Oppn parties unable to reinvent themselves

Columnist  | Bharat Bhushan

Opinion, Columnists

In India, a number of political parties, it seems, will be even more shortlived. Most of them, unfortunately, are in the Opposition.

One could argue that with the decline of the Congress’ dominance their raison d’etre of anti-Congressism is gone.

The world over political parties tend to have a life cycle. Their leaders, the ideas and programmes which provide the party with its life force and its organisational energy, have a limited shelf life. Towards the end of a cycle they seem bereft of ideas, programmes, leadership and organisational energy. And they stop winning elections.

They must renew and re-energise themselves with new political programmes and ideas, or go into a decline. A study showed that the average life of a political party in Europe was about 43 years, with Britain as an exception. In India, a number of political parties, it seems, will be even more shortlived. Most of them, unfortunately, are in the Opposition.

The oldest party in India, the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, is gasping along, but no one knows for how long. The parties that were formed in the 1980s and the 1990s are not much better off. Those based on reservations for certain castes and communities have run out of steam. Others that rode the wave of regional aspirations were rewarded electorally, but now face diminishing electoral returns.

In the Hindi belt, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party was founded in October 1992. Here the only public debates are arguments between the father and son, son and uncle or son and sister-in-law. There is not an iota of public interest involved in these family tussles.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav, founded in July 1997, is very similar. Its current leader Tejashvi Yadav has not resurfaced after the party scored zero in the Lok Sabha elections and the family’s dirty laundry is being aired in public as Lalu Yadav’s two sons fight over his legacy.

Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), founded in October 2003, which coasted to power on Narendra Modi’s charisma in the 2019 general election, may have to swim without that life jacket in the coming Assembly polls. Nitish Kumar’s political opportunism has left his once-charismatic image in tatters.

These parties which trace their lineage to the socialist ideas of Ram Manohar Lohia and an anti-Congressism are flailing about to just stay afloat. One could argue that with the decline of the Congress’ dominance their raison d’etre of anti-Congressism is gone. But the bigger reason for their terminal decline is their remaining anchored in caste-based reservations. That agenda is done and dusted and firmly institutionalised in law and public practice. They have nothing new to offer their constituents.

The state of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which came to represent dalit assertion, is no different. Its journey, which began with the formation of BAMSEF (Backward add Minority Communities Employees Federation) at the Defence Research and Development Laboratory in Pune in 1978, the formation DS4 (Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti) in 1981 and turning into a full-fledged political party, has ended at Mayawati’s doorstep. Besides nepotism, she offers nothing to dalits except what is already constitutionally guaranteed. Her brother is the party vice-president, her nephew the new national coordinator of the party. She has no new ideas for dalit progress, shies away from mass movements and agitations protesting atrocities against dalits.

The farmers’ parties with their old agendas represented best by a bygone generation of leaders like Chaudhary Charan Singh or Devi Lal find themselves bewildered by the crisis in uncompetitive Indian agriculture, whose global integration cannot be wished away. The Rashtriya Lok Dal, founded in 1996, which once represented the political leadership of the farmers of western Uttar Pradesh, has become a father and son party. It finds that Chaudhary Charan Singh’s name has little currency with today’s young voters. The same is the case with Devi Lal’s Indian National Lok Dal, founded in 1987. His legacy is also over with the party splinters being claimed by ambitious descendants.

The parties which rose to power on the basis on regional aspirations represent a mixed bag. Some like Telangana Rashtra Samithi are still milking the sentiment while the Trinamul Congress is reinvoking that sentiment of regional and linguistic pride to stay relevant. However, the idea of regional pride plays out pretty quickly once such parties rise to power. This is what has happened with the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand, the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha or even the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam. They all seem exhausted, lacking any political energy.

The Left parties are virtually finished, though they continue to enjoy marginal existence in parts of the country. The Dravidian parties, which came out of a social movement, are in a phase of leadership transition. They continue to exist for want of better alternatives.

That leaves the Congress Party. The party has renewed itself several times in its history but it is uncertain whether it can do so once again. It began as a platform for pushing the interests of educated Indians in government service under British rule before it reinvented itself as a champion of Indian Independence, became a mass movement and later the most prominent political party of Independent India. The Congress continued renewing itself even after Independence.

When it could no longer live off its nationalist legacy, it tweaked its programmes. From Indira Gandhi’s “Roti, kapada aur makaan (food, clothes and shelter)” and “Garibi hatao (eradicate poverty)” to Rajiv Gandhi trying to package the Congress as a technologically modernising force to the economic liberalisation of P.V. Narasimha Rao, the party tried to renew itself with new ideas and programmes.

Today, however, the party has no idea about how to stem its decline. It faces multiple problems of leadership, organisational decay, confused ideology and lacks imaginative programmes of social transformation. It shows occasional signs of life when its original ideologues like Jawaharlal Nehru are symbolically brought out by the ruling party. But whether such flashes of energy are sufficient to keep it alive is uncertain.

What is certain is that Indian politics is in dire need of new political programmes, new political parties and a lively Opposition. Unfortunately, while the older parties are in decline, there is nothing visible on the horizon which could take their place.