Pavan K. Varma | Whither democracy sans a functional Opposition?

The Asian Age.  | Pavan K Varma

Opinion, Columnists

It has become more than apparent by now that those at the helm in the Congress are just incapable of decisive and strategic planning.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. (PTI File Image)

The results of the recent five Assembly elections signal both a victory for democracy and a crisis for India’s democratic system. It is a victory because citizens have democratically voted out governments in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, voted back the government in Madhya Pradesh, while giving a new party, ZPM, the mandate in Mizoram. It is a crisis, because as a consequence of these results, it increasingly appears that the Opposition — a vital element in a democracy — is fast evaporating. 

Yes, there are still several states where Opposition parties are in power. But their sphere of influence is restricted to just their state. There is thus no pan-Indian Opposition party to challenge the BJP. For this disproportionate dominance of only the BJP, the Congress is squarely responsible. For decades now, the party is in verifiable decline. The last time it won an absolute majority on its own was in 1984. After that, it has only been in power in coalition governments. 

Following the spectacular victory of Narendra Modi in 2014, the decline of the Congress has been relentless. It may have won a few state elections, but at the national level, for a party which always had a pan-Indian footprint, the Congress seems to have all but collapsed. In 2014 it won 44 seats; in 2019, just 52. The reasons for this precipitate plunge are known: Inept leadership, defunct organisation, no convincing counter-narrative, rootless coterie, lack of a credible face, and — the visible elephant in the room — the stranglehold of the Gandhi family, which insists in projecting an incompetent electoral product in Rahul Gandhi. The paralysis in timely decision making, seen in Rajasthan in the rift between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot, and in Chhattisgarh in the Baghel-Singh Deo conflict, was appalling. It has become more than apparent by now that those at the helm in the Congress are just incapable of decisive and strategic planning. Their belief is that a problem will go away by not dealing with it, or by sheer attrition. And, an even bigger weakness is to see genuinely talented leaders among its fold, as a threat not a strength.  

Although there is a president of the party, the experienced Mallikarjun Kharge, all issues need the imprimatur of not only Rahul Gandhi, the dynastic de facto head of the party, but of Priyanka and Sonia Gandhi as well, a process that inexorably delays matters. In Rajasthan, all matters were left to Gehlot, who to protect his own turf from the threat of Sachin Pilot, retained his supportive gang of MLAs even though it was obvious that their popularity on the ground was deeply eroded. In Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath was given a free hand, which was possibly a wise decision, but there was no audit of candidate selection, or supplementary effort to bolster and strengthen his campaign. 

The Congress refuses to understand that you cannot build a super-structure of success on a non-existent foundation: A grassroots organisation and cadre. In the absence of these, one over-hyped Bharat Jodo Yatra, and an aggressive media cell are no substitutes. In addition, there is unsustainable arrogance and entitlement, which treats other Opposition parties with scant respect, and often inexplicable hostility. The tragedy is that instead of reinventing itself, the Congress’ only attempt is to find some alibi to justify the status quo and protect the family. The most recent example is to blame EVMs for the election debacle. If the causes of failure are not honestly and courageously recognised, how can remedial action be taken? The ideology that made Congress the dominant party for decades — democracy, pluralism and inclusion — is still relevant to the country. But the vehicle and the leadership that exists today is incapable of credibly and effectively projecting it. 

If this was not enough, the attempt to forge Opposition unity came too late. The INDIA alliance met for the first time in June 2023 in Patna.  What were they doing since 2019? Even worse, nothing happened after that first meeting. A serious alliance would have, immediately after the Patna meeting, set up a secretariat, come out with a common minimum programme, and created a working group on feasible seat adjustments. But none of this happened.  A month later, the alliance leaders met again at Bengaluru, and five weeks later in Mumbai, with nothing to show accept a photo-op and a sumptuous dinner. A follow-up meeting in Bhopal was cancelled. A meeting called on December 6, was also deferred, because many parties of the alliance refused to attend. 

Moreover, constant bickering between Opposition alliance members has only further increased. Now, as the recent elections show, if the Congress, which is in direct fight with the BJP in some 200 seats in north India, cannot deliver, the alliance itself has no meaning, and each party will just go back to defending its own state fiefdom. In fact, most other Opposition parties have begun to consider the Congress as a liability, that brings little to the table but claims, as a matter of right, a disproportionate share of seats.   

It is argued that the BJP’s writ south of the Vindhyas is limited. This is only partially true. In Karnataka it has a strong hold, and the same voter who brought the Congress to power in the state, may vote very differently in the parliamentary elections, if the choice before her is Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi. Moreover, the BJP today is an inherently expansionist party, and has a 24/7 electoral machine to back it. It is significant that, even in Telangana, which Congress wrested this time from the BRS, the BJP won as many as eight seats. In Andhra Pradesh, it cannot be ruled out that a government may be formed with BJP as an alliance partner.   

The BJP is neither infallible nor unblemished, but it is almost certain that it will now win the 2024 elections. At present, on an all-India scale, there is no rival to its combination of leader, narrative, organisation, cadre and will to power. The country needs a stable government. But can a democracy do without a strong Opposition?