The hypothesis that Narendra Modi’s unassailable victory march can be breached by a united opposition was once again tested as positive after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered a loss in Kairana.
The first laboratory for this experiment was Bihar. The 2015 Bihar Assembly election brought the idea of a “Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance)” to the fore, where the arch-rivals Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal sealed the alliance, further joined by the Congress to collectively fight against the BJP. The experiment was found to be effective with the Mahagathbandhan clinching victory from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Though the alliance split up eventually and the BJP formed the government along with Nitish Kumar as chief minister, the prospect of a combined fight yielding electoral results was well-registered among the opposition factions.
The most significant experiment of this kind was, however, exhibited in the Uttar Pradesh by-election. After a thrashing defeat in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party along with the Congress faced a question of relevance, if not outright political extinction. The two crucial constituencies of Gorakhpur and Phulpur, each belonging to the incumbent Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister respectively, offered another laboratory to test the effects of so-called ‘opposition unity’. The experiment did cost the BJP the two crucial seats as it further reinforced the theory of a ‘united opposition’.
The process of devouring the political differences, indeed intense rivalries, to sport a fight against the BJP saw its logical next step in the Karnataka Assembly election. The most ‘unlikely partners’ sealed a post-poll deal with the Congress offering unconditional support to Janata Dal (Secular) paving the way for the third-largest party candidate to become chief minister. The culmination of the incremental process was the ‘show of strength’ of the major opposition parties in the swearing-in ceremony of Kumaraswamy, where the other set of ‘most unlikely partners’ – Mayawati and Yadav, and Banerjee and Yechury – shared the stage along with other regional parties.
This political affinity is limited not just to the ‘identified opposition forces’. Even a party like Shiv Sena and its proclivity for opposing the current government at the Centre as well as the state despite being a part of it, points to the peculiarity of the situation. Sena’s gesticulation towards Mamata Banerjee in the recent past and its relentless attacks on Modi in particular and the government in general, shows the desperation within party lines. Sena’s closeness to Banerjee defies logic. A political party forming opportunistic alliances is understandable, but what is peculiar about the current state of politics is the apparent diffusion of political and ideological differences across the spectrum, resulting in a homogenised opposition.
Political homogenisation can be seen as a process where various forces unite by subsuming political differences for a desired electoral outcome – to the extent that ideological or political rivalries become immaterial.
Homogenisation is distinct with its two peculiar characteristics:
1) Homogenisation inevitably requires conjuring up artificial fears about the government, which then becomes a rallying ground to coming together. It is therefore unlike the 1977 unity, which came when the emergency was the backdrop, which in a true sense was a blow to democracy. The other one was on the backdrop of the Bofors scandal that shook the establishment from within.
In contrast, we have today an opposition of all shades speaking in one voice about the alleged fascist, authoritarian tendencies of the government, the perceived threat to freedom of expression, subversion of democratic institutions, and imposition of a ‘majoritarian will’ on the people. Even innocuous initiatives like the Swacch Bharat and LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) subsidies are often ridiculed, and the focus is deliberately drawn to the communal impulses – real or imagined – of the government. This tendency is in turn seen to be permeating into the ‘non-political’ sphere of the opposition, which includes the media, public intellectuals, and social activists forming the second tier of the homogenisation.
2) Homogenisation is resulting in an unnecessary polarisation of the public discourse into a rigid binary – in this case, it is government vs others. This is seen most prominently in the domain of public discourse. Modi’s decisive victory in 2014 created a lot of discomfiture in many public intellectuals, self-anointed social activists, and emerging ‘student leaders’ attempting their foray into regional or national politics. If we were to believe them, since 2014, India has already witnessed innumerable emergency-like situations and that we are in the worst phase of communal tensions and also that the country is heading towards fascism. Indeed, some believe it has already turned into one.
What is curious is the support they are receiving from the political class. Recall the infamous Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) controversy and the following nationwide debate on nationalism and intolerance. Despite their ideological convictions, we saw the political class throwing their weight behind JNU student leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, who had no connection to national politics and had no credibility of their own.
Even from the Congress party, which in its essence should have no resonance with the kind of politics Khalid and Kumar represent, the likes of Rahul Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor rushed to the JNU campus to swear their support to the ‘student’ movement. The pattern then followed with Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel, and even during the agitations in Maharashtra. The core principle was to attach yourself to any space that is opposing the government and subsume it into the mainstream. The size of the opposition and its credibility made it necessary for them to put their weight behind these ‘satellite protesters’.
And it was not just the politicians; all of the who’s who in the media, the social activists, and of course, self-proclaimed liberal intellectuals are all rallying, it appears, on an anti-government platform, with disregard to their individual political inclinations. Such homogenisation of the opposition space is in effect diluting the essence of our democratic process.
A homogenised opposition has two serious consequences for our democracy:
1) Emergence and rise of ‘party-line intellectuals’
While the space for party-line intellectuals always existed, what we have today is the replication of the phenomenon on various levels of public discourse. So, to be identified and remain as independent intellectuals is getting harder.
2) Stifling of informed critique
Homogenisation has narrowed the space for informed critique – there are very few issue-based, policy-oriented critiques. What we see are sweeping generalisations, often coupled with unwanted hype involving terms like “fascism”, “authoritarian”, “emergency”, “freedom of speech”, “religion under threat”, which come from the speech and writings of party-line intellectuals. This has also led to the strengthening of media houses that act as if they are permanent representatives of the government in media. The casualty in this unnecessary polarization has been public discourse, which is the driving force of any democracy.
Democracy thrives on the shoulders of an informed and responsible opposition. This is precisely why a “Congress-mukt Bharat’ is not in the interest of Indian democracy but a strong, substantive Congress party with an informed leadership is. The current scenario of the opposition, however, inspires no confidence. The very threat to their relevance – indeed survival, in some instances – has occasioned a homogenisation where political differences are subsumed to rally around a singular, parochial goal of defeating a particular party. The fact that this is replicating even in the ostensibly ‘non-political’ sphere speaks of the peril that is facing our democracy.
Akshay Ranade is an assistant professor at the MIT School of Government, Pune.
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