India’s elections: Lessons for PH opposition | Inquirer Opinion
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India’s elections: Lessons for PH opposition

Christchurch—Shortly after the 2022 presidential elections, progressive thinkers underscored how the return of the Marcos dynasty to Malacañang—on the coattails of their nouveau riche allies from the South, the Dutertes—was the upshot of decades of festering economic inequality, dynastic politics, and unresponsive state institutions. After all, even the most celebrated reformist presidents fell far short of delivering the fundamental promise of the Edsa People Power Revolution. If anything, the concentration of power in the hands of political dynasties intensified in the early 2010s, the same era that saw 40 richest families gobbling up three-fourths of newly created wealth in the country.

In contrast, some liberal influencers descended into nefarious forms of voter-blaming with an unabashed touch of elitist snobbery. Others embraced a bizarre form of defeatism by claiming that—with a subtle touch of voter-blaming elitism—the likes of Vice President Leonor “Leni” Robredo would have been elected as a top leader had we lived in a country like New Zealand.

To begin with, New Zealand is not a utopia. Though unquestionably a gorgeous nation with an impeccable history of progressive leadership, the island nation is struggling with all forms of challenges, including falling economic productivity, overdependence on exports of low-value-added goods to China, and reconciling with its increasingly multicultural social reality while addressing injustices suffered by the Māori minority.

On a more fundamental level, however, comparing the Philippines to the likes of New Zealand—a highly developed and broadly egalitarian nation—is entirely unhelpful. Instead, the liberal opposition and its impresarios should take inspiration from the struggles of like-minded forces in comparable nations, most notably India, which has been grappling with an even more ferocious form of right-wing populism.

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Against all odds, and in defiance of almost all pre-election surveys, the opposition Indian National Congress party almost doubled their seats in the Indian parliament and, crucially, denied Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party an outright majority.

A big part of the opposition’s success was Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the country’s most famous political family. Long mocked as an incompetent brat by Modi’s impresarios, Gandhi gradually transformed from a reluctant, bumbling politician into a compelling voice for multicultural tolerance and constitutionalism. “My fight is with the ideology of [ruling party] which is a threat to our country. The hatred these people spread, they spread violence, I fight against it … This is the battle of my life for me,” he said at a party event following another stinging electoral defeat years earlier.

His unlikely success against a political machine—with far more mobilization and disinformation skills than the Marcoses and Dutertes combined—is a testament to the validity of Gandhi’s three-pronged approach. First of all, he rejected denialism, defeatism, and elitism by embarking on a nationwide march, which allowed him to meet and listen to the humblest folks and marginalized communities across India. Instead of insulting voters by blaming everything on disinformation, he projected humility and sincerely lent his ears to ordinary voters to better grasp the pulse of the nation.

Moreover, he unapologetically reminded voters of his family’s century-old devotion to democracy and development in India. He reminded them of their sacrifices, including the assassination of several members of the Nehru-Gandhi family. This inspired growing confidence and compassion among humble folks, who felt left out by the Hindu nationalist and pro-corporate policies of the ruling establishment.

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Above all, Gandhi’s strategy was anchored in a genuinely humble and intellectually introspective position, which allowed the opposition to transcend voter-blaming, embrace counsel from non-partisan expertise as well as experiment with new modes of mobilization and messaging. This allowed the Congress party to win back voters and reach out to disaffected marginalized groups, who believed in the fundamental values of Indian democracy.

In the Philippines, the opposition has yet to produce a proper post-mortem analysis, which would honestly assess mistakes and shortcomings that cost them three elections in a row, with the exception of Leni’s narrow victory in 2016 and Risa Hontiveros’ challenging path to the Senate in 2022. We are not New Zealand, but we can learn a lot from other similarly situated nations, where liberal-progressive opposition has managed to be far more successful despite facing far more difficult odds.

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