There are limits to using Gandhian thought from decades ago to deal with issues that it could not anticipate, leave alone solve, observes Dr Sinha on the irrelevance of Gandhian thought in reviving the Congress party from the successive electoral reverses

Subir Sinha is Reader in the Theory and Politics of Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Hailing from Bihar, his first degree is in History from Delhi University. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Northwestern University, obtaining an MA and a PhD in Political Science from the latter. He has taught at the University of Vermont, was a Fellow at the Institute of Agrarian Studies at Yale University, and held a visiting position in the Department of Politics at the University of Turin. His early work was movements of the rural poor for common property rights to nature, inspired by ideas from Gandhi and Liberation Theology, resulting in papers in the Journal of Peasant Studies, one of them prize-winning.

Subsequently, he turned to looking at the concept of ‘subaltern’, originally enunciated in relation to colonial rule, in the context of India’s postcolonial modernity. These engagements led to his long-term project of providing a postcolonial theory of the commons. His engagement with Marxist and postcolonial political economy resulted in a collection in the journal Critical Sociology, and other papers on the question of ‘the working class’ – its composition, consciousness and political subjectivity – in contemporary India.

Within the overall theme of postcolonial capitalism and political subjectivity, he is currently engaged in a project of exploring the political subjects of authoritarian populism, and the role of social media in their formation. Papers from this project have appeared, among other places, in the International Journal of Communication, and Geoforum. His shorter writings have appeared in The Conversation and Outlook magazine. His interviews and writings have been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and he has appeared on Indian, British, French, Turkish and Arab television.  In an interview with Asian Lite’s Abhish K. Bose he discusses the impact of the bharat jodo yathra and the future of Congress party in India.

ABHISH K. BOSE: Do you think that the Bharat Jodo Yatra can help the Congress party regain its compromised relevance and mass-appeal? Has it served the purpose of a political mobilisation, re-orienting citizens towards favouring the Congress?

Subir Sinha : I think this is too early to tell. The response of the ruling party shows they certainly do not want to take it lightly: from attempts to stop it (via reference to Covid wave, or repeated insinuation that it would be a security risk), to close scrutiny of who took part, analysis of Rahul Gandhi’s clothing etc, to continuous barrage of attacks and ridicule on social media. The coverage in media was minimal and negative too. Attacks on the Yatra’s credibility now include statements from the BJP to the effect that it was funded -even orchestrated – by Soros. Journalists in newsrooms, one hears, were asked not to cover it too enthusiastically.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah during ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ in Banihal. (Photo: Nisar Malik /IANS)

Some of the issues it raised were co-opted in ruling party leaders’ speeches, including Modi’s. Whether it regains relevance and mass appeal cannot be answered at aggregate level. Events such as this, in today’s context, need media coverage to become appealing and relevant. Some regional media covered it more positively than others. Did it make in-roads into the support base of other parties? And can yatras like this convert into electoral success? Note   that Rahul Gandhi pointedly wanted not to link the two. Of the latest elections, while the BJP will form or be part of the government in all three states, they lost seats and the INC gained some, even though the yatra did not travel through the region.

They did well in the by-elections in areas they did traverse. Jairam Ramesh is suggesting that they may revive the yatra later in the year, so certainly they see some benefits. We will get a better answer to this question after the coming round of state elections. For a party out of power for 10 years and whose recent electoral victories were negated by horse-trading, with nowhere near the funds of media generosity as the BJP, the yatra was one of the ways of mass contact. It sponged up issues as it went along, both local and regional and also national. We saw RG’s looks change, and in some measure the BJP social media team’s obsession with his clothes and looks etc gave them wide publicity.

Rahul Gandhi dances with supporters at ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ camp site in Srinagar. (Photo: IANS/Twitter)

By all accounts, the yatra were joyful, inclusive, and energetic. Rahul Gandhi appeared comfortable among ordinary people and spoke sense, giving a different impression of himself than the BJP caricature of him. And the visuals of people from across the non-BJP spectrum participating in it, the hugging and occasional kissing all pointed to an alternative conception of the future to the angry and violent one being portrayed by the Sangh whose actions were running parallel to the yatra. It seems to have caught the imagination of considerable sections of voters, especially the youth, due to the way in which they used social media for their messaging.

