In October 2001, Narendra Modi became chief minister of Gujarat. Since then he has not had to sit in the opposition benches ever, not for a single day. In the Gujarat assembly and later, since 2014, in the national parliament, he has sat only as head of government. The secret of this non-stop success is that he uses power to gain more power. He is never complacent about it.
No doubt that he is not always very democratic in how he goes about it. He makes sure the opposition, media and critics are weak, pliant or marginalised. But that is only a part of it. Modi’s worst critics must acknowledge that Modi knows how to communicate to the masses. He has his hands on the people’s pulse.
Which makes us do a thought exercise: what would Modi have done if he was India’s main opposition leader right now? Forgive us the blasphemy, but what if Narendra Modi was in Rahul Gandhi’s spot...We do have some basis to answer that question because we have seen Narendra Modi as an opposition challenger in the 2014 national election, and we see his party do a very good job of playing the same role in state elections.
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So, here are at least four things he would have done in this writer’s assessment.
1. He wouldn’t have given up on Covid. If Narendra Modi was the opposition leader, he would have been doing video conferences with families of those who have lost lives to Covid. He would have been doing one event after another to honour and remember especially the front-line workers such as doctors and health care staff. Over 1,11,000 Indians have died of Covid — he would have been reaching out to their families to highlight the government’s failure. And he would have been doing so with a slogan, hashtag, and events. Party workers would have been asked to doing nothing but this for weeks.
It is instructive to study how the BJP as an opposition party put Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal on the mat over fudging Covid data, whereas the Congress in Gujarat is unable to do so even now. Rahul Gandhi warned the government about Covid back in February when the government wasn’t taking it seriously. And yet he hasn’t been able to take much credit for it, because he’s given up on it. Other than a tweet now and then, there is nothing that Rahul Gandhi or any opposition leader is doing by way of pointing out the central government’s failure on Covid.
When Modi takes up an issue, he keeps drilling it into people’s heads for months. He doesn’t give up on it if the early response isn’t very enthusiastic or if the media isn’t giving it prominence. For example, he’s been hard-selling for weeks a simple, lacklustre vision document on education, the National Education Policy, as if it were some kind of revolution.
2. He would have become the messiah of migrant labour. When migrant labour were walking home, Modi would have highlighted their plight with one emotional speech after another. Rahul Gandhi did just one video chat with one worker. All parties, NGOs, social groups, corporates and individuals did what they could to alleviate the suffering of migrant labour by providing them food and transport. The one person who came out of this looking like a superman was not any opposition leader but a Bollywood actor, Sonu Sood. Modi would perhaps have done even better than that.
No sustained campaign
The Congress party did decide to pay for the train fare of migrant labour but failed to make it a campaign. With this one campaign alone, he would have painted the government of the day being anti-poor, insensitive and pro-capitalist. Our opposition was not even able to get credit for the welfare work they did because they didn’t know how to do it like a campaign, and the leadership seemed more concerned about saving themselves from Covid, sitting at home. Sonu Sood would make for a better leader than any of our opposition leaders. Once again, Sonu Sood got people’s appreciation and attention because he carried on with it for weeks, even when the rest of us were moving on to other issues.
3. He would have campaigned on economic distress. On Narendra Modi’s birthday, the opposition recently marked a ‘National Unemployment Day’. It was a fairly effective campaign — but only for that day. Would you pursue an issue as big as economic distress for just one day? Narendra Modi pursues such issues by, first and foremost, doing a slogan. He then carries on with the slogan for months. That’s exactly what he has done. His slogan is ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ or self-reliant India. What is the opposition’s counter-slogan? None.
‘Atmanirbhar Bharat,’ is a slogan the government repeats every day. The slogan gives people the perception that Modi is not looking the other way from Covid-induced economic contraction. It creates the impression that Modi is trying to solve the problem, even if the government actually has very little money to spend. On government give very little relief, on unemployment, not giving GST compensation to states and so on — there’s so much Modi would have exploited with the right slogans, events, campaigns and speeches.
4. He would have made Hathras a long national campaign. The gang rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh recently shook the nation. The opposition was happy to have been given an issue on the platter. Everyone went to the site, got some photos taken and returned. Had Narendra Modi been the opposition leader, he would have found a way of stretching the issue for at least a month. He would have announced a campaign across Uttar Pradesh, if not all of India, on the issue of violence against Dalits. In the absence of a sustained campaign, Hathras has already been forgotten, just one of those stories in the news cycle that come and go.