India’s Alternate Opposition

According to some recently published State of Democracy report, India has reported significant decline in its democratic indicators. In Freedom House 2021 report, India has been shown as ‘partly free’ and not ‘free’. Variety of Democracies (2021) listed India in the category of ‘electoral autocracy’ in the same category of Turkey and Hungary and worse than Nepal and Bangladesh. International IDEA’s indices on Global State of Democracy shows India slipping away in many major characteristics of democracy, namely, representative government, fundamental rights and checks in government. But surprisingly, India’s electoral participation has risen from 0.56 in 2013 to 0.69 in 2019, surpassing regional average. Despite some such brighter side, the democratic indicators for India has been pushing south steadily.

Indian Democracy in Trouble Waters

The Swedish research institute has remarked that the ‘autocratization’ of India has happened more since 2014. However, our political leaders disagree with such reports calling them as work of foreign agencies driven by their agenda. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar calls them hypocrites. But similar reports are shared by many other agencies and think tanks around the world. Some of the pertinent factors that have led to such dismal performance can be broadly cited as weak institutions, government aversion to communicate with research, overemphasis of religious biases, etc. But, according to the author, the biggest blow to democratic ideals in India comes from an absent opposition.

Weak Institutions

Maerz et. al. (2020) have noted that along with third wave of democratization, a parallel wave of autocratization has also started since 2010. The weakening of political institutions can have several manifestations like rigged elections, curtailment of freedom of speech and expression, threatened judicial independence or an over-emphasis of national security.

After the first cases of rigging of national election in 1950 by Bhupat Singh, a bandit of Saurashtra, rigging of elections in India has become as common as elections themselves. Ignoring the claims made by Syed Shuja, an IT professional from Hyderabad, regarding EVM hacking, there are studies which shows that overtime EVMs have been successful in making elections fair. Debnath, Kapoor and Ravi (2017) after a detailed analysis of Indian elections at all level using EVMs find that it has led to a significant decline in fraudulent voting. Still skeptics view these EVMs as an eyewash for general population and regularly point out chances of data manipulation and data fudging.

Besides rigging of elections, a more pertinent threat is the integrity of the Election Commission of India (ECI). ECI, a bureaucratic institution entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining the most significant pillar of democracy, i.e. free and fair elections in a non-partisan manner, have been heavily criticized. Critics have pointed out its failure on grounds of missing votes, inaccurate voter rolls, bias towards ruling parties. Post 2019 general elections, one observes a rising consensus among opposition political parties regarding tampering and manhandling of EVMs and partisan
bias of ECI.

Recently, lot of allegations and counter-allegations can also be heard questioning the non-partisan nature of other central agencies like Enforcement Directorate (ED), Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) and judiciary. In the rehash of National Herald case, Rahul Gandhi was questioned by ED for 52-55 hours. This has been highly condemned by almost all opposition parties. The All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) supremo, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, has time and again brought to light the way in which the ruling party had misused the central agencies to fulfill their political vendetta.

More alarming is the fact that an important element of democracy – judicial independence – is under serious threat in India. Indian judiciary along with its court systems was meant to be interpreter of law and a caretaker of the constitution. The three branches of government – executive, legislature and judiciary – should work in conjunction to ensure proper functioning of any country. To be independent, the judiciary should be impartial. Unfortunately, in India, judges face similar day-to-day concerns like any other common man. Post-retirement employment seems to obfuscate their decisions most. We saw that ex-CJI Ranjan Gogoi was appointed as a member to the Rajya Sabha immediately after his retirement. During his tenure as CJI, the last few cases that he handled were related to Rafale Deal, Ram Janmabhoomi, NRC in Assam. One can easily join the dots here. Similarly, another ex-CJI P. Sathasivam was appointed as the Governor of Kerala after his retirement. This kind of practices are not found in countries like USA which boasts on its truly accountable judiciary. In the USA, federal judges enjoy a tenure for life-time and can therefore adjudicate cases more impartially.

Knowledge Proof Government

The incumbent government has demonstrated enough aversion towards knowledge shared by academia, think-tanks, intelligentsia, and other knowledge disseminating agencies. The resignation of two stalwart RBI governors – Dr. Raghuram Rajan and Dr. Urjit Patel – in quick succession during the previous term of BJP led government raised flag in the minds of all educated Indians. On the other hand, the current RBI governor – Shaktikanta Das, an IAS officer – has been able to hold on to the throne for almost four years now. The shaky opposition at that time did reprimand the government for not listening to the experts. Unfortunately, this trend gathered further momentum in the second term of the BJP government.

A clear example of ignoring the experts has been the introduction of the 3 controversial farm laws first and then a hasty roll-back of the same laws due to upcoming assembly elections. Although BJP was able to secure UP playing the communal card, it did face losses in Punjab where AAP took over. Many experts have been skeptical about the roll-back of the farm laws. Prominent economist Dr. Gurcharan Das recommended that the 3 laws should have been implemented in some states on a pilot basis. The outcomes from this implementation, in that case, would have been

Another glaring example is this new Agniveer policy which has caused enough havoc around the country in the past few weeks. In this case again, experts are not consulted. There are seemingly more questions that has been left unanswered compared to the ones which the government and their appointed spokespersons tried to answer. To mention, no one has a clear idea about the nature of education and skill that will be imparted to the agniveers which will be equivalent to a +2 certificate. Are the colleges going to accept that certificate for granting admissions to the left-outs? Are these agniveers be prepared to move forward with a college education? Although Anand Mahindra and other corporate stooges joined the choir to give jobs to all the agniveers released from the army, yet skepticism looms large over the kind of job that will be offered. Past experience shows that the an army-men after retirement has been usually hired as a security supervisor. The fate of this policy is again in the clouds. Fortunately, Bihar assembly elections are not due in the near future which gives the government some time to learn from their previous mistakes. Let’s hope for the best.

