‘Opposition’ has its task cut out

Oppositions can lose their raison d’être. The INDIA bloc will do well to remember why it came together

INDIA bloc leaders show a united front in Delhi, 1 June 2024
INDIA bloc leaders show a united front in Delhi, 1 June 2024

Kumar Ketkar

Most parties in today’s INDIA bloc have hobnobbed with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the past or have been in governments led by them.

From Mamata’s Trinamool Congress to Karunanidhi’s DMK, from Shiv Sena to the Samajwadi Party, from the National Conference to the PDP to the various Janata Dals.

Long-time Congressman and former Prime Minister V.P. Singh once said he was a follower of Lohia and JP, thereby suggesting he was not averse to support from the Sangh Parivar. His brief government was, in fact, propped up by both the BJP and the Left. The Left parties never directly supported the BJP, but they too have played on the same side in the name of ‘floor management’ in the late 1980s and later in Parliament and outside on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal.

For reasons not far to seek, the term Opposition has mostly been applied to anti-Congress fronts. The Grand Alliance of 1971 held within it the Jan Sangh, Samyukta Socialist Party, Praja Socialist Party, Swatantra Party and the anti-Indira Congress (O) a.k.a. ‘Syndicate’ Congress. Most of these parties, excluding the Jana Sangh/ BJP or the Communists, are offshoots or breakaway groups of the Congress. Rajagopalachari, founder of the Swatantra Party, was a leading light of the Congress under Mahatma Gandhi.

Ram Jethmalani, a passionate advocate of the Hindutva cause, was at one point vice president of the BJP and had served as minister in the Vajpayee era. He announced at age 94 that he’d made a huge blunder by pushing Narendra Modi’s candidature as prime minister.

Jethmalani recalled with great mortification that he’d seen Modi as the fittest candidate for the top job! How would Chitragupta (who, in Hindu mythology, maintains a ledger of our worldly deeds) account for his sin when it was time to transition to the other side, he’d wondered. His later-day condemnation of Modi is also common knowledge. Where would you place this legal luminary? With the ruling clique or the Opposition?

Even Jayaprakash Narayan, a dedicated secular socialist had urged ‘opposition’ parties in 1974 to take the RSS and Jan Sangh along to mount a challenge to Indira Gandhi’s “autocratic” rule. Even before JP, Ram Manohar Lohia and his socialist followers had launched a multi-party anti-Congress front, bringing the Jan Sangh into their fold.

The Lohia tribe splintered. From Mulayam Singh Yadav to Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar to George Fernandes, Sharad Yadav to Deve Gowda, Karpoori Thakur to S.M. Joshi, Madhu Limaye to Raj Narain… this strange, anarchic phenomenon called ‘anti-Congressism’ has seen many avatars. Many NGOs even today are loyal to Lohia’s political philosophy. Some align themselves with the ruling establishment and some with the Opposition—and they sometimes switch positions like they were in a game of musical chairs.

Lohia as well as JP were Nehru’s radical associates. Subhash Chandra Bose, who founded Forward Bloc, was a Congressman first, as were Acharya Kripalani, Chandrashekhar, Charan Singh and Sharad Pawar, the founder of the Nationalist Congress Party. The Trinamool Congress too is a Bengali offshoot of the Congress. So, then, who or what is the ‘Opposition’? Without sounding overly cynical, it is necessary to understand what we mean when we say ‘Opposition.’

What is common to them? Where is the consensus among the parties that form the Opposition?

The term ‘Opposition’ is overused and has been misused over the years. It is so nebulous that it conveys neither content nor style. Often, the so-called opposition parties suddenly become ruling parties—not through election but defection—and all this is now par for the course. Some pundits have even defended defections as democratic choice.

Just a few years ago, Nitish Kumar was a star of the Opposition. He wanted to be the convenor of the opposition bloc. He was a darling of left-leaning NGOs and liberal intellectuals.

In 2017, I took part in a conference Nitish Kumar had organised in Patna to commemorate the centenary of the Champaran Satyagraha. There were many journalists, poets, historians, academics and veterans of the freedom movement in attendance. Nitish spoke eloquently, appealing to the audience to prepare for ‘Aaj Ka Satyagraha’, to fight the fascism of the Narendra Modi regime.

Intellectuals like Purushottam Agrawal and Shamsul Islam echoed his words. Well-known Hindi journalist Harivansh, now Deputy Speaker of the Rajya Sabha, also endorsed Nitish’s line. Readers may recall that historian and political commentator Ramachandra Guha had strongly advocated Nitish Kumar’s candidature as the Opposition’s prime ministerial face.

A strident critic of the Gandhis, Guha had argued that ‘the dynastic chain’ must be broken for politics in India to find a new direction. Nitish, he’d said, was the “Man of the Hour.” He later conceded it was a mistake and, to be fair to Guha, this was before Nitish Kumar had cemented his reputation as ‘Paltu babu’.

Lohia as well as JP were Nehru’s radical associates. Subhash Chandra Bose, who founded Forward Bloc, was a Congressman first, as were Acharya Kripalani, Chandrashekhar, Charan Singh and Sharad Pawar, the founder of the Nationalist Congress Party. The Trinamool Congress too is a Bengali offshoot of the Congress.

So, then, who or what is the ‘Opposition’?

Be absolutely sure that plans are already afoot to break the current ‘Opposition’— the INDIA bloc. Some self-styled Chanakyas have begun to say publicly that by the end of the year, the BJP’s numbers in the Lok Sabha will have crossed 280 and then they will not be dependent on Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP or Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). The base of this strategy is the same-old ‘anti-Congressism’, though it has some dull variations and picks its preferred targets from ‘the NehruGandhi dynasty’ to justify its naked power-hungry opportunism.

It’s also good to remember that none of the formations that used an anti-Congress plank to justify their existence has survived. The Janata Party disintegrated, the V.P. Singh experiment failed. The Chandrashekhar government didn’t last, nor did Deve Gowda’s nor I.K. Gujral’s. The biggest beneficiary of the Lohia–JP thesis has been the BJP. Maybe, just maybe, the next time opposition parties are tempted to hitch their wagons to the BJP, especially its Modi–Shah incarnation, they will remember how the BJP has cannibalised allies in the past.

The challenge for the Opposition today is that they may have a common political goal but they do not share an ideological platform. They do not have a common minimum programme or a common symbol. The INDIA bloc is an alliance, without those common features.

On the other hand, this character of the INDIA bloc many even have some things going for it: the constituent parties retain their respective identities, symbols and leaders, whose outsized egos can get in the way of an alliance of the kind JP’s Janata Party was. Despite all those common features, the Janata Party disintegrated and created many Janata Dals and a few Samajwadi parties. Some of them are now with Modi while others are in the INDIA bloc.

The ones that joined the INDIA bloc are united in the fear that the Modi–Shah BJP will first cannibalise and then crush them. They’ve seen how parties like the AIADMK, Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and NCP have been attacked, split or blackmailed. For them, it’s a question of their survival.

It is also true that none of these parties has experienced fascism before this. This threat has no precedent in Indian history. Never before have supposedly autonomous institutions been used in this manner to terrorise and blackmail political parties and their leaders, dissidents and critics, to make them surrender to the BJP. That fear is a glue that might bind the INDIA bloc in days to come.

Pitted against this kind of authoritarianism, the undisguised majoritarianism of the BJP of today, they may just hold together. We’ll find out if they’ve learnt their lessons in the next six months to a year.

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