By Chandan Mitra
Until popular unrest and voter fatigue broke the Congress party’s overwhelming grip on political power for the first time in 1967, India’s political cartography was very similar to what it is today except that the BJP has replaced the Grand Old Party of India to gain virtual monopoly of power. The components of this monopoly hardly bear recounting. Even in 1977 when Indira Gandhi was unseated in the aftermath of the Emergency, the Congress party’s plight was not as pathetic. Perhaps more importantly the prospects of a non-BJP alternative emerging in the near future look palpably bleak. In other words, a TINA (there is no alternative) syndrome has gripped Indian politics.
The turning point for this denouement, significantly,was not the 2014 general election which brought the BJP to power with a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. Even after that, the party crashed to stunning defeat in the Bihar assembly elections in 2015, giving leaders like Nitish Kumar hopes of stitching together a grand alliance or mahagathbandhan to challenge the BJP nationally. But the party’s spectacular performance in the 2017 UP assembly polls put paid to such dreams. Since then, Opposition aspirations have crumbled. The switch-over by Nitish Kumar, a prospective leader of a non-BJP front, appears to have interred those dreams for the foreseeable future.
It is accepted electoral logic that without gaining control of the Hindi heartland states, particularly UP with 80 Lok Sabha seats and Bihar with 40, it is virtually impossible to mount a credible bid for power at the Centre. In recent times, the BJP has made serious inroads into states where it barely existed before – Assam and its neighbours for example. Although the party is yet to pose a significant challenge in the South, it has ruled Karnataka before and appears poised to do so again after next year’s assembly polls. The BJP is already in alliance with the TDP in Andhra Pradesh and is eyeing a tie-up with the TRS in Telangana. Tamil Nadu and Kerala may be out of its reach at present, but the case was similar with these states in the high noon of Indira Gandhi’s supremacy.
But the TINA factor is not just on account of the BJP’s geographical spread. Indira Gandhi managed to successfully joust her way back in the 1980 election. On that occasion, she was the undoubted alternative to the Janata Party, Lok Dal and the rest of the motley Opposition. In fact, during its brief stints out of power, the Congress party always lurked in the shadows as a “government in waiting”.
The vacuum in Opposition ranks today is primarily on account of the Congress party’s seemingly terminal decline, both at the national and regional levels. Without the Congress in command, the Opposition lacks a cementing factor. Previous experiments with a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance have come a cropper. Besides regional parties in the crucial Hindi heartland states are currently in disarray. After its rout earlier this year, the Samajwadi Party is tottering, Lalu Prasad and his family members are battling a series of corruption-related legal tangles. In the absence of a feisty challenge from the Congress, which seems to have more leaders than foot soldiers today, a fragmented Opposition can be easily gobbled up by the preponderant BJP.
Anybody with knowledge of building a stable and expansive political organisation knows that party workers must be kept busy by engaging them constantly in agitational and mass contact programmes. While the BJP does that on a regular basis, the Congress party’s efforts at mobilisation are clearly lackadaisical and mostly unfocused. Its cadre is galvanised only when any member of its First Family comes under attack. Protests by Congress workers in many parts of the country following the deplorable attack on Rahul Gandhi’s motorcade in Gujarat last week, is a case in point. While such protest is justified, how does it really concern the common man? Nitish Kumar (shortly before quitting his alliance with Lalu Prasad) rightly asked as to whether the Opposition has an alternate narrative? Clearly it does not.
Congress and most non-BJP parties have failed to grasp that the country has moved beyond the secular-communal debate. So, apart from leadership and organisational deficiencies, the Opposition lacks an ideological and programmatic alternative as well.
Till such time as the Congress reinvents itself and promotes a new, younger leadership, the party does not seem to have a future ahead. The irony is that there is no dearth of younger leaders in the party.
A vibrant and vigilant Opposition is the sine-qua-non of parliamentary democracy. The BJP may have worked hard to gain its dominant position in Indian politics and even acquired TINA status, but unipolarity is unreal for a democracy in the long run. However, an Opposition lacking an agenda, strategy, drive and leadership will remain confined to the peripheries while Narendra Modi reigns supreme.
Hindustan Times, August 10, 2017