The Modi government’s performance and grip over political reality are debatable matters. But those worried about Indian democracy should worry about the fact that the credibility of all alternative poles of opposition is plummeting even faster. The BJP may be trapped by its inflated claims and ideological leanings. But the sheer self-destructive pettiness and parochialism of the other parties is making it likely that the BJP’s failings will not be challenged by a credible Opposition, but by an outbreak of infantilism, where each alternative leader seems to get smaller by the day.
Look at possible poles of opposition. Arvind Kejriwal had emerged as a genuinely new political force. He still has a lot going for him. The BJP has inflicted a constitutional travesty upon Delhi, supported by a poor judgment of the Delhi high court. He is a victim of a shameless Central government and could have garnered sympathy. AAP still has a street tenacity that gets under the BJP’s skin. In a range of areas like servicing slums or education, AAP seemed to be open to interesting experimentation. But instead, Kejriwal’s own conduct and public interventions seem to now reek of daily pettiness, where the line between a dignified CM and low troll seems to be vanishing. The AAP’s visible faces seem to accumulate buffoonery by the day, denting all confidence in its maturity. AAP’s ideological leanings do not portend well: Kejriwal has, for the most part not attacked the BJP’s ideological excesses, even as it laments its authoritarian tendencies. On many issues relating to Hindutva and nationalism it is not providing an alternative.
One sign of a political party’s loss of direction is when it begins to claim everything is a media conspiracy. AAP, despite the media rooting for it, has reached that point rather swiftly. Its victimhood has now become an excuse for practically any kind of behaviour. Its battering ram politics may shake the BJP. But it is giving all the signs of a party that does not know how to move beyond a battering ram.
Nitish Kumar’s national fall has perhaps been even more spectacular. Nitish, a projected third front face, is still personally popular in Bihar. His first term did bring the state to the people in a way that was unprecedented and is still remembered.. He managed to provide some space for governance by managing a broad social coalition, and being inventive with government schemes. But his current incarnation has revealed the limits of his economic imagination: He seems to be at a loss over what next in the development model for Bihar. His ability to stamp his authority on the unlikely arrangement with RJD is increasingly in doubt. The scandalous release of Shahabuddin has cut Nitish’s authority and credibility to size. The chief minister who once brought law and order to Bihar has his authority challenged openly by a convicted criminal flaunting his power. Prohibition does have popular roots in Indian politics. But Nitish’s prohibition law, with its constitutional travesties of imputing collective guilt, its administrative imagination that is likely to result in greater lawlessness, shows a chief minister, whose common sense is now hostage to his own sense of virtue. For Nitish to become a national figure, he needed to create a new buzz around Bihar; now it is the conventional buzz of Bihar that is making him look like a floundering leader.
Rahul Gandhi has again decided to embark on old-fashioned campaigning in UP to showcase his commitment to India’s farmers. As a gesture of commitment, this is promising. And in any case he has no option but to try. But this strategy does not betray the slightest self-awareness of Rahul’s perceived deficits as a national leader: His inability to show that the Congress can overcome the mistakes of the past, his inability to show any principled leadership in moments of national crisis, to mediate conflict, and take tough decisions. It also says something retrograde when the party’s stated strategy in UP is also a back-to-the-fifties model: Making no bones about courting “Brahmins” being the new strategy.
All three poles have this in common: All are veering to the Left. This would be fine if it were a genuine commitment to a more participatory economy that smartly reconciles growth and justice. Instead the emphasis is entirely on public expenditure and old instruments of welfare, not new paradigms. All have forgotten that the way to get national prominence is to create something of a governance buzz. The virtues of the Gujarat model were highly exaggerated. But the point was that it did stake out claims to being a model. It should be a sign of worry that no one is remotely thinking of Karnataka (a major Congress-ruled state), Bihar, or Delhi as a model. All three parties believe in overbearing statism. The Congress and Nitish Kumar may project an aura of electoral secularism. But the Congress, especially, still cannot get itself to take a principled stand on an institutional defence of individual freedom, whether it be on sedition law or freedom of expression. They are still unable to set the agenda for national debates. And none of them seem capable of the central task of politics — mediating between different social groups.
The electoral space is opening up. Many BJP governments are in trouble. It is still hard to predict how new social forces will work themselves through the electoral system. So these parties could still give the BJP a run for their money in different states. But that may be small comfort for the Opposition. It is perhaps the case that national elections are becoming a little more than a sum of state elections; in which case merely local skulduggery, as important as it is, will not be sufficient. One has to project a national perspective, if not presence. The BJP is still being given a free run of this space. The danger is that new forms of social conflict may no longer be channelled through political parties. Besides the total loss of control in Kashmir, we have seen violent agitations in the economic powerhouses of Gujarat, Karnataka and Haryana this year. Kerala is emerging as a new hotbed of violence, its model now under serious social strain. Maharashtra is on the verge of major caste conflict, and criminality and communalism still define UP’s identity. India will need deeper political resources for social mediation. All it might get is an Opposition that seems not to want to rise to challenges; they are all making Modi look larger than he is.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘With enemies like these’)