Limits of Opposition’s ‘save democracy’ plank - Hindustan Times
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Limits of Opposition’s ‘save democracy’ plank

Apr 04, 2024 10:00 PM IST

2024 is not 1977: ‘Democracy in danger’ slogan is unlikely to help INDIA bloc challenge the dominance of the BJP

BJP versus Democracy — a huge banner at the Opposition “ Save Democracy” rally at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi was aiming to set the 2024 election agenda. The last time an Opposition gathering focused on a similar narrative was during the historic 1977 election when Indira Gandhi was defeated by a combined force. But a reality check would suggest that 2024 is not 1977 and Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi is not quite Mrs Gandhi.

New Delhi, India - March 31, 2024: Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, NCP (Sharad) leader Sharad Pawar and AAP leader Bhagwant Mann and others during I.N.D.I.A. bloc's 'Loktantra Bachao' rally at the Ramlila ground, in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, March 31, 2024. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times)(Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
New Delhi, India - March 31, 2024: Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, NCP (Sharad) leader Sharad Pawar and AAP leader Bhagwant Mann and others during I.N.D.I.A. bloc's 'Loktantra Bachao' rally at the Ramlila ground, in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, March 31, 2024. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times)(Hindustan Times)

First, a 21-month-old Emergency in which hundreds of politicians and political activists were jailed cannot be compared to the arrests of two Opposition chief ministers (CMs). While the ‘weaponisation’ of agencies and their unbridled use against Opposition leaders is a grim reminder of abuse of power and the absence of a level playing field, to suggest that we are entering an “Opposition-mukt Bharat” phase is excessively alarmist at this stage. Just witness the intense seat-by-seat competition in a state like Maharashtra.

Secondly, the Opposition leadership in 1977 was far more seasoned and respected than the disjointed INDIA bloc, which has struggled to project a united front. The Janata Party was forged overnight by disparate forces such as the Jan Sangh and Socialists, held together by the glue of fierce anti-Congressism. The moral compass was provided by a freedom movement stalwart like JP Narayan. Can any of those gathered at Ramlila Maidan invoke a JP-like sense of principled leadership? While anti-Modiism binds the Opposition at the top, the on-ground contradictions have scarcely melted away: the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) versus Congress in Punjab, Trinamool Congress versus the Left-Congress combine in Bengal, even the Left and Congress in Kerala remain at loggerheads.

Thirdly, the Opposition doesn’t come into the “democracy in danger” debate with clean hands. Charges of autocratic behaviour have been made against several Opposition CMs in the last decade. Dissenting voices in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Maharashtra (when it was under Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi rule) have also faced punitive action. If the Enforcement Directorate has been a sword arm of the Centre, so has the local police in state capitals.

Fourthly, there is a growing disconnect between the need to preserve democratic values and the citizenry’s preoccupations. In 1977, there was perceptible public anger against the stifling of democratic freedoms which manifested itself, principally in North India where the Indira government’s forcible sterilisation drive led to excesses that affected the masses. Recall how South India, where Emergency measures did not directly impact the electorate, stood firmly in the Congress’s embrace in 1977.

Moreover, the urban middle class — once a torchbearer of democratic ideals — is a very different socio-economic category now than in the 1970s. In a fast-growing, tech-driven economy, an aspirational, “me-first” generation is increasingly disengaged from political activism unless personal interests are directly at stake. For example, youth angered by repeated paper leaks have hit the street as did farmers during the farm law agitation. But for vast multitudes, clickbait activism where a Dhruv Rathee viral video might be excitedly shared is the limit of public participation in any “battle” to protect constitutional freedoms. In the 1970s — a period of combative trade unionism, committed civil liberty groups and idealistic politics — fighting for democratic spaces mattered. Now, it rarely goes beyond handwringing and platitudinous WhatsApp messages.

Ironically, the last time urban middle-class anger appeared to shake the political class was when Arvind Kejriwal and his cohorts launched their anti-corruption movement in 2011. Billed as a crusade to cleanse politics, it was a well-calculated protest against the entire political class. Sab neta chor hai became a rallying cry for anti-establishment sentiment. Now, the wheel has come full circle. From being the face of an “anti-corruption” andolan, Kejriwal seeks to erase the alleged Delhi liquor scam taint in the company of those he once vociferously accused of corruption. How can such a political arrangement primarily aimed at self-preservation be credible, or even sustainable?

Paradoxically, the biggest beneficiary of the extreme anti-politician mood created by Kejriwal’s India Against Corruption movement is PM Modi, who rose to power on the debris of an embattled Manmohan Singh government. Without being attached to any code of political correctness, Modi has artfully borrowed from Mrs Gandhi’s playbook in his attempt to remove all institutional checks and balances to fulfil his overarching desire for complete domination of the polity.

As an unabashed populist strongman, Modi is arguably politically sharper and more ruthless than even the late Congress PM. Mrs Gandhi’s anxieties, fuelled by the vaulting ambitions of her son Sanjay Gandhi, pushed her into declaring the Emergency. Modi, on the other hand, claims to work within the framework of constitutional democracy while systematically pushing it towards an electoral autocracy and religious majoritarianism. Why invoke an Emergency provision when existing laws are enough to intimidate the Opposition? Or when a mostly pliant media has fallen in line? For example, bail provision amendments to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act were pushed through Parliament as a money bill and then inexplicably ratified by a Supreme Court bench headed by a judge on the verge of retirement, who is now the Lokpal. This is a classic example of a draconian law being used to settle political scores under the guise of “anti-corruption” populist fervour. In the process, the bail-not-jail credo has been overturned and vendetta politics normalised. Which is another reason why it may take much more than just a “Save Democracy” Opposition rally to challenge a domineering politician backed by the most formidable election machine in post-Independence India.

Post-script: A Pew survey in February this year found that 67% of Indians thought that “a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from Parliament or courts would be a good way of governing the country”. That figure is up from 55% in 2017. Whither democracy?

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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