Terms of Trade | Missing: India’s Opposition
Maharashtra churn, presidential elections, and by-poll results highlight the poverty of opposition’s politics in India
“In politics, there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or Lenin, is believed to have said.
If one were to paraphrase slightly in the current context of Indian politics, another part could be added to this sentence. “..And there are weeks which capture what has been happening for decades”.
The past couple of weeks illustrate this in the context of India’s opposition, which is increasingly appearing bereft of any political anchor whatsoever.
First there was a rebellion in the Maharashtra ruling alliance of the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress. A majority Sena’s MLAs reneged from Uddhav Thackeray’s camp, on the grounds that that the party’s more natural alliance was with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This eventually led to his resignation and the swearing in of rebel leader Eknath Shinde as chief minister with the BJP pulling the strings from behind and throwing the Thackeray-led faction of the Sena in an existential crisis. The so-called secular opposition was hoping that the Thackerays survived the crisis by pulling off a trick where they could have their Hindutva and eat it (enjoying the spoils of power with their “secular” partners) too. It was not to be.
Then, the Opposition decided to put up Yashwant Sinha as a candidate in the presidential elections. Sinha’s entire political life (or the part to reckon with) has been spent in the BJP. His candidature means that even the opposition’s attempts to manage the optics of the presidential polls – the result has been a forgone conclusion since the BJP secured a landslide in the Uttar Pradesh elections – have very little credibility now. Sinha’s utterances pretty much suggest that his grievance is largely towards the BJP’s current leadership and not its ideological worldview. “The BJP I was part of had internal democracy, the current BJP lacks internal democracy”, he said on the day he filed his nomination.
Then came the results of Lok Sabha by-polls in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. In the former, the BJP managed to wrest erstwhile bastions of Azamgarh and Rampur from the Samajwadi Party, while in Punjab the ruling Aam Admi Party (AAP) seems to have resurrected the ghosts of secessionist politics in the state. A Lok Sabha seat which was held by the current chief minister Bhagwant Man has gone to one of the radical factions of the Akali Dal and the winner has dedicated his victory to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the poster boy of Sikh militancy in Punjab. The AAP, as a political start-up, has always taken pride in being ideologically agnostic (or promiscuous) and believed that its image of being a governance and welfare provider will facilitate its national ambitions. If Sangrur results are any indication, this strategy has hit a major roadblock.
What is the larger takeaway from these events? The first two show that the anti-BJP opposition in the country seems to be suffering from a curse where it is doomed to fritter away political credibility by acts which do not even bring any success in the realpolitik sense of the term. The third shows that old social models (Samajwadi Party’s Mandal kind) of challenging the BJP do not seem to be working and the new ones (AAP in Punjab) can potentially create bigger problems than they can solve.
The easy way out is to blame it on acts of omissions and commissions of various leaders of the opposition. Had Uddhav Thackeray been more approachable and vigilant, Eknath Shinde could not have pulled a coup. Had Gopal Krishna Gandhi or Sharad Pawar agreed to be presidents, Yashwant Sinha would not have got the ticket. Had the AAP government in Punjab not made mistakes such as removing the security of popular singer Sidhu Moosewala — he was killed the day following the decision — sentiment would not have turned against the AAP so quickly in Punjab. And had Akhilesh Yadav campaigned properly in Azamgarh, the BJP would not have been pulled off a narrow victory.
None of these answers, however, fully explain the current predicament of the opposition in India.
Quoting Karl Marx from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is useful here. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”, Marx writes.
It is eminently possible to argue that most of India’s Opposition is actually weighed under the tradition of dead generations and desperately trying to “conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”, as Marx writes further in the book.
Sena’s existential crisis: A poetic justice of sorts?
Let us take the Shiv Sena for example. Its current shadow-boxing with the BJP over Hindutva notwithstanding, the Sena broke political ground riding the wave of economic nativism rather than Hindutva. In what is one of the earliest and best academic works on the Shiv Sena, sociologist Dipnakar Gupta’s 1982 book Nativism in a Metropolis: The Shiv Sena in Bombay records in great detail how the roots of the Shiv Sena are to be found in the economic anxieties of Marathi speaking population which believed that outsiders such as those from south Indian states were usurping all economic opportunities in the city of Mumbai.
Bal Thackeray had tested the waters before he floated the Sena in June 1966. Gupta writes how Thackeray’s journal Marmik (it would later become Sena’s mouthpiece) started publishing lists of employees in various government and private sector organisations highlighting how the Marathi speaking population was grossly underrepresented. While the lists would be published with a sense of sarcasm – they were published under the caption Vacha Ani Thand Basa (Read and Keep Quiet) before the launch of the Sena – the tone changed to a call to arms once Thackeray had launched the Shiv Sena. The caption under which such lists were published now became Vacha Ani Utha (Read and Get Up), Gupta writes in his bok.