Alternate Opposition

Lok Sabha votes are a mix of how the states vote in the general elections. Each state vote different from the other, save and except some common trends. The ‘landslides’ happen at the state levels and is quite different from each other. Voters choose their candidates depending on their life conditions. Landslides are the outcomes of our SMDP (Single Member District Plurality) or FPTP (First-Past-The-Post) electoral system and an extremely patchy opposition.

A stable opposition to the ruling party is a salient feature of any democracy. There is almost negligible to no difference between an authoritarian and a democratic government that functions in absence of a stable opposition. Pranay Roy rightly points out that the ‘landslides’ that Indian citizens witness today are not due to the charisma of the ruling party. Instead, these ‘landslides’ are an inherent outcome of a highly fragmented opposition that plagues Indian democracy and has been majorly responsible for its backsliding.

The opposition to the ruling party at the center is in a dismal state. The seventeen opposition parties which have tried time and again to reach a consensus on a Common Minimum Programme is still faceless. The ruling party has constantly mocked and ridiculed this fragmented opposition as ‘tukde tukde gang’. The missing opposition at the center is a tremendous loss for the Indian citizenry and an stupendous gain for the ruling party which has continued on its agenda unabetted. Be it abrogation of Article 370 and relegating a state to the position of an UT, or limiting the powers of Delhi government, or widespread human rights violation in broad daylight in the name of national security, there seems no stopping for the ruling party.

The appalling performance of the grand old party, Indian National Congress, in the recent elections to legislative assemblies have further strengthened the arms of the far-rightist ruling BJP. Clearly it has become evident that in 2024, INC will not be the face of the opposition fighting BJP. INC lost UP and Uttarakhand when constituencies like Amethi, Rai Bareilly once upon a time had been strongholds of the party forerunners. Despite Rahul Gandhi’s predictions about roll-back of farm laws, the incumbent government of Punjab was unable to secure its position and lost to AAP (Aam
Admi Party) by a huge margin. Alas, these ‘tukde tukde gangs’ are far from forging a coalition of opposition parties that would last long and take up the almighty BJP in 2024 elections.

So, what are the other alternatives that can be thought about? One, surely is strengthening the Congress. Finding a more suitable leader, who probably does not belong to the Gandhi-Nehru clan. But it cannot be someone like Kanhaiya Kumar, once thought messiah to save the GOP. The in fighting within Congress has been on for a while now, but no solution has been reached. We continue to see the same faces representing the party despite the constant debacle they keep facing election after election. This is high time the older members of Congress make peace within the party and deliberate on more pertinent issues like finding a suitable leader that might just help saving the party. Otherwise, Congress will soon be relegated to a junior position in Indian politics from being a national leader at one point of time.

Another alternative can be holding the forts strong at the state-levels. West Bengal’s election last year is quite commendable in this respect. It is true that Ms. Mamata Banerjee or her party All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) could not do much outside West Bengal. Still the defeat BJP suffered in Bengal elections in 2021 shook them up. On similar lines, Punjab elections also gave some impetus to the regional parties. AAP’s victory in Punjab elections is exemplary in this regard.

So the new alternative or strategy can be keeping the state’s strong and free of any saffronization. However, the current situation of Maharashtra sinks the heart of all Indian citizens who fear the steady decline of democratic ideals in the country. If states keep falling prey to BJP’s grand plan, very soon we will end up becoming a one-party state like China and we all know what it entails. We have to keep the fear of losing alive in the BJP camp. As we saw in the case of Bengal elections last year, almost all top brass leaders of BJP visited the state during the campaigning phase. This is because they were and are wary about AITC and its leader Ms. Mamata Banerjee. Unfortunately, we did not see similar efforts on the part of now ex-CM of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray. All the responsibility of horse-trading and setting up of the new government was left on the shoulder on Devendra Fadnavis without any of the top leaders. Winning an important state like Maharashtra is definitely a feather on the cap of the ruling party. As more and more states succumb under the pressure of the ruling junta, it goes without saying that we will not see India’s rank improve in any of the democracy indices. Given the current scenario in the country, BJP should not get a clean sway in any of the legislative elections coming up in 2023. In 2023 Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Telengana and Mizoram are scheduled to go for their assembly elections. These 4 states are at present non-BJP states. In the run-up to the 2023 assembly elections, it will be interesting to see what ploy is used by the ruling party to swing the political pendulum and the test for the states will be to hold their grounds strong.

Maerz, Seraphine, Anna Luhrmann, Sebastian Hellmeier, Sandra Grahn and Staffan Lindberg (2020) “State of the World 2019: autocratization surges – resistance grows”; Democratization, Vol. 27, Issue 6, pp. 909-927.

The article is written by Prof. Swetasree Ghosh Roy, Professor, Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.

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