ABHISH K. BOSE: Despite the predictable media lukewarmness to the Yatra, it appears to have struck a chord in the imagination of the people nation-wide. However, the paralysis of the Congress organisational machinery and the absence of grass-root-level people connect could limit the yathra’s beneficial outcome for the party. Do you agree?

Subir Sinha: Yes, I agree. The decline of the Congress Party’s organisational machinery is long term, and I would say it has appeared to be terminal. Decline in political fortunes and decline in organisational strength are mutually re-enforcing: with less power to distribute and several claimants to a declining stock of power, many will leave for greener pastures, as they have. The change of dynasty has stuck, and the BJP has been successful in communicating to ambitious young and middle-level politicians that they have a better change with them than the Congress. Congress MLAs also form the overwhelming proportion of MLAs who were “persuaded” to move to the BJP. Can a yatra by itself compensate for the reasons behind the long-term decline of the machine? No. Can it be the jump-start needed for new kind of organisation – based on younger people, women, Muslims, Dalits, advasis and others who feel a lack of prospects or representation in other parties? Possibly. Rahul Gandhi and Jairam Ramesh both said the yatra was to ‘listen to people’,‘share their pain, and carry their hopes.

Rahul Gandhi and Jairam Ramesh both said the yatra was to ‘listen to people’,‘share their pain, and carry their hopes.

Today social media is a huge part of building organisation and for mass contact, and the yatra did spark interest in that regard. Building organisation, either online or on-the-ground, needs money and central command and control. It also relies on people self-enrolling on to a political platform. The BJP has overwhelming advantage in having the Sangh’s on-the-ground organisational network, massive funds, and the BJP IT cells. The control over the media that the BJP has should also be seen as it also has an independent troll army of ‘bhakts’. To counter all this is a huge organisational challenge. One yatra cannot be seen to compensate for such a deficit. What it can do, and seems to have done to an extent, is to stimulate self-enrolment, that is it was able to motivate people who are not party functionaries to declare themselves as Congressi and to take up the task of forwarding party information outside of the mainstream media.

ABHISH K. BOSE: The political misuse of Hinduism as it is being twisted into the mould of Hindutva is the cardinal strategy of the BJP and the RSS. A major segment of the Hindu community unwittingly equates Hindutva with Hinduism. In this, the BJP’s stratagem has worked to its advantage. Given that, is it essential for the opposition to give shape to a educating mechanism to separate the chaff from the grain? Does not the adoption of soft-Hindutva strategy project the image of the Congress as a pale replica of the BJP? If it does, why would the votaries of India as a secular, democratic Republic turn or return to the Congress?

Subir Sinha: In a context in which Hinduism is both a terrain and an object of politics, and large sections of the electorate exhibit and expect hyper-religiosity, the Congress was charged repeatedly with being non- and anti-Hindu, and so had no option but to participate in this, even at the cost of some ridicule. My reading is that the Congress is NOT offering a soft-Hindutva option, but seems to want to revive the older notion of inclusion of all religions, in contrast to the BJP’s strategy of radical exclusion of all other religions. This creates a dilemma, of course. Look at Rajasthan, which has been an important site for Hindutva violence against Muslims.

With elections coming, if the Congress government takes a strong action against Hindutva vigilantes, the BJP will say it is appeasing Muslims. If it does not, then there will be legitimate Muslim complaints that its promise of justice is hollow, and that it is soft-Hindutva. The challenge is, can it provide justice to victims of Hindutva violence, and can it give them representation, without being accused of ‘appeasement’? Can it advance a platform of political equality between communities, justice for all the victims of Hindutva violence, and representation to those excluded and violated by Hindutva? That would be the principled, but electorally-risky path to take.

ABHISH K. BOSE: The OBCs, SC/ ST and the Muslim community are the major chunk of the electorate of India who are not naturally inclined to the ideology of the Sangh. Considering the liberal ideology of the Congress and the mutual incompatibility among these segments under different leaders, can the Congress coordinate the OBC groups, and the SC/ ST with Muslims so that they could help Congress come back to power? What course-corrections should the Congress adopt to be able to play this unifying and coordinatingrole?

