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Decline of Indian Opposition: A challenge to Democracy

Image credit : The Print

"Democracy is not just a political system, it is a way of life"

- Atal Bihari Vajpayee

On July 18, 2023, 26 political parties came together to form the Indian National Developmental and Inclusive alliance (I.N.D.I.A), in order to counter the NDA in the upcoming 2024 elections. The opposition parties including The Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, The Communist Party of India etc, who are a vital part of the I.N.D.I.A alliance recently tried to pass a no confidence motion in the parliament, marking their intention towards the 2024 elections. However due to the internal ideological turmoil and shortage of members, the BJP won the no trust motion. This is not the first time that the opposition has been in a turmoil, amidst the rising popularity of the BJP. As a result, the main issues that arise are - does India have a strong opposition alliance, why the quality of opposition is declining, and how can they challenge the current regime.

The Role and Importance of an Opposition

An opposition political party is the heart and soul of a democratic country. A healthy democracy would always have a strong opposition, which will be critical of the ruling party and hold them accountable whenever it passes a law or a bill, therefore acting as a watchdog. It also plays an important part in the democratic process by proposing alternative policies and suggestions to those of the ruling government, giving the public a choice and a voice in the political process, and ensuring that the government is responsive to the people's demands and concerns. However, a weak opposition would have drastic consequences as the ruling party can become an authoritarian government by having enormous powers, which is against the principles of democracy.

The rise of opposition began during Indira Gandhi’s reign. The 1967 general elections were pivotal as it reduced congress’s votes from 45% (in 1962) to 41%. Even though it was elected in the centre but lost 9 states to the opposition. Further in the 1970s, Indira Gandhi centralised the powers, making the centre stronger, owing to split in the congress party as well as the rise of opposition in various states and nationalising the coal, steel, copper, refining, cotton textiles, and insurance industries. This had a negative impact on the economy as the prices of essential commodities rose to 23% in 1973 and 30% in 1974. Unemployment was very high, especially in rural areas, and industrial growth was relatively slow. A drastic drop in agricultural productivity was the outcome of this which resulted in the decrease of food grain production by 8%.

In such a context, all the non– congress opposition organised protests, notably in the states of Gujarat and Bihar. The Protests in Gujarat and Bihar were widely supported by the non- Congress Parties and leaders such as Morarji Desai and Jayaprakash Narayan, who became the face of the protest. Jayaprakash Narayan also organised a series of Bandhs, Gheraos and strikes in protest against the central government.

As a result of a combination of political, economic, and social factors, Indira Gandhi declared a national emergency, suspending all basic civil liberties and imprisoned several key opposition leaders. The decision to impose emergency was met with widespread criticism of the Indira Gandhi government, which faced a humiliating defeat in the 1977 elections by the newly formed Janta party, which consisted of parties such as Congress (O), Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal. They won around 330 seats and marked the end of the congress domination.

The 90s saw an era of coalition governments, which ended the concept of absolute majority for a brief period. There were 2 main alliances that developed in that period- National Democratic alliance (NDA), led by the BJP and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the congress, thus developing a 2-alliance system, continuing to this day.

Decline of Opposition since 2014

The Congress party historically represented centrism and mainstream nationalism, which resulted in their domination in the 50s and 60s. However, since the early 1980s, when caste began to be more politicised and religious divisions began to emerge, the centrist space has been contracting since then. The popularity of the party declined in the northern belt with the emergence of regional parties such as Samajwadi party and Bahujan samaj party, who took away the lower caste votes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Even in the 1989 election, though the congress won 197 seats, it had to face a stiff competition from the Janta Dal and BJP with both the parties winning 143 and 85 seats respectively and capturing most of the northern half of the country, which allowed them to form a coalition government, thus marking the commencement of the coalition era in Indian Politics. This also ended the one-party domination of the congress, as they also had to broker a deal with regional parties to form an alliance, which would ultimately result in their decline in Indian politics.

As a result of the decline of one-party dominance and beginning of the coalition era, the 2014 general elections marked a significant shift in Indian politics. It saw the decline of the UPA and the Indian national congress, which faced a heavy defeat since the 1977 elections by only winning 44 seats. Over the last three decades, the Congress gave up mainstream nationalism to the BJP, who formed the majority in the Lok Sabha in 2014 by winning 282 out of the 543 seats. The BJP's rise may be traced back to the commencement of the Shah Bano case in 1985, which reignited debate in India over the Uniform Civil Code, which is now a part of their manifesto. The party also came into the limelight with the onset of the Ram Janma Bhoomi movement in early 90s, presenting their Hindutva ideology. Other than these, a major objective in their manifesto was the removal of article 370, which had a wide appeal to the public. However, other than their ideology, the rise of BJP was also possible because of the weakening of the opposition political parties, throughout the decade.

Lack of Leadership and Dynastic succession is the first and foremost issue within the opposition. While the BJP has seen many charismatic leaders in their party, the opposition has been sticking with the same leadership since the last decade. For instance, the Gandhi family continues to be in the centre stage of the congress, as well as the Thackrey family in Shiv sena and Yadav family in the Samajwadi party. The 2nd and 3rd generation politicians have failed to live up the expectation of their ancestors, which has negatively impacted their respective groups.

