INDIA needs a new vision of nationalism for 2024. Invoking Nehru, Constitution not enough

If Modi is the outsized factor in the 2024 elections, then only nationalism outpaces him as the dominant mood. INDIA’s challenge is to create an alternative nationalism.
File photo of INDIA alliance members
File photo of INDIA alliance members

The latest bi-annual India Today ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey will give cause for both the ruling party and the Opposition to rejoice. With high approval ratings for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a projected return to power in 2024, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party can afford to take the weekend off, but it won’t. As they say, the competition never sleeps. And the survey confirms it—the Opposition is finally wide awake and getting ready for the challenge.

The survey presents two clear positive messages for the Opposition: First, the name ‘INDIA’ for the coalition is a winner. Second, it is projected to come within shouting distance of the BJP in terms of vote share. Apart from this, the survey offers mixed messages for both the NDA and INDIA coalitions.

The paradox is that while nationalism is the top sentiment, the precise importance of the immediate or local context is harder to nail down. To illustrate, the survey projects an overwhelming parliamentary victory for the NDA in Karnataka, the very state that has invigorated the Opposition by voting in a Congress government. In contrast, the BJP is projected to incur losses in Maharashtra (currently gripped in an unending soap opera) as local contingencies remain friable but have grown in importance.

Political analyst Rahul Verma thus offered two conclusions. First, the old chestnut that voters make different choices between state and national elections. Second, and more provocatively, Verma contends that the success of the Opposition will depend on the extent of its ability to fight the 2024 Lok Sabha election along regional and local lines. Perhaps he did not stipulate this for the BJP due to Prime Minister Modi’s ratings that loom large.

So, does this imply that Modi could potentially overcome local issues such as the tawdry family feuding in Maharashtra? And would voters in states like Karnataka exhibit a dual political personality, not choosing the Congress party in Delhi but keeping it close in their backyard? While I don’t strongly disagree with Verma’s contradictory conclusion, the survey nevertheless indicates that the Indian political landscape, after nearly a decade, is unsettled anew.

Modi and INDIA

Modi remains the principal theme and factor, which could turn the 2024 election into a plebiscite on his personality. Herein lies the key problem and temptation for the Opposition: Should it make Modi central to its line of attack or not? The current digital decibels and the ferocious outpourings of party spokespersons suggest that the Opposition will indeed prioritise Modi, his style and personality, making them key to its script and campaign.

While the Opposition hopes for a repeat of a 2004 mandate in 2024, its greatest danger lies in focusing solely on Modi. This approach might lead to a repeat of 1977 — when the principal theme was Indira Gandhi. Reining her in and ousting her motivated otherwise antagonistic political strands from the Left and the Right to come together. They won, only to collapse disgracefully under the weight of their own contradictions, allowing Indira Gandhi to storm back to power in less than three years.

Despite the high ratings, it’s no slam dunk for Modi. I am not questioning his popularity. Rather, there has been a distinct transformation in his persona. Simply put, after almost a decade of power and authority, Modi is less of the everyman or the much-beloved underdog figure that Indians initially identified with when they first anointed him. Modi’s once humble backstory now feels as distant as his political style, which has morphed into that of a strongman. Today, whether he’s addressing a global summit or speaking to the nation, the cold aloofness of power and authority defines the Modi image. He can incite national pride, but precisely because he has ascended its prohibitive domes,  few, if anyone, can relate to that kind of power. Yes, you may only look up to him now.

In contrast, the rising ratings of Rahul Gandhi testify to his success in connecting with ordinary Indians by walking with them. The ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ and its message of love have not only improved his personal ratings but have also had a consequential impact on at least one major election — Karnataka. Historically, mobilisations are tricky to time, and it’s no surprise that MK Gandhi, the most effective campaigner, deployed them sparingly but effectively.

In short, mobilisations of this kind risk dilution if these were to be sustained for the long eight months of campaigning ahead. More importantly, it also risks the transformation of a political leader into a celebrity or an icon. Is a selfie equivalent to a vote?

The upshot of these emerging battle lines is that it will be harder for the BJP to harp on about dynasticism or ‘pariwaarvad’. It will be harder still to determine whether Indians prefer authority over love.

The power of personality is undoubtedly in play, but its emotional map and mood are undergoing major shifts that will only be settled next year.

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