Subir Sinha: First, I would query your assumption that some of the groups you name “are not naturally inclined to the ideology of the Sangh”. Since the movement for the destruction of the Babri Masjid, and for the erection of a Ram temple, and more recently in the sustained high levels of everyday violence against Muslims by a range of Hindutva vigilante groups, the Sangh has been able to recruit large segments of all social groups, including OBCs, SCs and STs. It has also given them representation: Subordinate caste groups have the largest representation of all time in parliament and state legislatures elected as BJP candidates. This must be acknowledged. The success of the BJP over the past decade rests partly on fine tuned attempts to break previous social constituencies and their political affiliations: breaking away entire castes, or subcastes, from previous political affiliations. This has included glorification of subordinate-caste heroes and gods.

But you are right if you were to say there is a contradiction: so you can have realities such as the vigorous attempts of institutionalising the Manu Smriti and  Ambedkar, widened representation and caste violence in UP, Prime Minister washing feet and  rapes and murders of Dalit women with impunity for upper-caste perpetrators, identifying with Adivasis and giving over their land to transnational and national capitalists. There is a dilemma for the Sangh: they must retain sufficient support among OBCs/STs/SCs, they must include them in their political projects, but other, more powerful elements of their social coalition want to assert caste supremacy on them, and they do this by frequent and overt use of violence, for which they expect and receive impunity. With Muslims, the situation is a different one, but also contradictory. Note the modes through which the Sangh has tried to extract a segment of Muslims and attach it to its social coalition. The ordinance on Triple Talaq, the campaign to restrict the public presence of women in hijab, was all done, as Modi says, to ease the lives of Muslim women, his “sisters”. Sangh social media often claims that “many Muslims women voted secretly for the BJP”. Then you have attempts to showcase Muslims who are party spokespersons, mostly Shia but not only. Of late, Modi has been attemptingto woo Pasmanda Muslims. This has a dual purpose: to actually expand the BJP’s electoral footprint among Muslims, and to signal to international critics that the party is more inclusive of Muslims than they accuse it of being.

People cast their vote during 1st phase of West Bengal Assembly Election at West Midnapore in West Bengal in March, 2021. (Photo: IANS)

Of course, though, violence against Muslims, and impunity for it, is a core part of the BJP’s appeal. Hate speech, serial polarization, vilification of Muslims and a controlled and orchestrated campaign of continuous lethal violence, selective application of summary justice etc. keeps the BJP’s core supporters in a state of political orgasm. How to include Muslims for electoral and window-dressing purposes while also allow their radical exclusion from the public and the demos is a dilemma.These dilemmas and contradictions open up a space for the Congress, but by no means is this an open goal.

Muslims, OBCs and STs and SCs have good reasons to support other parties, and to have reservations vis-à-vis the Congress, and instead of thinking about them as an automatic support base that will ‘come back’ to the Congress, the strategy of the Congress should be to create a wide coalition in which it acknowledges its own mistakes, and accept that it cannot be the sole or the primary representative of these social groups. A limited ambition in this regard may be a good strategy for longer-term survival and regeneration.

ABHISH K. BOSE: Even before the Sangh Parivar and the BJP resorted to it, the Congress usedstrategies to appease majority community by playing the soft Hindutva card forelectoral gains. This served to legitimise Hindutva as a political ideology. Don’t youthink that the future of the Congress will be served better by staying steadfast oninclusive secularism? Or, is Rahul trying to vivify memories of the Mahatma at a time when an insidious intent to counterpoint him with V.D. Savarkar is playing out in the open? In that event shouldn’t he have dressed himself different, in some wayreminiscent of Gandhi?

Subir Sinha: The INC is accused both of soft-Hindutva and of ‘minority appeasement’, and perhaps both of these charges have some degree of truth. Some of the worst communal violence in India has been under Congress rule, and they also presided over some of the key moments in the rise of Hindutva. This has created a messy legacy in which Muslims and Hindus have reasons to suspect the INC, and have gone to other parties. The challenge for the INC is to be able to articulate a new relation with both communities that avoids the mistakes of the past. They will have to publicly reckon within their sorry record of defending secularism, they have done much damage to the erstwhile meaning of the concept.

