Updated: March 22, 2021 8:49:52 am
For anyone who cares about Indian democracy, the most important priority right now should be to restore political contestation for the power of the Indian state. Ultimately, what matters for the preservation of democracy is the distribution of power among competing factions — not the ideological or moral purity of the stakeholders. It is this political contestation that provides the context, backing and pressure for institutions of democracy to function as a countervailing power to the executive and thus allow multiple voices and narratives to coexist. It’s not that the constitutional framework and moral rectitude are irrelevant, but institutions of democracy work only when political power is factionalised; else they are captured, overruled, bypassed or undermined.
If one accepts the premise above, it should be clear that this requires being in a pole position to win the next national election. This can only be done by political parties or organisations capable of influencing electoral outcomes. This clarity is important. And it has to be the touchstone on which all opposition bases its actions. This has implications for movements that say they have no truck with any political party, for everyone who thinks they can win the argument without winning power. Not in New India. It is also unlikely that any movement can replicate the momentum behind the Anna movement, which delegitimised the UPA 2 government: That momentum was the product of the coming together of media, powerful institutions of democracy (judiciary, CVC, CAG, etc) under the anti-corruption banner and backed by the organisational might of the Sangh. This brings us back to political parties, especially the Congress, which must provide a framework for collaboration for opposition efforts. In the present context, this requires that the Congress pivot to a positive agenda for both strategic and tactical reasons.
First, irrespective of the reasons, there is genuine, decentralised support for the Narendra Modi government. Consequently, voicing opposition to the Modi government requires an appetite for confrontation in daily life. There are indications that people are becoming weary of the overwhelming negativity that has permeated our lives: When people say they don’t want to discuss politics, or various WhatsApp groups impose a “no politics” rule, it is because they don’t want to get drawn into a confrontation. We can sneer at these people and say they lack the virtues of citizenship or we can see a desire — and hence an opening — for positive politics. People want to feel good about themselves but instead of our politics serving this need, goodness and virtue have been NGO-ised or framed in so confrontational a manner that it is difficult for ordinary people to participate.
Second, it is very difficult to put together a ground organisation built entirely around negative politics. People can participate in a hashtag or show up for a protest at an announced venue but converting this engagement into an organisation requires structure and a programmatic agenda. Last month, RSS members went house to house collecting donations for the Ayodhya Ram Mandir. Beyond the money collected, this mobilised volunteers and gave them an opportunity for outreach. Opposition voices too need a platform and a top-down programme to facilitate outreach and organisation; they cannot ring the bell of the houses in their neighbourhood to shout Bharat Bachao. Ideological battles too need tactical thinking and ideology has to be operationalised through political programmes if it is to have value on the ground.
There are other reasons due to which the Opposition should consider focusing on a positive agenda. The government imposes a high cost on overt opposition. Pivoting to a positive agenda will give breathing room to build organisational strength. Politics is a dialectical and iterative process: Building organisational strength on the back of a positive agenda creates space for other issues. This strategy may yield better media coverage too. It is true that media does not provide space to the opposition for its critique of the government because there is an inherent risk in criticism. However, reportage on an independent opposition agenda wouldn’t invite the same kind of government scrutiny and the media would have a greater amplitude in reporting on it. Most importantly, if the Opposition builds an organisation around its own agenda, it will be on stronger ground irrespective of electoral outcomes unlike now, where electoral losses are corrosive to the issues themselves. This is evident in how secularism has lost its electoral salience because its defence has been rhetorical and not organisational.
The Opposition needs to find ways of making politics a site for community, an avenue for public service and a source of intellectual stimulation. The role of the Opposition in a representative democracy is to provide an alternative, not just to oppose. This requires serious deliberation to come up with an agenda and political programmes which can meld people’s identity and aspirations with their grievances. Traditionally, civil society has played a role in generating ideas, which were adopted by political parties but civil society too has boxed itself in the “resistance with capital R” box and is unable to move beyond rhetoric and protest. As a result, even two years after the fact, the Opposition is playing the same script which led to defeat in 2019.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 22, 2021 under the title ‘To be an alternative’. The writer is former National Incharge of Congress’ Student Wing and Advisor, Samruddha Bharat Foundation. Views are personal
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