The need to reform and rebrand India’s political opposition is urgent
Recently, Hamid Ansari, former Vice President of India, and Barack Obama, former President of the US, spoke about the state of affairs in Indian polity. While the former mentioned about India being in the grip of two pandemics, the latter described the abilities of Rahul Gandhi as a leader, both being relevant in the context of present-day Indian democracy which stands in contrast to the one in the US.
The striking features of US democracy are true autonomy of institutions, transparent electoral funding, as well as a free-and-fair electoral process that alternates power between the Democrats and Republicans. We too have democracy and an elaborate constitution that help in changing power between the national parties or fluid groups of their alliances with regional players. However, the electoral process is often vitiated by an abuse of institutions by those in power, as well as factors like caste, religion, black money, etc. And now, with the entire political space usurped by the BJP, Congress is facing an existential crisis, and other players pushed into insignificance, India is dangerously poised to become a unipolar democracy, which is no different from authoritarianism.
Disillusioned for long with alliance politics, in which the partners extract their pound of flesh at the cost of a country's development, people trusted the promises of the BJP and overwhelmingly voted them to power. But, knowing very well what it requires to stay there — money, absolute control of media and institutions, promises to the voters, and importantly a stable government under a strong leader, whose writ is followed in letter and spirit by everyone, the ruling party quickly put everything in place. Institutions, including the SC, the EC, and the media were also captured.
For its committed cadres, their long-awaited chance to saffronise the country and promote their agenda has come. As a result, the cure turned worse than the disease and the country began facing more deleterious consequences in every field — economy, environment, social harmony, freedoms, etc.
Often taking shelter under terrorism and nationalism, draconian laws like UAPA, NSA, sedition, criminal conspiracy, etc. are being put to extensive use, thereby curtailing freedom of speech and expression. Thus, the arrest of intellectuals in Bhima Koregaon case, linking of protesters against CAA, etc., to Delhi riots and their arrests under UAPA, arrests of journalists under such sections for speaking the truth, booking of Communist leaders and others who support such movements as co-conspirators, are only acts of state terror to mute their voices in jails without bail and freeze democratic movements.
Journalists are rewarded with government ads for working as the voice of the government, hiding its failures and propagating its communal agenda, etc., and even creating fake news, like disbanding of non-existing Muslim Batallion, surgical strike on POK. They are protected when the need arises, even with the help of the SC that otherwise has no time for other journalists arrested, like Siddiqui Kappan and other vital matters. The five-member bench constituted to look into the matter of demonetisation in 2016 that debilitated our economy is yet to find time to deal with it. They do not have time to decide the issue of grave inconsistencies in counted and polled votes in Lok Sabha elections in about 374 constituencies that allegedly shook the foundations of the democratic electoral process to favour the ruling party, and also the issue of dubious electoral bonds.
But unfortunately, while the BJP has been deftly working to continue their dominance, Congress, with a leadership crisis, has been constantly sliding in its strength. Rahul Gandhi, in spite of his dynastic propulsion and sincerely shouting at the top of his voice 'chowkidar chor hai' during the Lok Sabha elections, is found no match for Modi in strategies, although wars are won mostly through effective strategies. Congress could not bring in cohesion among political groups to fight commonly against the BJP, thus leaving the voters with a TINA factor. Even during the recent Bihar elections, when the BJP put in all their might into it, Congress became a millstone for Tejaswi Yadav through their casual approach. Obama rightly described Rahul Gandhi as having 'a nervous, uniformed quality about him, as if he were a student who had done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.' Under such leadership, with a series of reverses, Congress is facing an existential crisis when healthy opposition is sine qua non for a healthy democracy.
Moreover, the present regime is unscrupulously ruthless in going for the jugular to subdue opposition with the use of institutions. Mayawati, who was a PM-aspirant in 2019, has begun singing the BJP tune because of the Taj corridor case, as well the huge illegal wealth located with her brother. The voice of Chidambaram has also been muted through the Aircel-Maxis case. Recently, DK Shivkumar was immediately raided when Congress was preparing to expose the corruption of Yeddyurappa in Karnataka. Most of the regional parties are more vulnerable to such attacks since they are all family businesses with narrow local agendas.
The case of AAP is, however, different, although similar tactics were employed against Kejriwal when he was confronting Modi flamboyantly for some time initially; his close relative was raided. Clever that he is, he changed tack, stopped criticising the Centre even for taking away the State ACB that was investigating the FIR of Rs 50,000 crore fraud in the KG gas basin matter, and quietly focused on his development work. As a result, he decimated the BJP in his re-election as CM this year. Already, this small, nascent party has displaced Congress in Delhi, and made a mark in Punjab, and is apparently working on its expansion plans. In fact, it has the potential to become the national alternative to the BJP because of its philosophy and agenda of non-corruption, non-communal, work-for-the-last-man-in-the-queue.
But, it all depends on how well they can promote their party agenda against the steamroller presence of BJP with its enormous resources. Moreover, it appears, like a rocket that sheds its parts as it cruises ahead, wrongly or rightly, AAP leadership has been shedding its supportive partners and well-wishers. Whether this 'use and throw' strategy will auger well for the party or will end up with sycophants in the process, is a moot question. If it does not, it will be a big loss for the country when BJP has already occupied the entire political space.
Moreover, confident that they are in an unenviable position of not being answerable to anyone, the ruling party is more focussed on their party agenda of CAA, 'Love-jihad', etc., when the economy has been fractured and battered, poverty and unemployment have skyrocketed, and corona is yet to be tamed, prompting former Vice President Hamid Ansari to say that country is in the grip of two pandemics — Coronavirus and religious bigotry.
This being a hallmark feature of a unipolar democracy, there is no point in cribbing and accusing the BJP, since it is common knowledge that 'absolute power corrupts absolutely'. If the opposition feels any responsibility towards our democracy, they should work together towards ending the TINA factor.
For this to happen, someone, who has grit, confidence, and courage, intelligence, experience, and strategies, has to take charge of the Congress. At the same time, using their excellent report card of governance, AAP should expand their territory, since emotive issues cannot last long, as Bihar elections have proved. In yet another option, all the opposition parties should realise their folly and unite themselves under one banner, one agenda, and one leader, to create a rallying point, as it happened in Malaysia.
The writer is a retired IPS officer and a former Member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. Views expressed are personal