Written by Aarti Subramanium.
Defying predictions, expectations and the ubiquitous opinion polls, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) came to power in four out of the five states in the recently-concluded state elections; including Uttar Pradesh (UP). The BJP announced the appointment of the controversial priest, Member of Parliament and Hindutva hardliner, Yogi Adityanath, as Chief Minister.
While no election in India can entirely divorce itself of the trappings of religious or caste-based politics, the BJP’s UP campaign managed to strike the right combination between subtle on-the-ground social engineering and a public discourse that tapped into the demands of the aspirational voter. However, its decision to appoint Adityanath now makes that development-centric campaign appear as a façade.
Adityanath’s communal comments require no reiteration. Whatever the rationale behind his appointment, the BJP has only reinforced its Hindutva image; one that it consciously tried to steer clear of after the 2014 General Elections. Contrary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi description of the BJP’s surge as the emergence of a ‘New India,’ the appointment of Yogi Adiyanath is reminiscent of an old India and an even older BJP.
At a broader level, the controversy surrounding Yogi Adityanath’s elevation is likely to provide the Opposition with a smokescreen to evade an honest assessment of their standing in politics today. And herein lies the problem. The delicious uncertainty of politics and the futility of post-facto analysis notwithstanding, the political landscape of India has changed – Yogi or no Yogi.
In this new political order, Modi is the focal point; elections revolve around him and his persona. That the party managed to sweep the polls despite a potentially suicidal move like demonetisation only proves Modi’s pre-eminence. Modi has singularly managed to disrupt the entire political system and establish a complete monopoly over mobilising voters. In Narendra Modi, the party has found a personality who can transcend traditional voting patterns and appeal to crowds cutting across regional and socio-economic barriers. At the crux of the BJP’s pan-India electoral ascendancy lies the ability to expand beyond primary core voters and attract new constituencies. While no election in India can entirely divorce itself of the trappings of religious or caste-based politics, the BJP has managed to strike the right combination between subtle on-the-ground social engineering (for example, ticket distribution on the basis of caste composition), and a public discourse on developmental politics that taps into the demands of the aspirational voter.
The BJP’s expanding footprint across the nation at the expense of the Congress and regional parties has meant that they are currently the only “national” party in India; in the truest sense. The BJP occupies one pole in Indian politics. At the other end of the spectrum, a motley grouping of regional parties, the Congress and the Left vie for space. The BJP’s hegemony in Indian politics today is undisputable. A party that was once considered to be limited to the Hindi-heartland belt is now in power directly or in an alliance in 17 states that account for 61% of India’s population.
So where does that leave the opposition in this new political order? The Congress, the oldest party in India, has been reduced to a virtual non-entity in the political pecking order – barely clutching onto remnants of its former glory in 6 states. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has failed to display any leadership mettle or political acumen to match Modi. That the party is in perennial denial about its existential crisis only further diminishes its chances of an electoral resurrection. His description of his party’s debacle merely as “a little down” is indicative of its unwillingness to rectify a dire crisis. The party’s complete submission to the Gandhi dynasty allows for this nonchalance to go unchallenged; even if it means complete electoral decimation.
Regional parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP) similarly face a daunting challenge in this changed landscape. If the 2014 Lok Sabha elections challenged their hegemony, today they stand the risk of atrophy. Regional parties have now come to believe that their only chance to stay relevant at the national level is to combine forces to take on the BJP. It was this belief that saw Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) ally with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, notwithstanding their personal and political incompatibility. Is an anti-BJP coalition of disparate parties a viable template for the future? Numbers indicate that a coalition of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) and SP could have presented an obstacle to the BJP’s march in UP.
Nevertheless, mathematically-strong alliances do not necessarily translate into electoral victories given the inner conflict in such coalitions, vote-transferability between allies and a general scepticism of alliances stitched out of necessity. While such an alliance worked in Bihar, a similar Left-Congress alliance in West Bengal last year was resoundingly defeated.
At a broader level, the sheer absence of a cogent opposition in the current political climate presents a larger foundational problem. The checks and balances in a democratic system rely largely on the strength of the opposition. Not just is the survival of non-BJP parties at stake, but the very health of a vibrant democracy rides on the opposition’s ability to act as a counter-force to the government.
So where does the opposition go from here? Minus a drastic overhaul, the chances of a political revival appear bleak largely due to the structural foundations of most parties. While the Congress is unable (or unwilling) to break free from the failing leadership of Rahul Gandhi, parties like the BSP or Trinamool Congress are largely monolithic entities with no effective second-tier leadership. The pervasive high command culture, and an absence of inner-party democracy, pan-India grassroots-level workers and regional satraps to compliment the national leadership are problems deeply entrenched across the political spectrum.
While addressing these structural lacunae will be a long-drawn process, an altered electoral agenda is far more pressing and plausible. The BJP has successfully tailored its campaign messaging to focus on the economy and development and found a mascot in Narendra Modi to convey that. The only chance of a resurgence of the opposition rests on finding a new, compelling idea that can galvanise voters and stem the BJP’s rise.
A week after the results, there have hardly been any encouraging signs. From alleging electronic voting machines were rigged to money power’s influence on the polls, they have failed to acknowledge the gravity of the problem and resorted instead to red herrings. In the elevation of Adityanath lies the temptation to focus on the BJP’s folly, but the Opposition can hardly use to it recuse themselves from course correction.
A real and credible challenge to India’s new unipolar political order can arise only if there is a renewed opposition. Until then, the political landscape will be dominated by the BJP; with all the other parties relegated to the sidelines.
Aarti Subramanium is a former broadcast journalist from India where she worked with Times Now for seven years covering national and state-level elections. She is now pursuing her MA in Contemporary Indian History at King’s College London. Image Credit: CC by Narendra Modi/ Wikimedia Commons.