The Challenge of Opposition Unity

Governance in India today is driven by a relentless aggression of the executive which has reduced the legislature to a loyal instrument of law making. Any corrective measure coming from the judiciary is being disdainfully discarded through executive ordinances. The media, the fabled fourth pillar of democracy, has effectively been refashioned as a willing ally whose job has become to advocate and amplify the agenda of the government and function as an advertisement medium for the supreme leader. The separation of powers and the institutional checks and balances that have been crucial to the survival of constitutional democracy in India over the last seven decades today stand badly dented and damaged.

Facilitating this aggressive centralisation of power has been a massive imbalance in the electoral arena with the gap between the ruling party and the leading opposition party being as high as 250 in a house of 543 elected members. The situation in the states is albeit more evenly balanced with the BJP being voted out or prevented from winning power in several elections. But then the Modi regime has time and again toppled non-BJP state governments and is waging a relentless war of vendetta where it fails to topple state governments by engineering defections and exerting pressure through central agencies and offices of Governor or Lieutenant Governor. If India has to be saved from lapsing into a full-scale electoral autocracy where the ruling BJP dreams of ruling for 50 years and subjecting multi-party democracy to a single-party straitjacket, a united and assertive political opposition is a must.

Till 1977 India had uninterrupted Congress rule at the Centre. The last couple of years of those three decades of prolonged Congress rule were however marked by a state of internal emergency when constitutional democracy was eclipsed by alarming trappings of autocratic rule. The 1977 elections ended that eclipse with the Janata Party, formed by a short-lived merger of rightwing and centre-right parties, replacing the Congress at the Centre. The post-1977 period has seen more frequent changes of government and increasingly the rise of a coalition era in place of a dominant single-party regime.

The RSS has systematically used this evolution to expand its influence and organisational network. From dissolving the Jan Sangh into the Janata Party in 1977 to reinventing itself as the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1980s, from shelving some of the most contentious items in its core agenda in the mid 1990s to openly enforcing its entire Hindu Rashtra project after two successive victories in Lok Sabha elections, the Sangh-BJP establishment has exploited the social churnings and political avenues in India's parliamentary democracy to the hilt to draw strength.

Unilateral political domination of the BJP however has resulted not just in unbridled concentration of power in the hands of an authoritarian regime. The Sangh-BJP establishment has been using its electoral victories as a licence to reshape India, the state as well as the society, according to the RSS worldview and framework of Hindutva or Hindu supremacist majoritarianism. The Modi government today is marked as much by centralisation of power as by decentralisation and privatisation of violence and normalisation of hate crimes.

Unbridled corporate loot, unmitigated state repression and orchestrated vigilante violence have turned India into a republic of fear where citizens are being reduced to fearful inhabitants of a regimented society in a surveillance state. Political opponents are treated with constant vendettas; ideological dissenters are subjected to relentless persecution and witch-hunts; Dalits, Adivasis, women and the oppressed poor face increased atrocities; and the minorities, Muslims in particular, have become targets of hate campaign, exclusion and even outright genocidal violence. When politics becomes a cynical pursuit of power devoid of any concern for the people, the country is bound to lapse into a state of all-consuming anarchy. What is happening to Manipur today is a warning for the whole of India tomorrow.

Clearly, India urgently needs a course correction. The vision of India as a constitutionally proclaimed sovereign socialist secular democratic republic, the norms of a functional democracy for a billion-plus people with a charter of rights and liberties for all citizens, the social fabric of unity in diversity and composite culture and the federal framework to administer India as a union of states - nothing can be taken for granted anymore. An alternative trajectory of India as a fascist Hindu supremacist state is threatening to derail the constitutional journey of modern India as we have known and experienced it since the attainment of independence seventy-five years ago.

We therefore need a new social compact, a new deal for the people of India. This surely cannot be achieved just by voting out the Modi regime, India needs to rethink and reorient many of the prevailing policies and patterns of governance, some of which go back to pre-Modi regimes including the UPA government. Be it pro-corporate economic concessions and privatisation, Aadhaar and GST, or UAPA and fake encounters, the genesis of many Modi-era disasters and assaults can be traced to non-BJP regimes.

It will of course be naive to burden the much awaited first meeting of opposition parties with a long wish list. That the meeting is happening should itself be seen as a positive beginning. Incidentally, the 'Save Democracy, Save India' convention held in Patna on February 18 on the occasion of the 11th Congress of the CPI(ML) had highlighted the need for such a meeting four months ago. A broad-based meeting of non-BJP political parties will have to be the first step towards the emergence of a viable and credible alternative to rescue India from the disaster inflicted by two successive terms of what passes for a government headed by Narendra Modi.

The participating leaders in the first meeting represent a convincing mix of parties from India's opposition spectrum including the Congress and its offshoots, parties belonging to the socialist stream and social justice camp comprising offshoots of the old Lok Dal and Janata Dal, the communist parties, several regional parties and the Aam Aadmi Party, the latest formation to secure the status of a recognised national party. Can such a coalition prove viable? Similar coalitions are currently at work in states like Tamil Nadu and Bihar, and let us not forget that between 2004 and 2014 the UPA did enjoy two full terms. There is therefore no reason why a stable arrangement cannot evolve to steer the country out of the morass that the Modi government has mired it in.

As of now, some of the participants in the opposition unity process are disparate regional parties while some are competing in the same turf. The transition from competition to cooperation - call it cooperative contention if you will - is of course going to take some efforts and a conducive environment and enabling framework to grow and evolve. Working out a rational and mutually acceptable seat-sharing arrangement also has its share of difficulties. But the unity is mandated by the unprecedented and extraordinary political context currently confronting India.

In many ways this is India's second battle for freedom. The movement for political independence and social transformation had several streams and shades that had converged and collaborated during the pre-1947 freedom struggle. The Constitution emerged from this chequered history and the farsighted visionary in Ambedkar had warned us about the contradictions and the fault lines that India will have to overcome to make democracy work and become meaningful. Today when the Constitutional vision and foundation of modern India faces its gravest ever threat, the legacies of Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar, Periyar, Gandhi and Nehru will have to come together to restore and rejuvenate democracy after years of fascist onslaught.

The rich legacy of the freedom movement aside, seven decades of parliamentary democracy have also equipped 'we, the people of India' with considerable political experience. These seven decades have thrown up a whole range of new parties, several of them rooted in social, regional and ethnic identities. Instead of seeing these parties as isolated and disparate formations, we need to foreground the federal democratic space in which all parties have a shared stake. Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary responses - ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections India truly needs the opposition to get its act together and put its best foot forward. There is a growing palpable quest among the people for their rights, for secure livelihood, liberty and justice. The process of opposition unity needs to be energised by forging close organic ties with the struggles and aspirations of the people on the ground.

The Challenge of Opposition Unity