As the reality of the (second) dominant party system begins to sink in, non-BJP parties have begun engaging in the language of Opposition unity. Given the experience of the past three decades, the obstacles to coalition-making are considerably less today because most parties have practised the art of alliances at some point. So, after her recent victory, Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly hinted at some mechanism of “Opposition unity”. Her attempts naturally focus on the perspective of state parties and federal power-sharing. There have also been attempts of bringing together non-Congress, non-BJP parties to avoid dealing with a party that continues to consider itself as the only all-India Opposition to the BJP. The Congress itself is aware that only astute alliances can keep it alive in the next round of elections. Therefore, it is also finding occasions to bring together other non-BJP parties.
These initiatives are natural, necessary and overdue. This, in spite of the cynicism about what such hasty anti-BJPism can achieve. While much of this cynicism is well founded, there come moments when genuine concerns about the shape of the future need to be balanced by equally genuine concerns about the darkness that might set in unless a robust Opposition emerges. Not only theoretically is an Opposition required in a democracy, in clear practical terms, it is high time that the new regime the BJP has established is tamed at least through a strong Opposition.
Democratic politics is at such a critical juncture that a “no alternative” argument can only be an apologia for the suspension of many democratic norms and aspirations. But in spite of this urgent need to build a democratic bulwark, non-BJP parties keep faltering and making false starts. Besides their emphasis on elections alone with complete exclusion of serious mass mobilisations, their failure to handle five issues results in a flip-flop of right initiatives and lazy follow-ups.
The first is the issue of leadership. Ever since Narendra Modi rose to prominence, the media has become enamoured of the leadership question. Whenever any discussion of Opposition synergy begins, the media dutifully highlights the ambitions of many Opposition leaders as if such ambition is a sin. The Opposition will have to avoid this trap. The media will keep posing questions of the leadership-challenge. The solution for the Opposition is not in answering them but in not answering them. Leadership is indeed important, but it is not the only political issue in democratic politics. Politics throws up leaders and Modi himself is an example of how politics produces a leader.
The second and more serious challenge is balancing criticism of ill governance of the current government with efforts at improving governance in states where the BJP is not in power. With more than 10 major states being run by non-BJP parties, the crisis of governance becomes a liability as much for them as for the BJP. Even in the case of the messing up of pandemic management, state governments cannot completely run away from responsibility and, therefore, the Opposition’s attack on the BJP and the Modi government will have to be accompanied by manifest and evident efforts at improving the record of the states. Otherwise, Opposition unity remains only a negative agenda. If Modi is accused of governance failure, states ruled by non-BJP parties need to be examples of better governance. In many cases, they are not.
The third difficulty is about the BJP’s key arsenal — Hindutva. As political competition hots up, the shouts of Hindutva will only grow louder. The trouble is that emotive appeals can easily contaminate public reason and no amount of sensible argument can easily counter or remove their effect. The Opposition may duck the issue, but, in that case, the appeal of the BJP remains intact; if, on the other hand, the Opposition acquiesces into that mode of thinking, it will have conceded a major victory for the BJP in the long run. What we need is probably a reinvigorated effort at redefining nationalism; replacing the current surge of pseudo-nationalism; creating popular interest in an argument that equates nation with people rather than geography or history alone. The empirical and lived reality of belonging needs to be translated into a new nationalism both through party and trans-party platforms. But non-BJP parties seem to be intellectually incapable and politically disinterested in this tortuous route which they should have taken seven years ago, or 30 years ago.
Then comes the fourth and trickiest challenge: Undeniably, the Modi government is on a weak wicket as far as the economy is concerned. The Opposition may tactically find it most convenient to trap the BJP on this issue — it could well do so. But ironically, while the management of the economy and its outcomes are indeed disastrous, are we also not witness to an implicit consensus among most parties on the basic direction of economic policy? So, will the non-BJP parties not be criticising outcomes of policies which they do not fundamentally disagree with? To overcome this problem, they would need to systematically distinguish their policies within the broader rubric of what might be described as “liberalisation”. This will require a far more nuanced vision, much careful thinking and a lot of imagination.
Finally, voters will be wondering why the non-BJP parties want to come together. If it is only to replace the BJP because they want power, then voters will have only limited interest and almost no sympathy in that project. More than that, for the non-BJP parties to have self-belief, it is necessary that they understand why they are coming together. In other words, the realisation and its articulation that something fundamental is at stake constitutes the core justification and legitimacy of all the shabby-looking efforts of Opposition unity. To project the dangers only in terms of threats to Muslims and constraints on intellectual freedom of expression will be a self-limiting exercise. Unless the non-BJP parties realise that besides the marginalisation of Muslims, beyond constraints on intelligentsia and their own existence, something bigger is at stake, they would be unable to make the case, much less convince the public, that India’s selfhood and routine democratic politics are at stake.
Not astute strategies, nor contingent political opportunities, but the ability to comprehend and handle these challenges will determine whether initiatives of Opposition unity will gather momentum or wither away.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 4, 2021 under the title ‘Why Opposition unity’. The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.