Rahul Gandhi, leader of Indian National Congress, India's principal opposition party in Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala, India (File) Image Credit: Reuters

The success of any strategy must be measured by its outcomes. Mainstream opposition parties in India have over the years become so apologetic about secularism that they don’t even use the word anymore. They pretend Indian Muslims and even other minorities don’t exist. On occasion they even go to the extent of trying to appease Hindu fundamentalists with an approach known as “soft” Hindutva.

Question is, how many votes has this strategy won you? How many seats? How many elections? Has this strategy helped you?

The point I’m making here is purely a strategic one. Morality is subjective in our polarised times.

The sort of voters whose votes are moved by Hindu fundamentalism will anyway vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Such voters will any way see the Congress as other secular parties as championing diversity, pluralism and the rights of religious minorities — ideas antithetical to their vision of India.

Expanding the base

A difficult question to ask is, how many people vote mainly on account of Hindu nationalist identity politics? My estimate is around 20%, because that’s how many votes the BJP gets nationally when it loses a national election, as in 2009.

Some people argue that the Modi era has likely expanded this core ideological constituency. No doubt about that. The debate would be on the percentage increase. Without going into such a debate on numbers, let us agree on the limited point that an ideology spreads when it is marketed and sold, just like a product.

Opposition parties, most of them, clearly have a secular ideology. They may make compromises on that and take to strategic silence but we know that they don’t take to Hindu fundamentalism as a cornerstone of their policy. It is a no-brainier that secularism has been suffering because its believers refuse to champion it.

For example, a Muslim comedian has been in jail in India for 25 days under absolutely false charges and the Congress party won’t make noise about it. Will going silent on such things increase or decrease the Congress party’s votes, or will they remain the same?

Why someone will give their life to your party

The fall of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and BJP’s ascent to power in 2014 have all created a consensus that the opposition must practice strategic silence on the question of secularism so as to not offend the majority. This logic has some good evidence. In 2004 and 2009, the Congress formed national coalition governments by winning votes on development issues.

Recently, the Congress won state elections in 2018 in the BJP bastions of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh by promising to write off loans taken by farmers.

But this limited evidence elides the larger picture, which is of the BJP’s ideological assertion and its links to electoral politics. In West Bengal for example, the BJP has used supporters of the Hindutva ideology to gain an entry point, and then go on to larger demographic strategies.

Any party’s core ideological supporters are its footsoldiers. These are the people who give their sweat and blood to establish a party on the ground and make it win elections. That energy and enthusiasm is missing when it comes to most opposition parties because they are not able to motivate a critical base by using ideological motivation.

Taking up a hard secular left line again, speaking against the persecution of minorities, will only help the opposition today create new footsoldiers to spread their ideology, vision, flag and party symbol. These are the people who will wake up early and mobilise voters to the polling booth.

Your core voters will desert you

In the Bihar assembly elections recently, the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal decided not to speak at all about the Citizen Amendment Act of 2019, which many Muslims feared would strip them of their citizenship. The result is that the Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM won a historic 5 seats in the Bihar assembly.

For a party identified solely with Muslims, it is a big thing to have won 5 seats against the broad-based secular parties. We’ll see a lot more of this going forward, Owaisi and others like him chipping away the votes of people who think the secular parties are not standing up for them.

The Congress and other opposition parties are doing so badly that they will lose absolutely no votes by taking up a hard secular left line. On the contrary, if you look at the ideological spectrum in Indian politics today, the hard secular left line is totally missing.

If you were a political entrepreneur you’d see it as a market opportunity. And there’s a large market for those who will buy this product. After all, at the peak of Modi’s popularity, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won 45% vote. We can safely presume the rest 55% are not very impressed by BJP’s politics.

Zigzag your way up

That still leaves us with the question: how does the opposition win the extra swing votes to actually come to power? It is interesting to see how the BJP has managed the balance between ideological pursuit and a governance agenda. They’ve done it in a zigzag manner. When they need to build or charge the base, they go after ideology. To win the swing, often before elections, they downplay ideology and talk development and governance.

A similar approach will help the opposition. In times of election, the opposition must go after what voters want the most (these days, jobs and incomes), and after whatever is the weak point of the BJP in a particular election. But when it is not campaign period, opposition parties must articulate an ideological purpose to create and charge up their base.

Indirect marketing of ideology

This ideological purpose doesn’t always have to be fulfilled directly by the party. In the case of the BJP, there is the mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and then myriad proxies of all kinds, deniable elements who can be dismissed as ‘fringe’ elements. Opposition parties also need all kinds of proxies to propagate secularism, secular nationalism, national integration, equality, and Constitutional values.

In ten years that the Congress was in power at the national level, 2004 to 2014, it invested nothing in propagation of secularism and Constitutionalism. It presumed that it can win votes forever only by distributing patronage the poor.

If the Congress understands this now, it would do well to start funding and supporting secular institutions in the few states that it is in power. Are Congress governments in Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh supporting secular NGOs, filmmakers, institutions, websites, journals, theatre, art, folk culture? Not that I know.

If this decade has taught us anything about Indian politics, it is that ideology matters. There was, for example, a big political movement against corruption in 2011. The movement defined itself as free of any ideological baggage. It became a political party and contested elections but has failed miserably in becoming a national alternative.

It has been reduced to a municipal-level party in the by-lanes of Delhi. Its charged up volunteers have all run away. That is what happens when you do politics without an ideological centre.