Congress National President Mallikarjun Kharge and Party leader Sonia Gandhi during the 2nd day of Congress’ 85th Plenary Session in Raipur. (Photo: IANS)

Inclusive secularism will have to be re-invented, there is no ‘going back’ to a failed model, and one in whose failure the Congress of yesteryears was a main culprit. Do we see any such platform emerging? Muslims are hurting badly after a decade of sustained assault, and have good reasons to feel let down in the decades before that. And they have other choices: AIMIM, TMC, the CPs, the SP, the RJD, and even AAP. The Congress cannot just come up with a readymade ‘inclusive secularism’. This concept will have to come from a joint struggle, primarily of those under assault, and then in conversation with a range of other political parties and non-party political formations. I also think there is limited utility in resuscitating Gandhi. Certainly, the idea of a GandhianINC in today’s context has some, but limited appeal.

In general, I am against the political practice of holding some great personage from yesteryears, ventriloquise them to s upport emerging political positions, and find solutions in their work. I would much rather see the Congress spell out the relevance of Gandhi today, what they take from him, how they want to use it for a national renewal, but this must also come with an acknowledgement of his weaknesses, his problematic positions on caste and his role in using popular Hinduism as the idiomatic vehicle for his politics. Co-existence, cooperation, friendship and the formation of a common project across religious communities, non-violence, a politics based on conviction, practices and ideas associated with him, can be newly imagined.

Some of his ideas of Satyagrah, of peace with nature, too, can be relevant, and the INC should enunciate what it wants to, and is able to, do with them. But this must be arrived at through a thorough re- evaluation of his legacy. Rahul Gandhi did not ‘dress’ like Gandhi, but the idea of simplicity did come across in his sartorial choices. His padyatra idiom, open mingling with masses of people who joined the yatra, his photographs with people identifiably from different religious communities, all invoked Gandhi. His attacks on Savarkar as the anti-Gandhi also signalled that despite Modi and the BJP’s awkward claims to his legacy, the Sangh’s Sarvarkarite platform was antithetical to the Gandhian one of religious amity.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with party General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi during ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, in Srinagar. (Photo: IANS/Twitter)

ABHISH K. BOSE:  Can a revival of Gandhian vision for India help to arrest the hurtling of India towards the pitfall of communal and divisive politics, which is bound to do enormous harm? If Gandhi were to respond to the present scenario, what new elements would he have incorporated into his strategies? Would he have been more overtly and ritualistically Hindu than he was then? Or, would he have foregrounded social justice and religious reform? Given that post-truth politics is enveloping the national psyche, how would Gandhi have given effect to his insight, ‘Truth is God’?

Subir Sinha: These are complex questions, my responses to which will necessarily be speculative. Along with acknowledging the problematic nature of Gandhi’s convictions and politics, as well as its potentialities in the current moment, we need to acknowledge the Sangh’s efforts, awkward as they are, to encompass Gandhi within Hindutva. There has long been a Gandhian tendency within the Sangh, for example in the Nanaji Deshmukh and other model village experiments, in the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, and Gandhi’s, his antipathy to ‘the West’, to ‘western medicine’, and his civilisational discourse, his reverence for the cow, all are compatible with the Sangh.

This is also true if one interprets ‘swaraj’ superficially. Modi and the BJP have made overt attempts to ‘own’ Gandhi: much of the Gandhian cooperative movement in Gujarat, for example has been supportive of the BJP – or at least not overtly oppositional – for some duration. Gandhi is the logo for Modi’s pet Swachh Bharat project, and he is fond of invoking him on trips abroad. He has unveiled a bust of Gandhi at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and garlanded his statues around the world. When protests in Malawi broke out against installing a Gandhi statue there, the Modi government intervened and ensured this went through. Now you have Sabarmati Ashram transformed into its own antithesis, a backdrop for Modi to hold state events and receptions. Outside Delhi Airport you have a gigantic charkha, again an antithesis of the idea it is supposed to represent.

