Thursday, 1 December, 2022
HomeOpinionIndia’s comatose opposition is letting Modi govt’s foreign policy go unchallenged

India’s comatose opposition is letting Modi govt’s foreign policy go unchallenged

The Centre failed to defend Indian territory along the LAC, but the only pressure on the Modi govt appears to come from a set of journalists & analysts.

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One of the most striking things about the Ladakh confrontation is how supine India’s opposition parties have been in challenging the Narendra Modi government. Despite its failure to defend Indian territory and reestablish the status quo ante along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, and the abysmal failure of its overall China policy, much of the pressure on the Bharatiya Janata Party government has come from an intrepid band of journalists and analysts, rather than from the country’s opposition parties.

So, while the Modi government appears befuddled about handling the Chinese aggression, the sad reality for India is that the opposition is so paralysed it cannot even engage in political mobilisation on a highly emotive issue such as the loss of territory. There is enough hand-wringing about the implications of a weak opposition for the democratic health of the republic. What is being overlooked is that this has implications for India’s foreign policy as well.

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Opposition’s critical role

Although making foreign policy is a function of the government, the opposition has a critical role to play in monitoring it.

True, foreign policy generally has low salience among voters. It might be difficult to translate complicated questions of international strategy for political mobilisation. But territorial defence is a simple proposition with an emotional quotient, which makes the task of raising foreign policy issues easier. For an opposition that has found few means of putting the government on the defensive, this should have been a godsend opportunity. The opposition’s inability to challenge the Modi government narrative on the India-China standoff says a lot about the state it is in.

This is not to suggest that a credible and effective opposition can ensure there won’t be any foreign policy mistakes on the part of a democratically elected government. Indeed, because its primary purpose is to oppose, an effective opposition can even push the government in the wrong direction. There are plenty of examples of this in India’s recent diplomatic history: the BJP colluded with the Communist parties to almost scuttle the US-India nuclear deal, even as its leaders assured the US Embassy in 2009 that the party’s opposition to the deal was only tactical. When that effort failed — thankfully — the same opposition parties led the charge for an absurd nuclear liability bill that has ensured that many of the benefits of the nuclear deal remain unrealised.

A more serious problem is that both the conditions India faces and the cultural resources available for foreign policy thinking can limit fresh ideas. Countries do not often make radical changes in foreign policy: throughout the Cold War, Democrats and Republicans in the US differed more on tactics than on overall objectives or strategy. That consistency in foreign policy has been noted in India too, and it limits some avenues for criticism.

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Opposition’s corrective function

These examples notwithstanding, the opposition’s role in a democracy’s foreign policy works out in a non-linear way and more as a veto. While they will not be able to create wise foreign policy, they can pull the government back from unwise directions, providing for longer term course correction when foreign policy takes a wrong turn. In India’s own case, the withdrawal from a politically unwinnable war in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s is one example. In the US’ case, domestic opposition to global military overcommitment — Vietnam in the 1970s, and Iran and Afghanistan in recent times — has repeatedly led to rethinking in the country’s foreign policy strategy.

This corrective function of oppositional politics is a unique advantage that democracies have. Its absence is why non-democracies have a harder time in changing directions, even when they are on the wrong strategic path. During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet leadership recognised the dangerous foreign policy consequences of its unviable command economy and the ‘costs of the Soviet empire’. But it faced little domestic pressure to undertake any correction. The same danger now afflicts China: on top of an authoritarian government, China has moved from some limited form of collective leadership to centralised power in the hands of President Xi Jinping. This lack of opposition may be contributing to China’s foolish strategic behaviour, and might explain why China continues to be on a self-defeating path.

Also read: Fort Modi is impregnable despite China, Covid, job losses. Only one leader can defeat him

Bigger cause for worry today

Although it is often assumed that autocracies are better at managing foreign policy because they do not have an opposition, this is simply not true. As scholar Kenneth Waltz pointed out decades ago, democracies do better than autocracies in framing and carrying out sensible foreign policies. But Waltz himself recognised that not all democracies are the same, suggesting that the US democratic system provided better foreign policy results than the British one. By the same token, the benefits of democracy are unlikely to accrue to systems where there is complete dominance of one party. The danger India faces is that a passive opposition can limit the benefits of the corrective function of foreign policymaking in a democracy.