Ideological Shift is one of the major reasons for the decline. This is most apparent in the case Shiv Sena, which was the first political party in India to adopt the Hindutva ideology in the 1970s and continued till the last decade. However, the party began to move towards composite nationalism and allied with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). This ideological move was a notable break from Shiv Sena's conventional stance, since the party had previously been opposed to both the Congress and the NCP for the bulk of its existence. As a result of this, a faction led by Eknath Shinde decided to break away from the Shiv Sena, resulting in a split in the party.

The Congress also experienced an ideological shift in the late 70s and early 80s, where it left centrism and mainstream nationalism and became pro Leftists. The alliance between the Congress and the Communist Party of India (CPI) became a key political development in India's history. This coalition was formed primarily to challenge the growing dominance of the BJP and other right-wing parties, as well as to address issues of social justice and economic injustice. Therefore, it completely tilted towards the left wing, due to which it lost its votes in the northern belt.

Today, the opposition is fragmented into various political parties and alliances with opposing ideas and working styles, causing fragmentation, and impeding unity.

A Lack of Vision is also a major reason for their decline. Today, the majority of the citizens align themselves with the policies of the BJP, which has successfully presented their vision of India through various domestic and foreign policies which has resulted in the increase of their popularity. According to the 2014 Lokniti survey, 31 percent of people named the BJP as the most trusted party on national security, a key indicator of the party’s nationalist leadership, while just 19 percent selected the Congress.

Opposition parties continue to be interested in archaic ideology of the left and right, walk-outs from chambers of Parliament, and primitive means such as marches and rallies, rather than engaging in contemporary methods such as Facebook live, virtual rallies, podcasts, and so on. This causes a schism with the country's youth. Today's opposition lacks an original goal or a plan to oppose the government. Instead it is focusing on reacting to the government's actions rather than offering an alternative to the voters. Some parties are more concerned with immediate gains than with building a long-term strategy to construct a strong organizational structure and acquire public support.

Distributing freebies is a prime example of that. In the recent Karnataka elections, the Congress had given 5 major guarantees- ₹2,000 monthly assistance to women heads of all families (Gruhalakshmi), 200 units of power to all households (Gruhajyoti), ₹3,000 every month for graduate youth and ₹1,500 for diploma holders (Yuvanidhi), 10 kg rice per person per month(Annabhagya) and free travel for women in the State public transport buses (Uchita Prayana). The total cost of all the freebies will amount to ₹65,082 crore a year, according to analyst estimates. ₹42,960 crore for Gruhalaksmi, ₹15,498 crore for Gruhajyoti, ₹5,728 crore for Annabhagya, and ₹896 crore for Yuvanidhi, will be the cost breakup. This is nearly 20 percent of the State budget. In order to deliver on the promises, the government will either have to increase the collection of taxes and duties or increase borrowings. Chandrakanth opines, “Government can raise urban property taxes, stamp duty, registration fee, tax on liquor, VAT on petrol/diesel. But they may not attempt this due to political economy issues. Hence the borrowings will increase.”

Internal Differences in the Alliance- Recently, the Indian National Developmental and Inclusive alliance (I.N.D.I.A) was formed by 26 political parties in order to stop the BJP from winning a 3rd consecutive election. History has shown us that a grand alliance can bring down an established government, just as the Janta party did against the Indira Gandhi government. However, due to the internal ideological differences, the Janta government collapsed within 3 years. The I.N.D.I.A alliance is showing similar traits of the Janta government as the internal differences have started to show up. The first blow to the unity of the "India'' alliance came from the left parties. The CPIM General Secretary Sitaram Yechuri firmly denied any cooperation with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. The Congress and left parties in Kerala are ardent rivals, which could hinder their coordination against the BJP-led NDA. In Punjab, there is a stiff competition between the congress and Aam Aadmi Party, which can present a challenge for the alliance in the seat sharing arrangement. Internal divides, conflicting philosophies, or personal rivalries among party leaders may make it difficult for opposition parties to coordinate their operations. This lack of cohesion might lead to a disorganized approach to resolving critical challenges.

Image credit : The New Indian Express

Conclusion- Need of a strong opposition

A strong opposition is essential in any democratic country, including India which has a diverse population, complex challenges, and a rich democracy. A solid opposition is vital to sustain democratic norms, encouraging accountable governance, and representing people's interests. It promotes healthy competition, public conversation, and policy formation, all of which contribute to the general health and functioning of the democratic system. The current opposition needs to be strong enough to give a tough competition to the BJP and to uphold the value of democracy.

Opposition parties should have a clear vision for the country's future and offer well-defined programmes that answer the voters' wants and concerns. This will allow them to differentiate themselves from the ruling party and provide genuine alternatives. For instance- the current government has a vision for India i.e to be the “Vishvaguru”.

Therefore, the opposing parties should come up with their own sets of policies and vision, which can potentially create a voter base for them. A strong and charismatic leader is also required. Opposition parties should prioritise the election of leaders who are credible, relatable, and capable of inspiring the public. Furthermore, cultivating unity among party members and avoiding internal problems will improve the image and efficacy of the party. It is critical to establish a strong presence at the grassroots level as well. Opposition parties may lack a strong ground-level presence, making it difficult to engage with and understand local communities' concerns. Engaging with local communities, understanding their challenges, and delivering solutions that they can relate to can help build trust and support.


By : Ishaan Banwait

Ishaan Banwait is a 3rd year student at Hindu College, University of Delhi and is currently pursuing a degree in English Honours . He has a keen interest in politics and International Relations . He is also an in-house writer of the Hindu College Gazette, published by the Symposium Society.


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