So, what Gandhi is available to use as a building block for an anti-authoritarian politics? Had he been alive, let me speculate, because he also openly and credibly articulated a Hindu politics, I wonder if Hindutva would have been as successful as it is: for example, would he have sat in front of the Babri Masjid as Hindutva extremists moved to destroy it? Would he have sat in Shaheen Bagh and Jamia and Northeast Delhi to stop majoritarian Hindutva violence, or would modern Godses, who we saw shooting at demonstrators, killed him again? Would he have joined the farmers’ movement against further shift of control over agriculture to corporate capital? Where would he have been on the politics of the cow, of beef and indeed of meat-eating. Would he support the Department of Aayush and the spread of yoga and ayurveda in the form in which it has? As ever, it would be wishful to think that he would be on the side of secularists, or those opposed to the Sangh, on all matters. Remember, he was not a ‘progressive’ in the sense in which we use the term today. It is also a pleasant distraction to think of a Gandhi adept in the use of social media. How Gandhi’s notion of ‘truth’ would fare in a post-truth environment can also be only answered speculatively. It was not so much a general, universal, empirical truth that

Gandhian truth politics was based, I would say, as much as moral and spiritual truths, truth as God. It was universal in the specific sense that it was not bound by religion, but, as he argued, was universal across religions. Post-truth politics, very different, is referring to empirical and established truths, not truth as the God-force in the universal human. It is easier to see a Gandhi involved in struggles for social justice and religious reform, but this would not be unproblematic. Since his notion of truth would insist on an autonomy from, and an alterity in relation to, the Constitution and laws, it is not clear a priori where he would stand in relation to constitutional demands by movements and parties, or their calls for the application of laws. He would, I think, recognize that hatred for the other is not just invented by the BJP and the Sangh, but that it lurked below the surface of civility as a political possibility, which has been activated by Hindutva and flourishes in that form, and that reversing or transcending it requires long-term and deep work in society.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah at the third ‘No Money for Terror’ (NMFT) Ministerial Conference on Counter-Terrorism Financing in New Delhi. (Photo: PIB)

So yes I do think he would be involved in social justice and religious reform, and that these would be different from and an alternative to the Sangh’s version of this (and yes, they do have a version of it) Gandhi, of course, was not an electoral politician; indeed he was cutting about parliamentary democracy. I am not sure what a Gandhian electoral politics would look like, as in today’s India it requires massive spending and electoral bonds, taking short-term and expedient actions, creating ‘waves’ based on information and misinformation flows, and calculations over how silence or action over violence on Muslims and Dalits would affect electoral prospects. These, I suggest, are outside of the normal parameters of Gandhian politics. This should alert us that there are limits to using Gandhian thought from decades ago to deal with issues that it could not anticipate, leave alone solve.

ABHISH K. BOSE: Why is the left, as also some of the regional parties, hesitant to join with the Congress to arrest the Hindutva juggernaut?

Subir Sinha: Making alliances at the national and state level is imperative to stop Hindutva’s advance, but these have not proved easy or durable. This is because there are many unresolved, and some unresolvable, contradictions and antagonisms between the Congress party and possible allies, and between one and another possible ally. The Congress is the dominant party in government in a handful of states, is the leading anti- BJP party in some states, and has pockets of support in other states. In some states where it had held power for decades, it is entirely decimated. In many states, its leaders have defected in large numbers to the BJP, causing Congress governments to fall or preventing the formation of Congress governments. Pre-poll allies have switched over the BJP post-poll. So no one narrative is going to be able to cover your question.

Specifically in regard to the CPM, there are clear synergies at the national level, but they are adversaries in Kerala. The idea of allies nationally but competitors at state level is damaging not only to them as individual parties, but to the prospects of a strong anti-BJP alliance. The CPIM has worked well as part of the MGB in Bihar. If this split situation on alliances between the Congress party and the left continues, it will not only confuse cadres and cause them to drift. It will also prevent the emergence of a common platform for the 2024 elections. Looking at the latest results from Tripura, TIPRA has gained seats, while the INC-Left combine has lost them. Had the Congress party  managed to retain Pradyot Deb Barma’s exit in 2019, or had the INC-Left alliance managed to ally with TIPRA, it may have been possible to wrest Tripura from the BJP. Creating stable alliances is also crucial for Bengal, where the TMC has won big, but has recently appeared beleaguered. It is hard to see how the TMC and the left can be in the same formation, given violence suffered by left cadres by TMC workers. The ‘vam-to-Ram’ drift, and I am not sure of its magnitude, plus weak showing by the Left-Congress alliance there indicates a state of disintegration of the left and the Congress party there.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi flashes victory sign at BJP workers as party President J P Nadda and Union Minister Amit Shah look on during celebrations after the party’s good performance in Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya Assembly polls, at the BJP HQ in New Delhi, Thursday, March 2, 2023.

