Six years after the BJP captured India’s imagination and catapulted itself to power, not much seems to have changed. The latest Mood of the Nation poll, published in the first week of August, reiterates Narendra Modi’s dominance over Indian politics. Polls such as these have become a routine exercise, and the results have ceased to confound. The results of the latest poll however were significant for three reasons. The first reason was the margins. Seventy eight percent of the respondents approved of the Prime Minister’s performance, and only five percent claimed to be disappointed. Sixty six percent of the respondents said they would want Modi to continue as Prime Minister, while Rahul Gandhi was the runner-up with a paltry eight percent.The second reason is that the poll was conducted before the Bhoomi Poojan of the Ram Mandir, which suggests that the Prime Minister’s personality itself is a factor that stands head and shoulders above any specific event or issue. The third is that the Prime Minister seems to have achieved his highest approval rating at a time when India’s healthcare infrastructure is stretched beyond its limit and the Indian economy is undergoing one of its worst phases.
The third reason is what seems particularly counter-intuitive. One would still understand if a large section of Indians placed their trust in Narendra Modi at a time of crisis, but the fact that the opposition was unable to present anything that came across even remotely as a viable alternative is a story in itself. Indeed, at a time of great struggle and strife, the opposition has generated zero political mileage. What the country has witnessed is the reverse, with the opposition unravelling helplessly and exposing its shortcomings. It is a peculiar phenomenon- the opposition is disliked during periods of stability, and disliked even more during uncertain or tough times. As chaos within the Congress Party reaches a crescendo, several opinion pieces have been penned about how the opposition can regroup and revive itself. The suggestions seem, at best, outdated and out of touch. New leadership, the consolidation of opposition forces, fresh ideas to counter the Modi juggernaut and other failed experiments have been readvocated this time around, packaged as radical or revolutionary.
Let us burst these bubbles once and for all. The opposition will not return to power, not for a long time at least. Perhaps when it does many decades down the line, it will be led by a self-made individual with a proven track record, from a party compromising of other self-made individuals with proven track records, unconditional nationalism, a clear vision for reconciling the Indian civilization with modern realities, and most importantly an organisation secretary from the RSS leveraging the Sangh’s reach for electoral gains. Such a formula is invincible, and the opposition today does not embody even one of these traits. In fact, there are four primary structural defects within the opposition which will never allow it to embody these traits. As we go through them, note how each of these structural defects have been exploited by the Prime Minister, his party, and the larger ecosystem around the party.
The first is the asymmetry of power. Whatever little power the opposition wields today is derived from the states it controls. The Congress Party remains dominant in Punjab due to Captain Amarinder Singh. The Rajasthan government survives courtesy Ashok Gehlaut. And yet, when the opposition seeks to set its house in order, where are the satraps? The Lutyens media and intelligentsia dominate the Congress Party’s thinking to such an extent that even when it seeks to look beyond the Gandhi family, it doesn’t look beyond Lutyens Delhi. Those who have an interest in reviving the Congress Party seek to do so through people who derive their power through the upper house of parliament, or have spent their careers in the corridors of the Supreme Court and the United Nations. One of Narendra Modi’s worst fears would have been the sidelining of the Gandhi dynasty, the very survival of which brings him rich political dividend. But if such a sidelining is to ever take place, he can rest assured it would be replaced by the likes of Shashi Tharoor and Kapil Sibal, and not by the Amarinders and the Gehlots of this world. Many BJP supporters often wonder why the ED inquiry against a hostile news channel has not reached its logical conclusion, or why a hostile American editor is allowed to stay in India. Herein lies your answer. They ensure this asymmetry of power, and as long as Lutyens dominates the Congress Party, the BJP has nothing to fear.
The second is the opposition’s emergency mindset. Having enjoyed power for decades, they have persecuted their detractors with impunity. However, with no state power to wield and having become objects of ridicule in the public imagination, their attempts to persecute detractors continue to backfire. Up until October 2016, Arnab Goswami was the editor of an English news channel with a few lakh viewers, and the channel was generally critical of the opposition. Today, he is the most powerful media baron in the country controlling the narrative even in the heartland, and Antonia Maino has become a household name. Their persecution, which began when he was an editor and continues till this date, seems to have worked wonders. The recent cancellation of Monika Arora’s book by Bloomsbury at the behest of the opposition’s ecosystem has not just ensured record sales but has also placed the spotlight on Garuda Prakashan, an emerging nationalist publisher. As one of the founders of the Republic Pondy Lit Fest, an overtly nationalist literature festival, we owe it to the opposition’s ecosystem for putting us on the map. The manner in which they attempted to shut us down before we could even begin, aroused widespread curiosity and participation. Evidently, the opposition’s emergency mindset gives birth to new initiatives which further weaken it.
The BJP is often criticised for not knowing how to be in government. They are in government, it is said, but not in power. Leaving aside the merits and demerits of this criticism, it is important to examine if the opposition knows how to be in opposition. If the last six years are any indication, it is clear that they do not, and that is structural defect number three. With no state power or resources up for grabs, a fairly recent phenomenon for the current opposition, there is no incentive to work or get their act together. Election after election indicates that the organisation on the ground seems to have corroded, while the level of confusion and incoordination at the very top seems to mount. This is a far cry from the Sangh-dominated BJP which served as the primary opposition for two decades. Work on the ground continued, intraparty systems functioned in a disciplined manner, ideology remained intact, and merit was rewarded. Earlier this year Priyanka Vadra who’s family ruled this country of a billion people till 2014, was unable to organise a thousand buses for migrants after promising them amidst much fanfare. Nothing illustrates the opposition’s collapse more vividly. The longer they are in opposition, the further they seem to move from any possibility of revival.
The fourth structural defect is not a permanent one, but one which will play out for a long time to come and have far reaching consequences. For decades, several supposedly secular institutions of India were hands in glove with the ruling elite, and often advanced their politics. Not subject to electoral laws, they were not replaced overnight with the advent of Narendra Modi. Now, one after the other, we witness the collapse of institutions such as the mainstream media and Bollywood. The process of skeletons tumbling out of their closets though, discredits not just them but the opposition too, as the links between them keep emerging. As clean-ups take place in various domains, the opposition’s credibility is further dented each time. The incestuous relationship that the elite from different walks of life shared in independent India is proving to be major drawback for them. The clean-ups are being conducted in a phased manner, so as to derive maximum mileage from them.
These structural defects transcend ideology and individuals. For the Prime Minister, his party and the larger ecosystem around it, each one of these are gifts that keep giving. This is additional mileage, over and beyond the Prime Minister’s performance and personality, and it comes for free. The current lot that calls itself the opposition will perhaps never return to power, because it is incapable of tackling these defects of which it is the very embodiment. Until it perishes or is forced to step aside, it will bide its time making half-hearted attempts to hide the symptoms instead of dealing with the virus.