For the Opposition, it is a moment of reckoning

  • Eight years after the BJP’s rise in politics, we are finally seeing a churn in the national Opposition. This ‘creative destruction’ will be key for the health of democracy
The 2022 assembly results, in which the BJP triumphed in four of five states, indicate that its dominant position has consolidated further. (Sameer Sehgal/HT Photo) PREMIUM
The 2022 assembly results, in which the BJP triumphed in four of five states, indicate that its dominant position has consolidated further. (Sameer Sehgal/HT Photo)
Published on Mar 19, 2022 05:54 PM IST
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Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction” to describe persistent industrial change that revolutionises a country’s economic structure from within. The old economic order crumbles, a new one is born from its ashes, and the process repeats ad infinitum. Creative destruction has its analogue in politics when old political formations give way to emergent political forces — thereby establishing a new political equilibrium.

The 2014 general election — and the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a hegemonic force — is an example of creative destruction’s transformational potential. The 2022 assembly results, in which the BJP triumphed in four of five states, indicate that its dominant position has consolidated further. But creative destruction is not a unidirectional force; after eight years, we are finally seeing signs of churning among the Opposition as well. These developments are both significant and long overdue.

Let’s begin with the Congress. The Congress itself shows no signs of reinvention or rebirth — but its demise is now being fully internalised by others. In the aftermath of the 2014 election, it was obvious that the Congress was suffering from a trio of deficits: It lacked credible leadership, a robust party organisation, and a clear ideology. Eight years on, the party appears worse on all three scores.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to slump to a few dozen seats in Parliament and yet think that, without a drastic overhaul, your glory days are right around the corner. Predictably, the Congress has sunk even lower. Between 1962-67, the Congress averaged a 42% vote share in state assembly elections. Between 2016-2020, that share had fallen to 23% and continues to plummet. Compared to the BJP’s 1,339 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs), the Congress boasts just 762 — roughly the number of legislators the BJP possessed in 1991. Today, the Congress can only claim two chief ministers—its lowest number on record. Its struggles at the state level mean that its Rajya Sabha tally has come down to 34, one-third of the BJP’s membership.

In previous work, scholar Jamie Hintson and I have shown that once the Congress falls below second place in a state, it never recovers. Increasingly, the Congress functions as a significant force only in states featuring a direct, bipolar contest with the BJP. But given the steady stream of defections from the Congress ranks, one can expect that the Congress will have to defend its shrinking territory in states like Gujarat (which goes to polls later this year) and Karnataka, where it faces threats from new entrants such as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and other regional outfits. If current trends prevail, the Congress will be treated as a distraction rather than the default core of an anti-BJP coalition in 2024.

As the Congress continues its descent, its rivals are expanding their horizons. The AAP’s victory in Punjab signals that the party is resilient — after a respectable showing in the state’s 2017 assembly polls, it flopped in the 2019 general elections, only to rebound this year — and nimble enough to capitalise on voters exhausted with the political status quo. The AAP’s emphasis on public services is matched with a less strident nationalism that seeks to court Hindu voters without alienating minorities. The party’s leader Arvind Kejriwal has accepted the fact that the AAP voter in Delhi elections votes BJP in the parliamentary polls.

The Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee has also attempted to spread its wings beyond its bastion of West Bengal, albeit less successfully. Banerjee’s pitch is an amalgamation of targeted welfare schemes — many of which prioritise women and girls — and a vigorous defence of secularism. But the party has yet to take flight outside eastern India, as evidenced by its weak showing in Goa. Both parties have obvious limits — they are autocratically run, geographically circumscribed, and possess leaders whose consistency has been questioned — but their appetites have clearly grown beyond their traditional bailiwicks.

In the short-run, a deepening process of creative destruction within the Opposition will be a boon for the BJP. A truly “Congress-mukt (free)” India would create a vacuum that could be filled by new political forces. A badly weakened Congress that takes up space, fragments the Opposition, but has no serious hope of coming to power on a national scale is an even better outcome from the BJP’s perspective. Unless the Opposition can form a grand alliance — a prospect that seems unlikely at present — fierce jockeying to fill the space the Congress is rapidly ceding will create an internecine struggle for the soul of the Opposition. This short-term pain, despite reinforcing the BJP’s national-level dominance, is necessary for long-term gain. However, there is nothing mechanical about the process of creative destruction: Convergence is but one possible outcome. The Opposition’s success depends on how it answers three questions.

First, what is the appropriate relationship between the State and religion? There is an obvious appeal to soft-pedalling criticism of Hindutva to maximise votes but doing so means playing on the BJP’s turf. Yet, a vociferous defence of secularism — a term that has been hollowed out and often perverted — may be foolhardy as well. Can the Opposition champion principled secularism that acknowledges the sins of the past while articulating a new vision that goes beyond the binary of Hindu supremacy or minority appeasement?

Second, what is the optimal design of the welfare State? The BJP’s success in recent years has ironically relied on beating the Congress at its own game. Having come to power dismissing welfarism, Narendra Modi has now mastered it. The public provision of private goods — toilets, gas cylinders, bank accounts, and water connections—has been an electoral winner. But this “new welfarism” elides the challenge of providing public goods such as high-quality health, education, water, and sewage services. Will the Opposition merely mimic the BJP’s schemes, which are inextricably linked to a popular prime minister and augmented by the Sangh machinery, or can they reimagine the welfare debate?

Third, what is the balance between caste versus class mobilisation? The assembly results sound the death knell of Mandal politics. Let’s not forget the Samajwadi Party (SP) accomplished exactly what it set out to do in Uttar Pradesh: Consolidate Muslim and Yadav votes. Nevertheless, it still fell far short of the BJP. The latter, in turn, has been able to pick up votes from non-dominant Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Dalit jatis who feel left behind. In so doing, the BJP has carefully fused caste grievances with class appeals. At a time when the pandemic and years of slowing growth have created hardships for ordinary Indians, can the Opposition devise a credible message that links social justice with economic empowerment?

Locating answers to these questions will be difficult, especially since the BJP will hardly be content resting on its laurels. But the assembly results indicate that while the BJP occupies a comfortable pole position, there are signs of churn among their adversaries. This upheaval is essential for the future of political competition, not to mention the health of a vibrant democracy.

Milan Vaishnav is senior fellow and director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC

The views expressed are personal

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Tuesday, June 28, 2022