India’s diplomatic history provides examples for this too. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi received a massive mandate in 1984, leaving the opposition in complete disarray. That untrammelled control over foreign policy facilitated the disastrous intervention in Sri Lanka. It was reversed eventually, but only after about 1,200 Indian soldiers were killed. Before that, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s total domination of India’s foreign policy resulted in a China strategy that ended in an unmitigated debacle in 1962. History does not have to repeat itself – even 1962 was not inevitable – but it can suggest some need for concern.

The opposition in 1962, though far weaker than today’s, at least tried to caution Nehru. That can hardly be said of the opposition parties today, and that is a cause for worry.

The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.

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  1. Typical leftist writer. So worried now but was fine when the Gandhi-Nehru coalition ruled with British legacy rules and no opposition for decades. Call it non-governing members please, and not opposition because these morons only understand it as opposing anything the governing party does. BTW, democracy is only just beginning in India with the khangress finally vanishing and hopefully other real bharat centric parties emerge. Kick the CPI, CPM, INC out as they are unsuited for democracy.


  3. Rajesh Rajagopalan wants us to believe that the Congress or the other opposition parties are all foreign policy experts and would have been able to guide the Modi govt. better if they were not comatose. He must understand that it is only the BJP that has succeeded in conveying to the world that India is no pushover and it better be taken seriously. It was the Congress that ceded thousands of acres of territory to the Chinese and always behaved like a scared dog, running for cover with its tail tucked between its legs. Conceding that Tibet is Chinese property is just one of Jawahar’s first blunders. Accepting captured territories in 1962 as theirs was the next. Accepting that China deserved a permanent member seat in the UN more than India was another. Meekly accepting the One China Policy was yet another. The list goes on and for the author to believe that the Congress is even capable of a sane foreign policy is sad. Downright pathetic Rajagopalan. Next time do not just write because someone is paying you to write it. Use your brains because if you can write so much you sure must be having one.

  4. Main opposition party Congress , seems very nervous about the agreement signed by its Prince Rahul and China’s communist party. If I am correct , this will be India s political narrative and trump card for the ruling party in the coming years.

  5. There should be no surprise as far as India’s diplomatic stance in regard to China is considered. Our country is heavily dependent on China for a range of products and services, thereby underscoring the fact that any antagonistic word spoken towards Beijing would rankle the CPC. Even after the sordid episode of Ladakh, where 20 of India’s brave soldiers had to lay down their lives in the defense of our motherland, Chinese occupation on Indian soil has been substantiated by several defense experts. Despite this, the Prime Minister states that there has been no incursion into India and the status quo ante is being maintained. How can a sane individual believe this atrocious statement? India has to kowtow to China’s aggressiveness for its very existence as of today. What have been the outcomes of the various meetings held by the leaders of India and China? Where has swinging on jhoolas and partaking of friendly bonhomie as depicted by various stage-managed optics led us? China can afford to ignore India and embrace our neighbors, Pakistan being the prime example, though Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are not far behind, owing to the fact of Beijing’s pumping in billions of dollars into various infrastructure projects in these countries. India today stands surrounded by enemies, known and unknown. As to how the ruling establishment will counter this threat is to be seen. If only the Pradhan Sevak had mentioned the danger posed by China on this year’s Independence Day in his speech!!!! It is true that there would not have been any substantial change on the ground but the very mention of an external threat other than the always present Pakistan could have had some other consequences….

  6. I don’t agree with your characterization of Modi govt’s response as supine. The problem is that the opposition are all Leftists, with a political track record of downplaying issues like territorial defense, which is traditionally a concern of the political Right. So therefore, the need is for an opposition which is to the political Right of Modi, in order to credibily criticize the Modi govt as being inadequate on defending the border. Leftists are traditionally ideologically averse to caring about issues like territorial defense.

  7. What exactly are you guys smoking down there at the JNU?? 20 Soldiers dead in the battle to death of the freezing Galwan valley. India’s mobilization and eyeball to eyeball confrontation with a Power five times more powerful than India. Our response has been prudent and appropriate. PM Modi’s government has neither wilted nor panicked. All arms of of India, Diplomats, Military, Navy and Air force have worked together as a team. India’s response in face of extreme provocation from Communist China makes us proud. Well done India.

  8. JNU Leftist Proffessor is worrying about India , must be joking , these sane Leftists and communists lead by Sita Ram Yechuri took a rally saying Mao is our chairman and invited China to occupy India

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