The Controversial Indian National

Where is the opposition in India?

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My friends who are opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party — and I have friends who support it too — often despair at the politics of the party ruling at the Centre and in various States. But sometimes I feel that they should despair more at the national opposition — and the parties in opposition to the BJP in many States.

Because the BJP, for better or for worse, is there. You can count its warts or confer a halo on it, but you cannot miss noticing it. But I wonder if we have any real opposition left in India — both at the national level and in many States.

This came through most recently in my home State, Bihar, where Chief Minister Nitish Kumar easily switched from his ‘grand alliance’ with Lalu Prasad to staying the Chief Minister with the support of the party (BJP) that he had rebuffed just three years ago. Now, I am not convinced that Mr. Kumar’s move was necessarily opportunistic — though things like his inability to induct more than one woman in a cabinet of 27, given his loud commitment to women’s emancipation, were definitely disappointing. Still, he had to choose between a family increasingly seen as tainted with nepotism and a party sadly dominated by those whose vision of the future seems to be based on virulent hatreds inherited from the past.

The disappearing opposition

So, that is not the main issue for me. It is this: that once Mr. Kumar made the switch, the opposition to the BJP was revealed as basically ineffective and non-existent. This seemed to follow the pattern at the Centre and in some other States. This is also far more worrying, because the BJP does exist as the ruling party today, but the opposition seems to exist less and less with each year.

There are various reasons for it. These include the inability of the Congress to abandon its ruling family, compounded by the fact that Rahul Gandhi, as decent a person as any in politics, nevertheless lacks the type of political charisma that is required to lead a party to victory in India today. This is partly because the times have changed: the taluk classes call the political shots in India, and they cannot easily trust a very metropolitan person like Mr. Gandhi. I know; I come from those taluk classes, and I have difficulty trusting Mr. Gandhi’s equivalents in the literary world! But even without the times changing, compare the political acumen and sheer rhetorical presence of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi’s performance, and you will spot a difference.

The communists have long been split between a highly intellectual urban circle, which can get across only to people with university degrees, and a very parochial rural movement, which addresses genuine problems (for instance, the exploitation of aborigines at the hands of all governments), but in the very process limits its appeal to small regions. Even if you are a communist, it is impossible to imagine the supposedly revolutionary activities of Maoist groups finding any purchase outside remote parts of the hinterland.

As for the rest, well, they seem to comprise parties led by powerful regional leaders, and often run by specific families. Sometimes the words come up — secularism, democracy, human rights, etc. — but they seldom seem to be anything other than rhetoric used by a certain group to obtain fleeting electoral support. In short, it is worrying: there is no substantial and coherent opposition left in India right now. Some people might argue that it exists at the grassroots. This is a deceptive argument: first, because it cannot be documented with numbers; and second, because in a working democracy any grassroots opposition needs to wear the face of at least some political party.

The great Indian tragedy

Some of my BJP friends — not in the lunatic fringe, thankfully, but belonging to the old ideological core — smirk at this. They exult in the fact that the Indian opposition is either in disarray or divided up by narrow domestic walls. This worries me (also because the lack of a real opposition seems to be a spreading global problem, undergirded by the corporate logic of neoliberal capitalism and its enmeshment with nationalism).

Any democracy needs a thriving and coherent opposition. The great tragedy of India does not seem to be the BJP, with which one can agree or disagree; the great tragedy of India is the lack of a real and issue-based opposition. The BJP’s ideology is reasonably clear, in both its extreme and moderate forms. But the opposition seems to lack a coherent and consistent platform. It largely fails to provide alternative views of government and it seldom responds cohesively to the BJP’s moves, leaving it to afflicted politicians to react singly.

Alas, it is not just a nation that needs an opposition. So do human beings, as Kabir knew:

“Neendak niyare raakhiye aangan kuti chhawaye;

Bin saabun paani bina nirmal karat subhaye.”

Roughly translated:

“Your critic keep beside you, his hut on your house should lean:

Without water or soap, he’ll keep your nature clean.”

Both BJP supporters and BJP opponents need to worry about this lack of a coherent opposition — for the sake of India, and perhaps also for the sake of human nature.

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 9:44:20 PM |

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