Indian democracy is without a meaningful Opposition. This is the only conclusion to be drawn from the recent conduct of the Opposition. Admittedly, the opposition parties are facing an uphill battle. The BJP is a well-organised electoral juggernaut, it is ruthless in using state power to intimidate opponents. It is allied to a social movement, and has a leadership that thinks politically in the deepest sense of the term. But a formidable opponent and repression often galvanise an Opposition, not make them comatose. But the Opposition is not held back by the power of the BJP. Its besetting sin is its own excruciating littleness.
Take just this week. The BJP showed inspired political imagination by nominating Droupadi Murmu as its presidential candidate. Her candidature was a symbolic gesture towards a community the Indian Republic has historically victimised the most. But even more than that, her personal story is deeply compelling. It allowed the BJP to position itself as the party of social inclusion. But it was also a reminder of how the BJP has occupied the social space against the old order, and produces a far more instinctive identification at a national level than any other political party.
How does the Opposition respond? Without any political imagination. It might actually have politically done better to embrace Droupadi Murmu as an all-party candidate. But then comes the vice-presidential pick. But in this instance, the BJP chose a talented political hack who exemplifies the ruthless culture of the party. What does the Opposition do? Nominate Margaret Alva, as much a reminder of an old plutocratic ancien régime as you can get. And then, to top it off, it does it without preparation or laying the groundwork. Even the Trinamool Congress, the party with the most reason to resent Jagdeep Dhankhar, decides to abstain.
The outcome of the presidential and vice-presidential elections was never in doubt. But that is precisely why the conduct of the Opposition is so revealing. If the Opposition cannot do minimal coordination when their material interests are not as much at stake, there is almost no chance they can do anything meaningful when there are real stakes. The point was not to win, it was to create some buzz. In a context where the BJP is too easily running away with a narrative of inclusion, mobility and newness, all that the Opposition could do was remind people how much it is stuck in the past. It revealed its utter lack of social depth and talent.
Then followed the histrionics over the Enforcement Directorate (ED). The BJP’s ruthless use of the ED against political opponents is setting a new benchmark of intimidation by the state. On this, you might think, principle and self-interest would coincide to concentrate the Opposition’s mind. But it has managed to botch this up in an orgy of pettiness. The first is the inability to articulate that what the state is doing in targeting the Opposition is dangerous for democracy on principle. Now, admittedly, this is a tough ask of the Opposition since it is hard for them to project their innocence, or commitment to institutional independence. Instead, it became a petulant fight over individual cases, not a united front on principle.
The use of the ED has three purposes. The first is intimidation. The second is to keep the narrative of the old corrupt regime boiling. This is not a difficult proposition to sell to the public. But the third is to reveal the sheer self-absorption of the Opposition. When Rahul and Sonia Gandhi are summoned by the ED, the Congress dutifully shows up to protest, and even shows rare passion. But the political effect of this strategy is the opposite of what Congress intends by these protests. For most people, the passion shown against the ED summons stands in marked contrast to its utter lack of street spirit on almost any other issue of serious consequence to the country — the decimation of civil liberties, communalism or the economy. The fact that these protests have almost no popular mobilisation behind them is an own goal.
These contexts are revealing precisely because they do not involve the uphill battles of ideology, organisation and credibility and funding the opposition parties are facing. So, here is how the opposition space looks. None of the regional parties can sell a national model. The TMC tried a tentative foray into national politics, but it is held back by its internal authoritarianism, and the fact that it is difficult to create a buzz around a Bengal model. The DMK, like all Tamil Nadu parties historically, plays well within limits, fiercely protecting its turf but avoiding national politics if it can. KCR is trying to sell Telangana nationally but has very little prospect of succeeding. The Congress is most likely to even lose Rajasthan, a state where it had the opportunity to create a buzz. The party has no fight or talent left in it. The Mandal parties are on their last legs. Social engineering is still important to good electoral strategy, but it will not be the basis of viable large-scale electoral victories and is self-defeating if made into an ideological project. The AAP has the advantage of newness and tries to export a Delhi model story. But Punjab is its real test. If it botches up Punjab, its national ambitions will come to a halt. But the AAP, like many regional parties, is no longer an ideological opposition to the BJP; it has practically aligned itself with the BJP on majoritarianism.
So here is what the Opposition is playing for. Three or four regional parties will play for their states, but have no national prospects. The Opposition in North India has settled for what someone called the “Mayawati equilibrium”. The party continues to exist, drawing a small support base, but is pretty much a shadow of itself. Notwithstanding the recent elections, the SP will be on this trajectory soon. The use of the ED has had the desired effect of convincing most opposition leaders that they have to play for their individual family survival.
The talk of existential threat to democracy is met by retreating into an even narrower circle of self-interest. Prepare for a democracy where the political “opposition” is just a label, a mere shadow shaped by the ruling party. The BJP managed to remind everyone that the opposition parties are like little scared cats hissing away at each other, while the grander animals of prey lord over this land. The sheer littleness of the Opposition will make the BJP look big.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express