Unlike what is widely believed now, the Shiv Sena is not a natural ally of the BJP and its fellow travellers. In fact, Gupta writes that Bal Thackeray was critical of both the Jan Sangh and Sangh leaders such as M S Golwalkar because he found their adherence to the caste system inimical to the cause of forging a larger unity among Marathi speaking population.
In some ways, it can be argued that the Shiv Sena has become a victim of its own success today. Weakening and decimating the communists, especially their trade unions, was one of the biggest ideological motivations of the Sena. The only non-Marathi community that the Sena was not overtly hostile to in its early years were the Gujaratis who dominated the ranks of capitalists in Mumbai.
In what was widely believed to be a BJP sponsored coup, the Sena is facing an existential crisis from a party which has unprecedented support from big business in India. Uddhav Thackeray’s failure to exploit Bal Thackeray’s legacy to his advantage at this hour of crisis can well be seen along with the fact that the material support base which senior Thackeray cultivated and eventually enjoyed hardly exists today.
The (futile) quest for an ideological figurehead against the BJP
Presidential elections, especially given the current political arithmetic, were always going to be a symbolic contest. Given the fact that a victory was extremely unlikely, if not entirely impossible to begin with, the opposition should have tried to galvanise its own ideological base through its candidature. That a former BJP leader such as Sinha has been chosen as the candidate leaves very little credibility on this count.
To be sure, there is nothing surprising in the choice of Sinha has a candidate from the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the party which Sinha had joined after getting out of the BJP. Not only has the TMC done business with the BJP in the past – Mamata Banerjee needed an ally to take on the Left in West Bengal after splitting from the Congress in 1998 – it has also inducted high profile BJP leaders (who were extremely vocal on core Hindutva issues) in its ranks in the recent past, which is a clear demonstration of the fact that realpolitik considerations are given far more importance than ideological consistency within the party organisation.
However, the only reason Sinha’s candidature had weight, and perhaps acceptability, was that the TMC is among the biggest anti-BJP political parties in the country and its stature on this front has significantly increased after it pulled off a massive victory in the 2021 West Bengal assembly elections against what looked like an extremely confident BJP. An interesting counterfactual to ask would be whether the opposition would have agreed to the TMC’s proposed candidate for the presidential polls had it not won the 2021 West Bengal elections. If the answer to this question is no, and this author believes that to be the case, then there is merit in the BJP’s often repeated argument that secularism is nothing but an alibi for political opportunism in India.
Is the AAP becoming a victim of its own propaganda like Mandal?
To say that it is premature to use a Lok Sabha by-poll defeat to forecast serious trouble for a political party which has won a three-fourth majority in an assembly election held a few months ago is an understatement.
However, the central message which the Sangrur by-poll results carry for the AAP is that there is more to politics than promises of freebies and eradicating corruption. As much as the AAP would like to believe, and not entirely incorrectly, that its political success in Delhi is because of the tailwinds from the Anna Movement and Arvind Kejriwal’s promise of free electricity, it must come to terms with the fact that the electorate can very well get swayed by issues other than welfare provisions or promises of better governance.
To be sure, the AAP has always had a realisation on this count in its home state of Delhi, where it has repeatedly failed to defeat the BJP in Lok Sabha elections despite pulling off landslide victories in assembly elections. However, AAP has always had a tendency to see its inability to perform well in national elections as a reflection of its limited regional footprint rather than a reluctance to carve out a wider ideological anchor apart from its rhetoric on governance and welfare. The sudden surge of radical Sikh politics in the Sangrur results shows that this is a dangerous assumption to harbour, not just for AAP’s politics but also for the region and country at large.
Ironical as it may sound, the early warning bell for AAP in Punjab resonates with the fate of Mandal parties such as the SP in Uttar Pradesh which seem to be paralysed in dealing with the reality of what is now an institutionalised fault line between dominant versus non-dominant castes in Other Backward Class (OBC) politics. This fault line is primarily rooted in the empirically erroneous rhetoric of portraying OBCs as an economically homogenous group, an asymmetry which has only increased after the dominant OBCs exploited a disproportionate share of the fruits of political power. The fact that hubris of Mandal’s initial electoral prowess blindsided the social justice camp to waging an ideological counter campaign against Hindutva has only made matters difficult for the it in dealing with the BJP’s challenge.
There is enough anecdotal evidence to believe that AAP has adopted a policy of non-confrontation vis-à-vis the core Hindutva agenda. If the current situation of Mandal parties is any indication, this might not end well for the AAP too.
So, what should the Opposition do?
To begin with, it will do well to begin discussing these questions with more honesty and sincerity while always remaining conscious of the fact that such discussions must inform rather than confuse actual political praxis.
Once again, it is useful to end by quoting Marx. “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question… The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”, he wrote in Theses On Feuerbach.
Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.
The views expressed are personal
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