Congress wants support from India's ruling elite and a section of the country's big business houses, it will have to ring-fence Rahul with a set of faces that are more acceptable to those who hold money and power. The crucial face here is that of Manmohan Singh. Ever since the second wave began, social media has been full of memes propagating the virtues of the former PM. In any case, even in 2014, India's middle class did not dislike the 'accidental Prime Minister'. They only faulted him for being too gentle and timid. Dr Singh is also popular with corporates, because he was the original architect of India's pro-privatisation market-reforms.
It is too late for Rahul Gandhi to pretend to be a supporter of India Inc. So, he needs to backpedal a bit and cut down on his anti-rich rhetoric. If he is re-presented to the public as an apprentice to the 'wisdom' within the Congress, he has a much better chance of opening a door to his right. Manmohan Singh will be almost 92 years old at the time of the next election, but he can still be positioned as a 'patriarch' PM, with Rahul as his deputy. The Congress will also have to put up a team of corporate-friendly leaders such as P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor, and, perhaps, Jairam Ramesh, to liaise with business houses.
If some big corporates begin to voice their concerns in public about the way the government has handled the second wave of Covid-19, and add to that their criticism of Modinomics, then elite public discourse will begin to change. Sections of national media, which tend to shift with changes in public mood, will begin to air criticism of the Modi government. This will fan anti-Modi opinion on the ground and help it spread, just as media coverage of the Anna Movement produced a tsunami of anti-UPA feeling on the ground. The opposition will then have to strengthen this through a sustained multi-year social media campaign - memes, videos, stories - in short, everything that can be shared on WhatsApp groups.
This is the only way for the opposition to reinstate itself in India's seemingly unipolar polity. This is realpolitik, which requires carefully calibrated consensus-building. It requires a certain degree of ruthless pragmatism. And most of all, it needs money.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)
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