/ 21 March 2024

What is wrong with India’s opposition?

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Workers remove posters of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar after the model court of conduct was enforced following the announcement of the schedule of Lok Sabha elections on March 16, 2024 in Patna, India. (Photo by Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

At a recent seminar I moderated in the southern Indian state of Kerala, panellists barring one from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rued that democratic institutions were under threat in the country.

They said that authoritarianism had spread its tentacles so wide that the Indian state was able to insulate itself from pushback. In fact, there was no pushback, they regretted.

One of the panellists, John Brittas, a star parliamentarian representing the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was among the more than 140 opposition MPs expelled from the house for seeking the home minister’s statement over a security breach in the lower house of parliament (the Lok Sabha). His expulsion has since been revoked.

Stein Ringen, professor emeritus at Oxford University who has authored several serious works on democracy, was at the seminar as an observer. When the floor was open for people to ask questions, his were pertinent: “Why isn’t the opposition resisting enough? Why aren’t the anti-BJP parties able to put up a brave fight to defend democratic rights?”

None of the panellists, including yours truly, had any convincing answer to offer to that query. But it made me think. What on earth is wrong with the Indian opposition? 

We all know that the Modi government is forging ahead with its Hindu-first policy and unleashing its central investigation agencies on rival politicians, some of whom have reportedly defected to save themselves from corruption scandals. 

Here is an example — former opposition Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, now the BJP’s chief minister in the north-eastern state of Assam, was embroiled in a graft case but nothing was heard of the inquiries into it as soon as he defected and joined the ruling party in 2015.

This is a pattern we have seen many more times as the BJP has grown inorganically by engineering defection in the opposition ranks even after losing elections in key states. 

It has successfully split multiple political parties, including its former allies, and entered into alignments with regional parties in the north-east of India and elsewhere to strengthen its presence as well as to oust its opponents from power.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a second term in 2019, the opposition has been in disarray, to say the least. Now, with him expecting to win a third term in the elections to be held just weeks from now, the opposition remains divided and appears vastly outmatched.

On his tour of the country, Ringen said that, more than the typical behaviour of an authoritarian government, he was concerned about the opposition, its politics of grievance and its defeatist mindset.

He is spot-on, although the ruling party deserves blame for using every ounce of the power at its disposal to undo the gains of secularism and neutralise governmental institutions. These include the judiciary, which stood up to the might of former prime minister Indira Gandhi in her prime, and the election commission, which is meant to ensure free and fair polls.

The government has also drummed up majoritarianism, stating that Hinduism, which has survived centuries of invasions and conversions, is in grave danger. Noted Indian sociologist Ashis Nandy has called this trend the “Abrahamisation of Hinduism”. 

The BJP has also picked up from the Zionist playbook its perpetual victim card — that Hindus will soon be outnumbered unless they cease distinguishing politics from religion. That 80% of Indians are Hindus is today a footnote of contemporary history, thanks to a pliant mainstream media and the formidable propaganda machinery of the government.

The BJP has also brought in key changes to Indian laws and has amended the Constitution to give Hindus the impression that the so-called wrongs of the past are being righted. 

Among them is the revocation of the special status given to the Muslim-majority north-western state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is now a Union Territory, meaning under the direct control of the central government through its lieutenant governor. 

Another example is the Citizenship Amendment Act, which discriminates against Muslims who are migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh and prevents them from acquiring Indian citizenship. Those favoured for citizenship under this new law, notified on 11 March, are Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and Parsis.

Not surprisingly, since Modi came to power in 2014, Muslims have largely been pushed to the fringes of society and his policies have stripped many of them in lowly jobs of their livelihoods, including in the meat trade, auto repair and informal sector. 

Together, in both houses of the Indian parliament, the BJP has nearly 400 MPs of which not a single person is a Muslim. India is home to about 200 million Muslims — the world’s third-largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan.

When Ringen tells you that he is disappointed in the political culture of India, what immediately comes to the fore is the helplessness displayed by the opposition. 

They are in complaining mode against the BJP whose leaders, especially Modi and his deputy Amit Shah, are working hard in perpetual campaign mode — like the early Mughals they detest — whether or not there are elections.

Modi is a tremendously charismatic leader and, as he faces his third general election in a row, significant signs of opposition to this are nowhere to be seen.

Having won crucial state elections over the past few months, unseating the Congress from two of them, the BJP appears confident. Many of its leaders don’t even see competition, in sharp contrast with the last general election in 2019 — which nonetheless reduced the Congress’ tally in the Lok Sabha to its lowest ever. 

While the 2014 election was seen as a vote for change, in which Modi was pitched as the moderniser India badly needed, this one has seen the incumbent government playing the nationalist card to the hilt. 

This time around, the opposition seems missing in action in many areas of the poll battle, especially in the northern states that account for the largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha. True, there was an effort to stitch up a large coalition in a bold attempt to batter the BJP-led alliance (the BJP enjoys a simple majority in parliament on its own) but that has fizzled out. 

The man who took the initiative, the chief minister of the eastern state of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, is now himself part of the BJP alliance. 

Last June, Kumar met disparate political parties in the opposition and a month later floated a platform called INDIA. Conceived as a counterweight to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, it crumbled within months, thanks to desertions and disunity among its constituents. 

At the same time, the National Democratic Alliance is growing larger thanks to a perception that it is on a strong wicket ahead of the national polls. Instead of resisting, more Congress leaders and regional parties are looking to tie up with the BJP, which, meanwhile, wants to leave nothing to chance to ensure a win — and Modi expects the BJP to win more than 400 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha.

The opposition — comprising a constellation of centrists, leftists, and provincialists —– can keep comparing today’s India to 1930s Germany, accuse Modi of unbottling the nationalist genie, and resign to their fate. Or else, they can fight back. 

Or they can fight back. 

Distressingly, they seem to have chosen the former option.

Ullekh NP is a writer, journalist and political commentator based in New Delhi. He is the executive editor of the newsweekly Open and author of three nonfiction books: War Room: The People, Tactics and Technology Behind Narendra Modi’s 2014 Win; The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox and Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics. His book on Cuba, part travelogue and part political commentary, is due for release in the next few months.