On Friday evening in a vain bid to find out if anything significant — other than the Lok Sabha debate on the contrived Rafale controversy — had happened in the country, I switched on the TV. On at least three ‘news’ channels, I was greeted by a lot of indignation over a promotional advertisement by actor Naseeruddin Shah for Amnesty. Later, I found this anger expressed in social media messages by those who are broadly part of my political ecosystem.
It is understandable that people get rather worked up when cocooned celebrities suddenly start bleating on about intolerance and the shrinking space for dissent in India. Ever since the hour on May 16, 2014, when it became clear that Indian voters had chosen Narendra Modi to lead the country for the next five years, the anti-Modi brigade has declared democracy to be comatose in India. This perception, of course, has not stopped them from either doing their own thing or broadcasting how terrible life in India has become. With another general election due in barely four months, it is only natural that the old message will be re-broadcast with a measure of added shrillness. In 2014, the chief cheerleaders of the anyone-but-Modi cry were the non-resident intellectuals; in 2019 there are likely to be a larger number of resident intellectuals cheering on Rahul Gandhi.
I don’t know why some of my friends have got upset over Naseeruddin Shah’s message that, in effect, calls upon Indians to liberate themselves from Modi rule. As I discovered, Shah is an old sinner and had penned his name to a similar anti-Modi initiative in 2013. He is, contrary to whatever impression he may now choose to give, a person who had welcomed Modi with lots of hope and ended up disappointed. He has had an old allergy to Modi. Whether this allergy stems from inheritance or is acquired is a matter of detail that doesn’t concern me. In any case, it doesn’t stop me from regarding him as a talented actor. As a matter of rule, I don’t think we should judge the professional competence of individuals by their voting preferences. Utpal Dutt was one of my favourite actors and he was a doctrinaire Marxist. But so what? He was a bloody good actor.
One of the grave distortions in Indian public life is that we expect everyone, apart from professional politicians, to keep their political preferences under wraps. This doesn’t happen in other countries. It is fairly routine for American celebrities to come out quite openly in favour or against their presidential candidates every four years. The Democrats get a lion’s share of endorsements — as does Labour in the United Kingdom — but the other side isn’t totally unrepresented, except if he is an outlander like Donald Trump. In India, unfortunately, political preferences tend to be masked by pious sounding messages that are aimed at concealing their real purpose. Naseeruddin Shah’s was a straight forward appeal to people to vote against Modi. In time to come, I hope, for the sake of honesty, he is equally explicit in letting us know who we should vote for. We have had enough of surrogate advertising and it is time to get real.
The second issue is one of political strategy. Over the past few months, as campaigns get more and more professionalised and taken out of the hands of well-meaning political activists, there has been a tendency to target segments of voters. The Congress — thanks no doubt to sound professional advice — has become quite adept in this game. It has learnt from its 2014 mistakes and is approaching the 2019 election with two clear objectives. First, it wants to consolidate the anti-BJP vote and prevent the BJP from benefitting from the first-past-the-post system. Second, it is carefully targeting those sections that vote almost en bloc for Modi in 2014. In particular, it believes that if it can wean away a significant chunk of the middle classes and the upper castes from the BJP, its chances of success will be multiplied. Incidentally, it was the successful application of this approach that saw the Congress prevail in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The BJP lost because it conceded many of its core urban seats to the Congress.
It is also part of its strategy to secure surrogate endorsements from groups that feel short-changed by the Modi Government. In recent weeks, we have witnessed organised letter-writing initiatives by former bureaucrats. I have no doubts in my mind that this was entirely a Congress initiative. I am also certain that the next lot to get energised will be the NGOs, especially those that have been affected by the rigorous scrutiny of foreign contributions. The Amnesty International initiative is just the first salvo.
A final part of this strategy is to secure endorsements by the media. In 2014, The Economist raised eyebrows by calling for a vote for the Congress. It was doing what is standard practice in the US and the UK — suggesting to people who to vote for. In India, however, media preference tends to be somewhat concealed. I fear this may not be so in the coming general election. We are likely to see explicit messages from media groups calling for Modi to be ousted. The online news portals that have received funding from anti-Modi businessmen through their dedicated trusts are likely to set the ball rolling.
It is quite clear that the 2019 general election will witness a bitter fight. Unlike 2014, when the Congress conceded a walkover in the belief that there would be fractured verdict and that its energies could be conserved for the next round, this time the old Establishment is leaving nothing to chance. Their desperation is understandable. What I am not sure of is the extent of the BJP’s counter-preparedness. Maybe the BJP National Council session this week will set the tone for Modi’s re-election bid.
Sunday, 06 January 2019 | Swapan Dasgupta | in Usual Suspects—