There are many adjectives one could apply to the political parties who constitute the opposition to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Corrupt, cronyist, weak, disheartened, listless, lifeless, lazy and incompetent might do for a start.
The last two characteristics have been much in evidence in recent weeks. Following the farmers’ unrest and police firing in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, in which five farmers were killed, the Congress vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, visited the district. A less lazy politician would have set up base there, identified with the protesting farmers, and not left until the Madhya Pradesh government had punished the errant officials, paid adequate compensation to the families of the victims, and set in motion other remedial measures to alleviate agrarian distress. Instead, Rahul Gandhi came to Mandsaur, got himself photographed, returned to Delhi, and immediately proceeded to Europe on holiday.
Meanwhile, the incompetence of the Opposition was manifest in its unconscionable delay in deciding on a suitable candidate for the presidential elections. Among the names being discussed was that of the scholar-diplomat, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a man of such stature that he draws admiration from two bitter rivals who agree on nothing else, namely Mamata Banerjee and Sitaram Yechury. Had the Congress, as the largest non-BJP party, led the Opposition in nominating someone of the calibre of Gopal Gandhi, and done so early, it would have placed the ruling party on the back-foot. The BJP may have still had the numbers to elect their candidate, but there would have been a real contest, feeding positively into the campaign for the 2019 general election. But the silence and inaction of the Congress president allowed Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to announce their own candidate, thus shaping the debate in their favour.
These two episodes confirm what I have been arguing for some time now – namely, that the Congress, under its First Family, is making itself increasingly irrelevant to democratic contestation in India. Meanwhile, while the Congress at least presumes to have a nation-wide footprint, the other parties that are in Opposition to the BJP are confined to particular states, and often to particular social groups within them. These smaller parties are also either beholden to an autocratic leader or are extremely corrupt (sometimes both), and hence unlikely to mount a credible challenge to the BJP in the years to come.
The dismal state of the Opposition means that the BJP is overwhelmingly likely to win the next general elections. It already controls the governments of the large states of northern and western India, with the exception of Bihar. While its influence is restricted in the East and the South, the BJP is in office in Assam, and might claim Odisha yet, while in my home state of Karnataka it has a 50-50 chance of regaining power in 2018.
In an electoral sense, then, the BJP is dominant across most of India. And its dominance is set to grow even further. Over the next decade, as it further consolidates its hold on state and Central governments, the BJP will aim to remould Indian society and politics in its own image. The individuals at the forefront of this remoulding will be the two men who have taken the BJP to its present position – the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the party president, Amit Shah.
Democracy in name
What will be the consequences for democracy and nationhood of the political dominance of the BJP, and of the personal dominance within the BJP of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah?
The first thing to remember about Modi and Shah is that they have no real commitment to democracy beyond winning elections. As they have demonstrated, first in Gujarat and now at the national level, they have contempt for the legislature and for the media, two institutions that are meant to hold governments and politicians to account.
While disregarding Parliament, Modi and Shah also seek to undermine the autonomy of other key institutions of Indian democracy, such as the judiciary and even the Army. They further wish to control and manipulate regulatory institutions such as the Reserve Bank of India and investigating agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, and to make them instruments of the ruling party.
Modi and Shah have an impoverished understanding of democracy and democratic procedure. And they have no commitment to religious pluralism either. The leaders of our freedom struggle and the framers of our Constitution were clear that our national identity would never be determined by, or held hostage to, a particular religion or language. But Modi and Shah, bred in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, think otherwise. In their view of India, those who are not Hindus are not equal citizens of the land. Muslims in particular must accept a subordinate position. Shah’s majoritarianism is writ large in his actions (notably, his exclusion of Muslims from representation in the BJP’s candidate lists). And those who, back in 2014, thought Modi had outgrown his sectarian past should think again, in the light of his studied silence on the continuing attacks on innocent Muslims in BJP-ruled states. This is a man who will tweet sympathy for victims of a forest fire in distant Portugal but ignore the murder of his own countrymen by his own partymen.
The Opposition is in disarray. However (and this is our republic’s saving grace) democracy is about more than party politics. Thus the ideas and policies of Modi and Shah are being contested by Indians who shall never fight or win an election, even a panchayat election. While large sections of the print and (especially) electronic media have become mouthpieces of the ruling party, there remain some newspapers, some editors, and some reporters who write fearlessly and on the basis of facts about the crimes and errors of the BJP and the governments it directs. And some websites are more independent-minded still. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the paid armies of right-wing trolls, on social media too democratic and liberal voices are becoming more visible and active.
In spite of the time, energy and money that the BJP spends on controlling mainstream as well as social media, it has not been able to suppress either reasoned debate or independent documentation and analysis. Meanwhile, in society at large, tens of millions of Indians remain committed to an idea of constitutional patriotism that is steadfastly opposed to Hindutva. These Indians do not want their country to become a Hindu Pakistan. They do not want to be told what to eat, how to dress, whom to love and whom to vilify. Seventy years of independence and of life under the Constitution have led to the inculcation of mores and habits that run against the grain of authoritarianism and majoritarianism.
Will this independent, non party, opposition to the BJP crystallise over time into a party (or parties) that can defeat the BJP in the general election of 2024? Can there be a Emmanuel Macron-like phenomenon in India? Those questions this historian cannot answer. But I would like to reiterate the main thesis of this column – that democracy must never be reduced to, or equated with, the winning and losing of elections. Democracy is a way of life, a system of values, that must be practised every day, not brought out of hibernation once every five years. Many Indians subscribe to this deeper understanding of democracy, which is why, in spite of a single party being so dominant in the sphere of elections, its policies and politicians face such searching criticism in the public sphere.
The admiration for Mussolini and Hitler of Hindutva ideologues in the past; the brash, abusive style of BJP leaders in the present; the intimidation and harassment of its critics by the use of State power; the street lynchings by gau gundas – all these have led left-wing intellectuals to speak darkly of fascism. Such hyperbolic talk diminishes both the institutional history of democracy in India as well as the democratic instincts of Indians. Even if the Opposition, united or divided, currently seems incapable of taking on or even containing the BJP, other Indians will continue to challenge, question, and hold to account the ruling party and its leaders. Modi and Shah may have vanquished the likes of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi; but they still have to contend with the legacies of the likes of Ambedkar and Nehru, who gave our republic the democratic and pluralist template that the Hindutvawadis seek to damage but shall never be allowed to destroy.
This article first appeared on The Telegraph.