The Congress party win in Sagardighi, where the left provided crucial support, is an interesting green shoot, because it shows that a Left-INC alliance may be able to gain support from voters tired of the TMC and the BJP. Today, Mamata Banerjee, perhaps having read the room well that she would not be invited, has ruled out any alliance with the left-INC for 2024. Other state level allies, who are mostly regional parties, are wary of the rejuvenation of the Congress, as their rise has been at the expense of the Congress: think of the RJD, SP, BSP, among others. These parties are also stronger at state level than the Congress. So the same parties with which an alliance creates chances of enhancing the non-BJP presence at the centre would not like the expansion of the Congress in their backyard. This reflects in their offer of seats to the INC in states they rule, or have their main bases of electoral support.

So we also have non-BJP barriers to the expansion of the Congress. Congress demands for a higher number of seats than they have a realistic chance of winning has resulted in delaying seat distribution and the announcement of a common platform to dates so close the actual voting that supporters were left confused and frustrated. The INC must be realistic in its demands for seats in such states, and play the role of a junior partner. Lessons from well-functioning alliances, such as in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, must be taken to new states Then you have parties like the TMC, BSP and AAP who seem less interested in creating a non-BJP alliance than in picking up the support peeling off from the INC or other non-BJP parties which could be potential allies, putting up candidates in places they have no history of credible electoral success: so many recent elections have seen the support for these parties be the difference between the INC and the BJP.

Leaders of all three of these parties have Prime Ministerial ambitions, and no doubt that is one main reason for the relentless assault of the agencies on their leadership. The TMC has actively poached INC members in Goa and the Northeast, and also left supporters in Bengal. Paradoxically, if they lose credibility, they may be more amenable to entering a grand alliance than they are right now.  The formation of a national pre-poll alliance and the hammering out of a common platform at the earliest is absolutely essential. The coming state elections in 2023 would be a good trial run to test out message and strategy. It is important for non- and anti-BJP parties to deny the BJP sweeping wins in this round, as this would create momentum for 2024. But one should not forget that a BJP versus all scenario might polarise the electorate, not all votes will transferbetween allied parties, and there is a possibility for some gains for the BJP as well.

ABHISH K. BOSE:  If you were to enunciate a scheme for forging the unity of all opposition parties, what would it look like? Would it insist on Sonia Gandhi continuing as the President of the INC, given that she is the most widely accepted face in the party?

Subir Sinha: One thinks of Harkishan Singh Surjeet at a time like this, given his expertise and experience in suturing alliances. My suggestion would be for Sonia Gandhi, who seems to have good personal relations across the non-BJP parties, to play such a role. One question to resolve early would be: what are the chances of getting AAP, BSP and TMC into a national alliance, and at what cost? TMC today has ruled out being a part of such a coalition, and it may be best to leave out AAP altogether: its support is mostly in Delhi, I am not sure if Punjab would give them another chance. It appears like damaged goods right now, it was very much part of the Sangh-led coalition that unseated the UPA, and its rhetoric on UPA corruption, and template of leadership was a variant of Modi’s. Their silence on anti-Muslim violence will also damage any coalition that wants to be inclusive of them. AAP leadership continues to attack the Congress, and a coalition with them would be both difficult to achieve and to maintain.

The recent warming of relations between AAP and some Congress allies such as the RJD need watching, but I do not anticipate that the RJD, or Shiv Sena etc would peel away from the INC and attach with AAP.  Then we have the BJD and its inscrutable leadership, and the TRS and the YSR Congress. Their cards are close to their chest, though some of them have made overtures to parties that are allied to the Congress. The idea of a coalition that would exclude the INC is a non-starter, and would not only not be a viable anti-BJP force, it would harm the prospects of unseating the BJP. As I said, my preference is for the early formation of a coalition and putting together of a common platform. Not all non-BJP parties are anti-BJP, and not all will be able to be accommodated within a coalition because of their tensions with the INC or others with whom an alliance is more possible. There should be no compulsion to name a ‘PM face’, indeed to do so would be counter-productive. As in all coalitions that do not have a predominant element, leadership can be chosen based on electoral performance.

