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Kamala Harris to BJP, Congress, all revolutionaries in opposition, status quo-ist in power

When in opposition, do as the people want you to. But when in power, do as you want to.

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Politics is a great equaliser. Not in terms of providing equal opportunities, but because everyone with political power ends up becoming who they didn’t want to be — enforcers of the very establishment they were opposing from the other side of the rope.

The latest on the list is US Vice-President Kamala Harris. In her first overseas trip after assuming office, Harris very emphatically asked migrants from Guatemala to not come to the US illegally. “Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders,” she said.

Being the first Indian-American and Black VP of the US has been Harris’ USP ever since her nomination was announced last year. For a country ravaged by racism and a debilitating migrant crisis, which saw children cramped in cold detention centres at the borders, Harris was seen by many as the saviour of the marginalised.

However, that was then, when she was in the opposition and could be part of those raising pitchforks against the ruling class. In a tweet in 2017, Harris had posted a photo of herself outside the White House, saying “in solidarity w/ refugees and immigrants who are being targeted by this admin”. Now she is the government, the establishment and responsible for the enforcement of laws, which remain largely similar to the Donald Trump era.

And this is the ultimate truism of political power. You’ll be a revolutionary out of it but an enforcer within it.

Also read: Biden’s US is done engaging with China. This is what India should do now

From Modi to Congress

The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to its ultimate 2014 win has been mapped out by many and the one predominant strain has been its work as the opposition.

Today, when petrol prices are skyrocketing under the Modi government, several old screenshots have come to the fore on social media where many of the current Union ministers lambasted the UPA government for fuel price hikes. Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani had in 2013 taken to the streets with cylinders to agitate against the rising LPG prices. But now, she is very conveniently silent as petrol prices cross Rs 100 in several states and LPG prices rise.

A significant part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign in 2014 was establishing a strongman attitude against Pakistan (and China). But when he came to power, then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif came to his inauguration ceremony and Modi even made a pitstop to Pakistan to meet him in 2015, becoming the first Indian PM to do so in about a decade.

And this series of turnabouts has become constant for Modi and his government. In 2015, Modi finalised a long-pending nuclear deal with then US President Barack Obama, breaking a six-year-old impasse on the issue. The deal was largely credited to the “personal chemistry” between Modi and Obama. But this narrative conveniently ignored two pertinent things: One, it was Manmohan Singh who originally pushed for the US-India nuclear deal and made a significant contribution to it. And two, it was the BJP that had launched a mounting attack against Singh for his dogged pursuit of the nuclear deal.

The controversial section 66A of the Information Technology Act that made it a punishable offence for any person to send ‘grossly offensive’ or ‘menacing’ information using a computer resource or communication device was used and misused by the UPA government. Then leader of opposition Arun Jaitley had even said the section amounted to excessive censorship.

But when the BJP came to power, it defended the section in the Supreme Court. In fact, when the SC struck down the section, the Congress and BJP were united in their opposition to it.

This trend was seen with the Congress too. The sedition law is arguably the most controversial law that is operating in India at present, and the Congress has voiced its opposition to it several times — including when it was slapped against JNU students. However, the UPA government charged a staggering 9,000 citizens with sedition in one instance alone.

As senior journalist Maneesh Chhibber wrote in a column for ThePrint: “When in the opposition, every political party questions the wisdom of retaining the offending section in the IPC. But the moment that party comes to power, it happily uses the draconian law to curb dissent.”

Also read: At the peak of his popularity, why Modi is going after dissenters

Opposition in poetry, governance in prose

The principle seems to be the same across the board. When in opposition do as the people want you to. But when in power, do as you want to. The accountability to the people is lost.

It’s no wonder then that when the second wave of the Covid pandemic was wreaking havoc in India, the prime minister was nowhere to be found. But the opposition leaders, meanwhile, were front and centre.

The irony is lyrical. Like former New York governor Mario Cuomo once said, you campaign in poetry, govern in prose. One which is characterised by an emphatic ‘Do Not’.

In his lesser-loved play ‘Henry V’, Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” And perhaps it is this uneasiness that informs all decisions. There is no crown to defend when one is out of power, then you can wax eloquent.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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