The Modi government’s move to confer India’s high civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, on veteran Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader LK Advani along with Bihar’s socialist leader and icon Karpoori Thakur, makes a major political statement ahead of the general elections. The message is that the BJP is heading into the polls on the twin planks of Hindutva and social justice, a combination the opposition is finding hard to counter.
LK Advani was the original poster boy of the BJP’s Hindutva movement which began with his rath yatra and ended with the demolition of the Babri masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992. It is here that the newly constructed Ram temple now stands after the Supreme Court of India ruled for Hindu petitioners after a long legal battle. An emotive issue for millions, it has only further increased Modi’s chances of a third term in power.
Karpoori Thakur was a two time Chief Minister of Bihar who belonged to one of the most backward communities — the barber or ‘nai’ caste. He grew into one of the state’s tallest leaders and is credited with the rise of backward caste politics. Awarding him the Bharat Ratna completely took out the sting out of the opposition’s caste census plank which was lead by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and who walked back into the BJP’s arms days after the award was announced.
The BJP is going into these elections with powerful planks — Hindutva, social justice and welfarism. The government’s schemes, especially those targeted at women, have been a big talking point this past decade.
And the Congress, which is seen as the weakest link in the opposition, is clearly Modi’s target. Not the regional parties that have emerged as bigger challenges to the BJP at the state level. In a speech to India’s parliament this week, the Prime Minister only targeted the Congress and the Gandhis. Of course dynasty is only bad when it has to do with opposition politicians not when the BJP is full of dynasts in its own ranks.
A confident Modi used that speech in the Lok Sabha (lower house of India’s parliament) to predict 370 seats for his party in the elections and over 400 for the NDA. The health warning here is that politicians always sound more confident and throw around big numbers for the media but the BJP’s confidence today is not entirely misplaced.
The opposition is struggling to come up with a counter narrative to all these planks. I met a young man on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival last week who told me he was not very happy with the BJP government’s performance after ten years but that the lack of a face to take on Modi and the lack of a vision from the opposition camp, was pushing him to vote for Modi again.
2024 is Modi’s to win
At a session I moderated at the festival, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor insisted the opposition did not need a personality to take on Modi, that issues would be enough with voters because we have a parliamentary system. I argued that our elections have become increasingly presidential and therefore this argument no longer holds.
We also still don’t know what the opposition stands for aside from criticising the government, which it is well within its right to do. But what is the Congress plan, for example, to create jobs? And not just any jobs but good jobs. What is their plan to increase the participation of women in the labour force, which is very low in India, the lowest among the G20 countries in fact. The answer is that we simply don’t know.
The weakest link for the government is actually the economy, despite good growth. That’s because the growth is unequal. The rich are getting richer while the poor and the middle class are struggling. This is evident in poor consumption levels in lower income groups and also lack of private investment.
A recent Reserve Bank consumer confidence survey showed that those with more money had a more favourable view of the economy, those who make less money have a more negative view. This is what the opposition needed to tap into. But it is unable to. 2024 is therefore Modi’s to win.