States of the Opposition

September 21, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 03:53 am IST

Political parties must frame their campaign as a referendum not on leadership but on democratic values

g. sampath

g. sampath

Of late, it’s become almost a matter of conventional wisdom that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are the Bharatiya Janata Party’s for the taking. The only unknown, apparently, is the margin of victory. If the party’s ambitious ‘Mission 350-plus’ plan proves successful, we could soon have a Parliament that is practically ‘Opposition-mukt’.

In such a scenario, does it still make sense to hope for a meaningful Opposition in the run-up to 2019 and after? If yes, what might be the contours of a political strategy that would enable it to pose a credible challenge to the BJP juggernaut?

Reams have been written about the failures of the Opposition parties. Far from holding the government to account, they have either been dormant or busy fighting for survival. The BJP, on the other hand, has been steadily expanding its footprint. It was in power in five States before the 2014 polls. Today the National Democratic Alliance is in power in 18 out of the 29 States. Thirteen of those have a BJP Chief Minister.

Some have argued that the Indian polity has reverted to a state it has witnessed before — that of single-party dominance, with the BJP taking the place of the Congress. While this is true in a formal sense, there is a big difference in substantive terms, one that could seal the fate of Indian democracy as we have known it.

The Congress system

For more than two decades after Independence, political competition in Indian democracy took place within the confines of what political scientist Rajni Kothari termed ‘the Congress system’. It denoted a polity marked by single-party dominance. Until the onset of the ’70s, the Congress incorporated oppositional drives into itself by way of multiple factions at the regional and national level that mirrored the extraordinary pluralism and diversity of a complex nationhood.

In a traditional society where a political culture centred on democracy was yet to strike roots, it was the accommodative pluralism of the ‘Congress system’ that allowed the normative modernity of the Constitution to slowly achieve a fragile social hegemony. More than the ‘steel frame’ of the bureaucracy, it was the elastic frame of the ‘Congress system’ that held the country together by respecting its pluralistic genotype.

Subsequently, as the Congress went into decline, regional configurations came to power in State after State, and India entered the coalition era. As it lost ground in State politics, the Congress was forced to play ball with smaller parties at the national level. Seen another way, the intra-party coalitions within the ‘Congress system’ became externalised into an inter-party dynamic in the coalition era that began with the ninth Lok Sabha in 1989, and continued till the 2014 elections.

Political competition being what it is, the vacuum at the national level caused by the shrinkage of the Congress has now been filled by the BJP. It did so by scripting an alternative national narrative around three elements: a Hindutva-infused nationalism; turning elections into a referendum on national leadership, specifically Narendra Modi’s leadership; and framing the electoral competition in all-India terms rather than engage with State-level issues.

If the Opposition has floundered so far, it is because it has tried, without much conviction, to challenge the BJP on its narrative home ground. Not surprisingly, its attempts have failed to strike a chord.

Debating nationalism ends up giving more oxygen to chauvinism. The Opposition does lack a politician who can match Mr. Modi’s appeal. And regional leaders are better off sticking to State-level issues where they are on stronger political ground than trying to reinvent themselves overnight for a national role. In other words, the Opposition needs to stop being reactive and formulate its own counter-narrative.

Lessons from the past

Much has been made of the Congress being reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. It is taken as a sign of structural weakness in the Opposition camp. Yet, after Independence, in the first five Lok Sabhas, the highest number of seats held by an Opposition party was 44 seats. Did that mean India was ‘Opposition-mukt’ for a quarter of a century?

History shows us that the Congress’s own fall from dominance was sparked by challenges at the State-level, not by a national rival. But that was possible because of the space for political pluralism offered by the ‘Congress system’.

The fundamental difference between the ‘Congress system’ and the ‘BJP system’ of one-party dominance is the latter’s determination to eliminate this pluralistic space. Politically, this is the toughest challenge facing the Opposition, as well as the biggest weakness of the BJP, one that could be tapped to construct an alternative narrative.

Put simply, the Opposition’s counter-narrative would need to dwell on two aspects. One, it must convey that the 2019 polls are about choosing between two options: a coalition regime structurally constrained to protect the values of pluralism and federalism, and a stable majority under an authoritarian leadership unlikely to entertain democratic niceties.

Second, the Opposition needs to frame the election as a referendum not on leadership but on democratic values. A massive win for the BJP in 2019 would certainly pose a threat to the historical consensus, established at the time of Independence, which institutionalised pluralism, a degree of federal autonomy, and a democratic framework for nation-building. The Opposition has the simple but onerous task of using its political imagination to bring this threat to the centre of the electoral agenda.

Onus on regional parties

Its political strategy, therefore, must aim for a hung Parliament and a coalition government. An ideal outcome would be one where no party gets more than 170-180 seats. A ‘Mission 180 minus’, as it were. With such numbers, even a BJP-led coalition government would be a victory for the Opposition, as the objective of safeguarding India’s pluralism would have been achieved.

Regional parties are best placed to take the lead here, for they are the ones which would be hardest hit by a creeping centralisation of power. If they could come together, with or without the Congress, over a single point agenda of protecting India’s pluralism, it would obviate the need for a formal pre-poll or seat-sharing arrangement. There is no other way that, say, a Trinamool Congress and a Communist Party of India (Marxist) would come together to battle a common rival that could prove more lethal to both than they have been to each other. Given that the BJP has always struggled more against non-Congress, regional opponents, it is also a more canny electoral strategy.

And in case they still lose badly, they can take heart from the fact that India’s political traditions give the Opposition an institutional role disproportionate to their actual numbers in Parliament, through mandatory membership of key committees, appointments panels, and so on. So, regardless of how they fare in 2019, Opposition parties would continue to have a major role to play.

All said and done, Indian democracy has never fared well under powerful parliamentary majorities led by a charismatic Prime Minister unchecked by coalition dynamics. We have two examples, in Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. While one briefly downed the shutters on democracy, the other gave a fillip to Hindu fundamentalism and tried to muzzle the press.

The Opposition’s success would ultimately hinge on how effective it is in convincing the people that if they value their nation’s democratic traditions as much as they do development, they must either elect a coalition government in 2019, or force the ‘BJP system’ to become more like the ‘Congress system’, not by importing Congressmen, but by imbibing the values of pluralism and respect for dissent that the Congress stands for in its Nehruvian vision of itself, if not always in reality.

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