The rise of opposition parties in India augurs well for 2019
Last week, voters in five states – including three major areas covering a vast swathe of central India – gave Indian democracy an unexpected present for 2019. By not voting in a government helmed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi, and voting out incumbent BJP governments in the major states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (home to one seventh of India’s population), they reversed a political trend that had become so pervasive it had come to seem almost irreversible.
This timely gust of wind they have supplied to the sails of the opposition parties — most notably the long-moribund Indian National Congress, which seized power in all three major states — means that next year’s national elections, which are due in less than six months, will be a genuinely open contest and a stern test of the political acumen of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who until recently seemed a shoo-in for a second term.
Monopolies of any sort are not considered good for economies, and nor are they good for democracies. But since Modi led the BJP to a landslide victory in the 2014 national elections — which left a yawning gap in the 545-member lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, between the BJP, with 272 seats, and the second-largest party, the Congress, with 47 — the party juggernaut had advanced steadily toward monopoly status.
From control over a mere six of India’s 29 states in 2014, by 2017 the BJP — led by its formidable electoral strategist, president, and Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah — had risen to power, either independently or as part of a coalition government, in 17 states, often at the expense of the Congress. Even Modi’s sudden, disruptive tactic of the almost complete demonetization of the Indian economy late in 2016 seemed not to affect the BJP’s electoral fortunes.
Until now, that is. Four and a half years have proved sufficient for the scales to fall from the eyes of Indian voters. On two of the major planks on which Modi won power in 2014 – job creation for a rapidly expanding workforce, and the alleviation of agrarian distress for the vast number of Indians still dependent on agriculture for sustenance and, often, mere subsistence – there has been little sign of any meaningful change.
Although the BJP still won an impressive share of votes in the recent state elections, and the margins of defeat were often wafer-thin, there is every reason to believe that the party’s years of near-complete electoral domination have ended.
A portent of the change of mood among the Indian electorate was offered by a vast protest rally in Delhi staged by thousands of farmers from across India in the last week of November. Supported by many opposition parties, it delivered compelling images and testimonies of the state’s failures in the realm of agrarian policy. This embarrassed both the Indian media — which gives short shrift to rural issues, in part because they bring in no advertising revenues — and the Modi government, and returned farmers’ issues to the top of the agenda for the coming general election.
Although the BJP still won an impressive share of votes in the recent state elections, and the margins of defeat were often wafer-thin, there is every reason to believe that the party’s years of near-complete electoral domination have ended. In particular, the fantasy often given voice by Modi of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” — a Congress-free India — has been banished by the resurgence of the party in the Indian heartland, once its traditional bastion, and the political rejuvenation of party president Rahul Gandhi, long mocked as a political naif.
The check on the BJP’s power is welcome not only for reasons of political balance and diversity, but also for a much more fundamental reason: the nature and character of the Indian state itself. Of all the major national parties in India, the BJP is the only party with explicitly majoritarian leanings. It holds that India is essentially a Hindu country, where people of other faiths may also reside as long as they accept the Hindu character of the nation.
A common platform of citizenship is not, for the BJP, a sufficient criterion for “Indianness.” Against the spirit of India’s constitution, the party holds some Indians always to be more Indian than others. This inevitably gives the party’s agenda when in power the character and disposition of a religious crusade, which is hardly the psychological plane on which matters such as jobs, education and health can be tackled sagely.
To put it another way, the BJP’s short span of political suzerainty, both in the center and the states, has profoundly affected not only political diversity in India, it has corroded the long-term prospects and legal foundations of its religious and social plurality — in fact the very courtesy and civility without which differences in a democracy cannot be worked through.
Four and a half years have supplied enough evidence — in the form of intemperate and bigoted rhetoric by politicians from the ruling party; brazen mob violence and lynchings related to cow protection, a major cause of the Hindu right; and the savage targeting and trolling of progressive voices online — that the BJP’s India is a country much smaller and pettier than the Indian republic of which the party is now the steward.
No “good governance” of the sort so confidently promised by Modi in 2014 can be forged from such dangerous and divisive impulses. And so the natural conclusion must be that a party that cannot discipline itself when handed a great responsibility, at a crucial juncture in the history of modern India, might actually behave more maturely if it had less political capital to spend.
That is the implication of the recent results in Indian state elections this month, and in light of the coming general election it is to many Indian citizens, including myself, a very welcome one.
• Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets