But is he ready?

So far, we have focused either on Modi’s politics and appeal or India’s political dynamics

Farrukh Khan Pitafi May 25, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Email him at write2fp@gmail.com


Today marks the penultimate round of voting in the sprawling Indian election. The final round will take place on June 1, the next time this column appears. And on that evening, thirty minutes after the last booth closes, pollsters will be at liberty to reveal the results of their exit polls. If you do not trust them, you can wait for three more days to get the final results.

So far, we have focused either on Modi’s politics and appeal or India’s political dynamics. India’s opposition leaders have been mostly reduced to footnotes in such pieces. There is a good reason why. Modi’s larger-than-life image dominates every political discourse in India. Not to mention his charisma and raw appeal, which has become an integral part of everyday life. That is precisely why India’s client electronic media openly discusses the “TINA (there is no alternative) factor”.

But surely this cannot be true. How can a nation of 1.4 billion be devoid of an alternative claimant to the throne in this day and age? The so-called TINA factor is a heavily manipulated and highly cultivated spin to keep people’s brains from functioning. The Newslaundry team last month revealed a survey of the prime-time shows of six major news networks conducted between February 1 to April 12 in the run-up to the general election. Out of 429 shows, 224 were dedicated to bashing the opposition, 116 lionised Modi, 24 dropped the pretense and simply promoted Hindu-Muslim communalism, six were moderately critical of the government or sympathetic to the opposition and only five about the real issues like jobs and education. In an election year, this was happening when national surveys were revealing that nearly half of the respondents found inflation, unemployment and economic distress to be the most pressing concerns.

According to a report published in Hindustan Times on December 14, 2022, the information and broadcasting ministry had disclosed to the lawmakers upon inquiry that between 2014, when Modi assumed power, and 2022, his government spent a whopping 64.91 billion rupees on advertisements, out of which 32.6 billion went to the electronic media. One wonders then how much alcohol from India’s much-hyped liquor scandal was consumed by these six godi anchors. It must take a lot of effort and resources to put your soul permanently to sleep.

But scratch the wafer-thin veneer of andh bhakti (blind worship), and you come across a billion and half beating hearts, traumatised souls and financially distressed minds. Politically speaking, this is a disaster waiting to happen. India would be lucky if some apolitical fanatic did not hijack this sentiment and put it to nefarious use. The TINA myth then poses a clear and present security threat to the country. India’s postcolonial governance model is not authoritarian enough to get away with permanently shutting down the avenues of ventilation, catharsis and change.

I call it a myth because there is no shortage of capable leaders in opposition. Ready for the list? Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge, Mamata Banerjee, Tejashvi Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal, Sitaram Yechury, Hemant Soren, Udhav Thackery, Sharad Pawar and countless others in no particular order. Anyone of them could easily give the Modi-Amit Shah duo a run for its money.

But the one leader riding the high tide of visibility right now is Rahul Gandhi. This man alone has rattled Modi and his junta beyond belief. If you notice some rather incoherent mumblings from India’s strongman about mutton, fish, mangalsutras, buffaloes and potential godhood, you can attribute it all to this man.

A few weeks before the election, I was approached by a few foreign friends interested in India. Knowing my common interest, they asked me many questions. One peculiar question stood out. Is Rahul ready? I told them I wasn’t paying much attention and would need some time to get back. In case you are wondering, answering such questions is a matter of routine in this highly connected world. Don’t worry. I will share my final answer in the end, but let me regale you with some petty details first. I had followed the 2019 campaign but not in granular detail. Since then, I had caught glimpses of his twin yatras, but again not in depth. So, I began exploring his activities recorded in the public domain. His reaction to the 2019 defeat, media coverage, his speeches, interactions with journalists and other politicians and so on. Remember, the 2014 rout in the election had exacted a heavy toll on him. Not only had he become the face of a decisive defeat, but Sanjay Baru’s angry tome, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, had presented him as the personification of everything wrong in the party. The 2019 defeat, combined with the propaganda film of the same name, had compounded the image problem. And the fact that the media had chosen that moment to prostrate before Modi Raj had left little room for recovery.

But then, towards the end of 2022, you notice a transformation. His Bharat Jodo Yatra, which witnessed him covering over four thousand kilometres in 150 days on foot, was both a catalyst in this metamorphosis and a feat of gorilla marketing genius. The uninitiated should know that yatras are a vital part of India’s political history and nearly always reward the yatri. One prominent example is Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi Yatra or the Salt March. While Rahul’s march revitalised the party’s cadres, it also worked as an act of penance for whatever shortcomings were observed in him. During this march, he shook the image of a detached, dynastic politician and established a bond with the people. His second march, the Nyay Yatra, was mainly meant to collect data and ideas for his manifesto.

Since then, his party has produced a brilliant manifesto with five guarantees that speak to the masses. Despite the government’s stranglehold, his motley bunch of social media workers has beaten the well-oiled online propaganda machine of the BJP to a pulp. And his decision to join a multiparty electoral alliance shows he finally has learnt the virtues of humility. When he addresses a crowd, his audience is enthralled by his talk and may not mind risking a stampede to touch him.

So, my answer in the end was: Of course, he is ready. In fact, he is just one failure away from turning into a messiah or a revolutionary. Born and brought up with privilege, when he talks, he sounds like a representative of the oppressed masses. Lose him to the forces of upheaval at your own risk. Whether he wins or loses again, with little resources and against staggering odds, he has already stolen the show.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2024.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.



Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