Arun Jaitely, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sitaram Yechury, and Prakash Karat — all these leaders have one thing in common. Their political birth was during the resistance to Emergency. If Narendra Modi’s government since 2014 is as draconian as his critics allege, can we name a leader of similar political stature who emerged in the last 6 years?
The threat to democracy today is surely no less severe, in fact it’s probably more dangerous. In the words of Yogendra Yadav, our democracy has been ‘captured’ and our first constitutional republic has already ended. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from the state of our opposition, which is a picture of fecklessness and passivity. What explains this dearth of opposition leadership, particularly the almost complete absence of new leaders, and at a time when we need it the most?
Two big reasons stand out.
People being patient with Modi
When the Emergency was declared, Indira Gandhi was already getting unpopular, eight years into power. The Gujarat and Bihar agitations against corruption, misgovernance and price rise were going on for nearly two years, signalling widespread sentiment of alienation from the government. Many young leaders latched on to this already growing sense of anger that culminated in the JP Movement, to launch their political careers. But today, the popular consensus seems to be that Modi must be given more time to reverse what he has framed as ‘sixty years of misgovernance’. Given the scale of his ambition, to build a ‘new India’, people are willing to give him more leeway, reflected in the scale of his second electoral mandate.
Second, there was the organisational backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which provided an army of resolute cadres that formed the backbone of the anti-Congress movements. Being the only mass national socio-political organisation in the country, its footprint can be found in most of the large political mobilisations at the national level— from Ayodhya to the anti-Mandal movement to the anti-corruption movement. Without organisations, there are no movements, the wellsprings of new political leadership. The opposition today lacks such an organisation.
The scale of the opposition failure in leadership merits a deeper analysis. We identify six reasons for this failure: four supply sided (the failure of the political system to produce effective opposition leadership) and two demand sided (there is no popular appetite for energetic opposition leadership).
Where the opposition couldn’t deliver
First, there are no comparable movements of large groups today acting as a conveyor belt of political talent. The anti-Citizenship Amendment Act movement was of limited scope and did not throw up any significant political leader. The four biggest youth leaders to have emerged over the last six years—Chandrasekhar Azad, Jignesh Mewani, Hardik Patel and Kanhaiya Kumar—are still confined to narrow pockets of influence, and do not pose a significant challenge to the Modi government.
Second, existing political parties have become sclerotic and undemocratic, making it very difficult for (non-dynastic) young political talent to emerge. Interestingly, all of the young leaders cited above (except Kanhaiya to an extent) have emerged outside of any party structure. There are no strong young leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Lal Krishna Advani who came up the ranks of their organisations and resisted the Emergency. The Congress party hasn’t held meaningful internal elections for the top posts since the time of Indira Gandhi. Regional parties formed around caste/language lines (RJD, SP, JD (S), DMK) have ossified into single-family bastions. The last big movement that birthed a genuinely mass political leader was the India Against Corruption movement that gave us Arvind Kejriwal.
Third, it’s difficult for new mass leaders challenging the Modi government to emerge from the politicisation of existing cleavages. The BJP has adapted to the three-decade-old Mandal movement by deftly side-lining caste cleavages in the political discourse through calculated re-engineering of caste affiliations. Modi and Amit Shah have managed to undercut the appeal of opposition OBC leaders, like the Yadavs, by appealing to non-dominant backward castes. They have employed a similar strategy with Dalits, pitting Dalit sub-castes who had been excluded from political and social power against the relatively powerful Dalit sub-castes like Jatavs.
In other words, there are no longer any broad cleavages to ground clear and potent political narratives of oppression. An increasingly large number of young members of backward castes are moving away from this narrative of oppression to a narrative of aspiration and Hindu unity. There is no fresh, young talent in these tightly-controlled family-run Mandal parties to bring back these sections with a reimagined political narrative. Contrast this with the BJP. By side-lining the old guard (like Advani, Kalyan Singh, Murli Manohar Joshi ) who had depleted their political capital and replacing them with leaders like Modi and Yogi Adityanath, the party has re-energised Hindutva with the politics of aspirations, welfare and law and order.
Fourth, it took a leader of the stature of Jayaprakash Narayan to bring all the ideologically diverse opposition parties under a common platform of ‘anti- Congressism’, both in the JP movement and in the resistance to the Emergency. JP was widely respected by everyone, and drew his enormous popular legitimacy from the Independence struggle as well as having rejected a cabinet berth in the Nehru government. There is no one in the present Congress leadership (or outside) who has the authority to similarly coalesce the opposition into a united anti-BJP platform. Sonia Gandhi has receded from active politics, and Rahul Gandhi can hardly be counted upon to seriously lead his own party, let alone a united opposition.
Modi enjoying the legitimacy of popularity
Apart from these supply side factors explaining the dearth of political leadership, there are certain demand side impediments.
First, unlike the Emergency, the formal processes of a democracy have been left intact by the Modi government, thus preventing the opposition leaders from effectively conveying the seriousness of the situation to a largely indifferent public. For instance, the act of voting, something that is considered sacrosanct and universally accorded a high degree of importance, has not been rescinded. Many ordinary citizens might not concretely feel the restriction of abstract freedoms in their everyday lives, as long as they see external processes of democracy—regular and competitive elections, campaigning, freedom to vote—all running smoothly on the surface.
Second, the present moment doesn’t feel as urgent or alarming simply because the Prime Minister enjoys a great deal of popular legitimacy. Thus, unlike the naked power employed in the Emergency, which was seen as coercive and illegitimate, the resounding mandate and popularity of the present government lends a veil of legitimacy to even constitutionally questionable or undemocratic actions of the government. There is no alienation and disaffection of a large segment of the public as was seen in the upsurges of the mid-70s. Since the Modi government enjoys this level of credibility, the public is not looking for new alternative leaders who can act as vehicles for their resentment.
For the health of a democracy, the absence of a credible opposition force represents a moment no less alarming than that of the outright suspension of democratic rights. Our democracy is not dying from the bludgeon of an Emergency, but from the slow poison coursing through its veins.
Asim Ali and Ankita Barthwal are research associates at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal.