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Unlike Indira Gandhi, this is why Modi era isn’t producing strong new foes

Unlike the Emergency, the processes of democracy have been left intact by Modi, preventing the opposition from highlighting the seriousness of the situation.

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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.

Also read: How BJP has owned the national security issue and why China won’t change that

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).

Also read: India’s young no longer charmed by Modi. Blame economy and ideology

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.

Also read: Covid lockdown has ended only opposition politics in India. BJP’s shop is very much open

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.

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  1. I pity this mindset ‘Modi for all ills’ of these left-biased journalists. This is unlikely to change the thinking of people let alone provoke. To remove Modi as PM, you need to politically win against him. Currently, no one is anywhere near, as they all look for a shortcut win. This man was a grassroots worker for more than three decades and CM for more than a decade. He understands the pulse of people like no one in India does. On the contrary, the opposition is just full of power greedy leaders. While it is true that Indian democracy needs a strong opposition. But that needs to show some really attractive proposition to the majority of people (not to be confused with majoritarianism). The four attributes are a Relentless, Hardworking, Streetsmart Mass leader. Can’t see anyone emerging even for 2024 elections.

  2. Apart from the Muslims, legal and illegal ones, who will never be happy till there is a Muslim rule in India, everyone else is happy. The slowdown in economy is an universal problem. Economy is shrinking everywhere. And Rahul Gandhi is a duffer. He has a brain of a monkey, sorry, donkey.

  3. So funny. Blame Modi even for lack of
    credible opposition leaders. Ask the dynasts instead. Many possibilities die due to lack of democracy in today’s opposing parties. And listen to Ra Ga, who cries foul on everything Modi says or does without doing proper analysis or research. Do you think people can ever accept him as a credible alternative?

  4. Ha!! Ha!! For Jihadi @theprint & their authors, BJP rule with no emergency is worst than Indira Gandhi & congress dictatorship & democracy!! Search for the ERROR!!

  5. Before I put my point forward,

    1: The fact is PM’s Modi has highest approval rating which means more people like his work than people who does not like his work.

    2: There is no strong opposition leader who know what they talking. ( Rahul Gandhi (I am not saying he is good or bad) it’s just that he is not politician. He is just enjoying hereditary job like it or not)

    It’s also the responsibility of other political parties to do the same don’t you think ??

    Therefore no opposition is able to ask right question or debate with PM Modi.
    It makes PM Modi look like he suppressing everyone and doing whatever he wants do!

    And thought like this makes people write such article.

    @Ankitha and Asim – Nothing wrong with your opinion on this issue but the suggestion to you is to put more and more facts in front of us and let us make that opinion.
    (You can ignore whatever I have said)

  6. “The threat to democracy today is surely no less severe, in fact it’s probably more dangerous”…. care to elaborate on the entire premise of the article….. How is it worse than the emergency?

    • The articles written by Indian leftists here or in the International media on BJP or Hindus are very often devoid of any facts and usually based on propaganda, half truths or outright lies!!

  7. Did the writers take a couple of pegs too many before writing this appalling gall? “The formal processes of a democracy have been left intact by the Modi government,…” this is colossal garbage! Both writers must either be living under a rock under the bottom of the Arabian Sea for the last six years or on the pay roll of this decadent government that supervises the deaths of poor labourers through poverty, hunger and the bloody pandemic. Print Editors hang yourselves!

  8. This is so wrong :).. there is one fact that so many people just ignore – people ate in love with Mr. Modi. Till they do, neither correct analysis, nor any action plan would be possible for the opposition. I believe that until a new opposition which has a clear vision emerges, things arent going to change much..

  9. POPULATION CONTROL measures were tried to be implemented during emergency and hence she lost so did the nation. If we want to be PROSPEROUS we must implement population control strictly . The country should declare POPULATION EXPLOSION EMERGENCY and implement measures to control it.

  10. Even Indira Gandhi’s foes proved themselves men of straw and failed not only themselves but also the electorate who gave them a huge opportunity in 1977. In the ultimate analysis even JP was nothing more then a failed disruptor. Asked to take up responsibility by joining the Centre, his response was to run away. If he hadn’t run away from responsibility possibly India would be spared of dynastic rule and even the emergency and the degradation of public life. All it takes is for good people to do nothing do JP was no less culpable. Same as today’s opposition who have failed to provide an alternate vision. Constantly carping about the PM without providing any alternative is failure.

  11. Comparing Modi administration with Indira’s Emergency puts off the readers instantly.

    During Emergency, these 2 authors couldn’t have even written this article. Under Modi, media can vilify Modi day in and day out with full freedom.

    It is fashionable in liberal circles to paint Modi as an autocrat like Indira Gandhi – the more the liberals do it, the more the public reject it as trash.

  12. When opposition is for the sake of opposition. When opposition is carried out on Twitter. This is exactly what happens. When you hound folks for things that your did not hold others responsible, this is the end result. When you should from the pulpits of injustice when done by some and not by others, this is the end result.

    Those that over exaggerated Gujarat riots calling it genocide. Those that are calling BJP fascist are not going to lead a relevant balanced opposition. The general population neither believes that the post Godhra, Gujarat riots were a genocide, nor does it think Modi was responsible. The evidence of the mandate is clearly indicates as much.

    People such as Yogendra Yadav, that constantly harp against the BJP, are more ideological opponents. Their clamor falls on deaf ears. They do not come off as being balanced in opinion. They are just catering to their own echo chambers. They do not have an impact on changing the view of the general populace. Modi’s popularity will have to wane on his failings. So far the failures attributed to him, demonitization and economy have not registered. People like the author says are giving him a long leash.

    • The genocide which Hindus-tan witnessed was on Hindus done by Jihadis with Islamic terrorism!! WHY communist press like @Theprint & Hindu-stanis forget it is UN-unnderstandable & UN-pardonable!!

  13. You answered the riddle with your first sentence itself: “Arun Jaitely, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sitaram Yechury, and Prakash Karat..”
    The Yadavs used their new found power to launch family dynasties. Paswan blows with the wind.
    Yechury/Karat used their new found power to relocate their kids to foreign lands.
    And anyone remaining hitched their ride to the BJP!
    Given the antecedents of such erstwhile Indira foes, who the heck would want to give up productive lives to take on Modi? It also proves that the economy of the 70s was so moribund and lacking in opportunity that crafty intelligent youngsters actually jumped into the opposition political space against Indira. Remember, there also wasnt the hurdle to join politics and toil in those days. Nowadays, one needs to have huge funding in crores to even think of this line of work..
    Contemporary India is full of opportunity, any young bright mind would rather take his chances in private enterprise rather than toil against Modi.

  14. The present status of India can best be described as “grin and bear it”. However, one should never lose hope and be optimistic about the sun that will definitely rise tomorrow. What tomorrow brings, nobody knows, though living under the thumb of the current dispensation has brought about nothing but misery for all Indians. The duo of Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah has been grossly ineffective in containing the various afflictions that our country is facing today, with special emphasis to be given to demonitisation and overnight GST implementation, the ghosts of which are still haunting the general public. A highly efficient team of bureaucrats, including Mr. Raghuram Rajan as Governor of RBI, that was serving the government was arbitrarily disbanded and in its place came a slew of officials from the Gujarat cadre, who were already pandering to Mr. Modi when he was CM of the state. Nothing can be expected from such sycophants. So, “grin and bear it.”

  15. When the processes of democracy have been left intact by Modi, how can it prevent the opposition from highlighting the seriousness of the situation?
    This obviously means there are no real issues just being noisy is not enough.
    If the emergency gave political birth to one set of leaders
    Modi to has given birth to a different set of leaders, starting with RaGa to Ghanshyam Tiwari, Akhilesh Yadav, the Younger clan of Lalu, the pro-Kashmir brigade, the Tukde Tukde lot, and all the spokesmen/ political analysts with the anti Modi anchors, there is no shortage of them. The problem is of depth of knowledge and quality compared to ones born during emergency

  16. There is no point wringing hands about effective opposition leaders – leaders do not gain legitimacy in a few years – it may take a decade or more for the system to mature. Existing opposition leaders are having their credibility undermined by your own brethren in the press actively aided by the govt and indifferent attitude of the voting public who fail to understand the importance of keeping the ruling party on its toes by nurturing an effective opposition.

    This is the age of Modi. The BJP-RSS system is at the zenith of its powers under Modi-Shah. Even glaring mistakes are successfully passed off as heroic deeds. He can do no wrong for now. But like the age of Dinosaurs, like the Mughal era, like Pax Britania, like Rajesh Khanna’s superstardom, like Sampras-Aggasi reign this too shall pass. Till then either bear the full brunt of being under the Modi sun (like Rahul Gandhi) or hide in the shade. (like the other 99% of opposition)

    • Are you sure indian junta is that gullible that they don’t know importance of opposition power? Was the upa 2 mired by all controversy kept on its toes by junta?
      The average common man is way more smart than what the media , opposition try to project
      And yup upa 2 passed away just like the dinosaur age and india survived that too.

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