Delhi Chief Minister and AAP Convener Arvind Kejriwal greets supporters during a door-to-door election campaign for MCD elections, in New Delhi.

The Congress would have more of a claim if it were to do very well in the coming state elections. But it should be open to the possibility that a non-INC figure may be better able to hold a coalition together. What should be the elements of a common platform? The performance of the Congress-run governments of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, of the left in Kerala, and the DMK in Tamil Nadu, should inform the list of what such a coalition government can offer. Grievances related to toppling of elected governments and BJP attempts to poach MLAs from the INC and allies need to highlighted. Where the INC and allies are in opposition, they must expose the failures of the BJP. Issues of the parlous state of the economy must be highlighted beyond the Adani trope, in terms of jobs, incomes, food availability, prices of essential commodities. Governance issues such corruption police brutality, breakdown of law and order, etc must be highlighted across the board. It is important to offer a non-Hindutva brand of Hinduism, one that is not centred on brutalisation of Muslims, nor one which justifies violence on Dalits.

How to extricate Hinduism from being hijacked by the likes of Narsinghanand, how to present it as non-violent: this is an important question but not an electoral one, strictly speaking. But all this must be put together into a coherent narrative: it remains to be seen who in the INC and other parties can do it. And it must be disseminated widely, using organizational networks and social media imaginatively. Effort should focus on those states that gave the BJP massive returns in the 2019 elections: Gujarat, UP, Bihar, MP, Maharasthra, Bengal, Assam, etc. If the opposition coalition is able to dent the BJP’s massive tally in these states, then it would be possible to defeat them nation-wide. But a degree of self-limitation on the part of all possible allies is a must. It is not only that a continuation of rule of the Sangh is ‘bad for India’. It is also an existential threat to all these parties. Self-interest, as much as national interest, should motivate them to come to an agreement.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin

ABHISH K. BOSE: How do you perceive the chances of Congress in general elections 2024, the stranglehold of the Modi-Shah dispensation can be broken? If you are, on what basis?

Subir Sinha:  The Modi-Shah dispensation has done as well as it has because it has a well-articulated package of a strong leader, aggressive party, the apparently ‘non political networks’ of the Sangh including vigilante groups, the near monopoly over the representation of political Hinduism and the recruitment of subaltern groups to it, vast financial resources, near complete control of the media, and compliance of social media firms. Besides, it seems to have near complete control over key institutions, such as the Central Election Commission, police forces, bureaucracy etc. And is it not shy of making belligerent use of it. As several journalists have noted since 2019, the BJP’s media control has made it possible to detach, in the mind of a substantial proportion of the electorate, Modi from the consequences of his policies for them.

Media seems to exist primarily to pour scorn on Modi’s opponents, for spread of hatred for Muslims, and to make ridiculous claims on his behalf. For a not-insignificant number, the formal transition to a Hindu Rashtra trumps price rise and unemployment. Yet, despite all this, the national share of the vote for the BJP remains short of 40%. The INC needs to put its house in order while it also has to become actively involved in putting a coalition and a platform together. I expect it to do better than in the last elections, and I base this on its recent wins in Himachal and by-elections in Maharashtra and Bengal, and in local elections across the board. Even in Tripura, where the vote was split 3 ways, the BJP lost nearly a dozen seats. In order for the BJP to be dislodged, some institutions have to function well.

Prime minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah interacting with each other during at a conclave on co-operative sector named ‘Sahakar Se Samriddhi’ at Mahatma Mandir in Gandhinagar. (Photo: IANS/Siddharaj Vlog)

Will the Election Commission, which has conducted elections in a way and to a schedule that works best for the BJP act differently now that the Supreme Court has mandated a change the selection of its Chief? How will the electoral bonds and the Shiv Sena cases be resolved? What will change after the rebukes handed out by the Supreme Court to several media outlets om their communal and biased coverage? These will have an important bearing on the outcomes of 2024. Ultimately, though, the people must feel the need for change. And for this, the idea that one elects governments to make changes in their everyday life must dislodge the idea that one elects them to take revenge on Muslims for perceived historical wrongs, or for Hindu pride etc. This means offering a different meaning of ‘politics’ than the currently regnant one. The extent the INC and allies are able to do this will determine their fortunes in 2024.

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