As the Congress vacates the space of an active opposition with a counter-argument, civil society activists and other professional dissenters rush in to fill the vacuum
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI’S The Last Emperor (1987) is a somewhat mawkish sketch of China’s last sovereign, Aisin Gioro Pu Yi, or Henry Pu Yi, but the film does reflect some truth. The Qing Empire had wilted away by the time Pu Yi attained maturity. Yet, the ceremonial trappings of the imperial household remained intact. The lord of China could make no mistakes and for the ones he did make, his playmates were punished. The pretence was kept up even after the 1911 revolution washed away traces of power from the emperor.
Closer home, the story of Shah Alam II, or Ali Gauhar, the nominal Mughal emperor (1759-1806), bore a strange resemblance to that of Pu Yi. In his later days, Shah Alam was practically imprisoned in his own palace within the walls of which alone his writ ran. Of him, it was said: “Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli te Palam (Shah Alam’s writ runs from Delhi to next door Palam)”.
In striking ways, the stories of Henry (a name he chose from a list given to him) Pu Yi, the last emperor of China and Ali Gauhar, the last Mughal emperor, resonate in today’s India. Their lives are similar to that of the Chief Warlord of the crumbling main opposition party, Rahul Gandhi. The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and a former president of the Congress, lives in a sterile echo chamber whose limits extend from the inseam of 10, Janpath, where his mother and current party president—who continues to warm the seat for his re-ascent—lives, to the inseam of 24, Akbar Road, the headquarters of the Congress. The usual crop of subservient yes-men are tasked with massaging the political ego of the forever-heir to the Congress throne, ensuring a life lived in a mock imperial state of “wokeness,” even as the rest of the country goes about its business. As the key person of the main opposition party that has woefully abdicated its role, responsibility and, as a result, eroded its credibility—something crucial for a democracy—in the last few years, he bears a large share of the responsibility for this state of affairs. Rahul Gandhi, in the recent past, has persisted in the exhausting habit of echoing social media Moghuls of a certain kind on every issue, but only many days later, from the party platform. Whether on Covid-19 management, India’s strained relations with China, the Pulwama attack, the retaliatory Balakot airstrike, trouble with economic growth, the issue of migrant labour, the rural economy, he has echoed the views of this group faithfully, in the bargain showcasing the political and electoral bankruptcy within his party and his own leadership.
WITH A RUDDERLESS main opposition party at the helm, the opposition space, too, has withered away, disappearing into the wallpaper rather than working to regain its weight on the ground. The Left Front leadership has retreated to the bunkers, their presence being felt only lightly even in a booming social media user space estimated to be 400 million by 2021. In Kerala, the only state it is in power, the Left has been kept occupied by the gold scam and a no-trust vote that has scorched its credibility. In the politically key state of Uttar Pradesh, ‘homeboy’ Akhilesh Yadav, who not long ago went ‘twinning’ to the hustings with Rahul Gandhi, chooses to tweet occasionally from the palatial confines of his home in Lucknow. The blue pachyderm-driven revolution has been supine for a while, even taking its own time to challenge the merger of its Rajasthan unit with the Congress in the state. Party chief Mayawati held a rare press conference days after the event. Formal opposition to the Central Government and the ruling party, in effect, has virtually wound up operations.
The more the main opposition party cedes ground under Rahul Gandhi’s charge, the more the Congress’ allies retreat as well, intensifying the political inertia, lethargy and ineffectual attempts at cornering the ruling party. As this vacuum in the public space has grown, the more an ‘unregistered’ opposition to the Government has begun to occupy it. This unregistered opposition comprises a motley crew of civil society activists, rent-a-cause rebels against the establishment, self-styled ‘wokes’ among Bollywood reps, lawyers, public intellectuals and cancel-culture cartels who now occupy the opposition space like never before.
In the past, political action targeting the government has mainly involved protests organised, spearheaded and sustained by politicians and the political opposition. That is no longer the case, given the total abdication of responsibility by the mainstream opposition. Non-political actors have now begun to set the narrative in the political space and are seen as first claimants to the opposition space. Some of them have now fashioned themselves into a permanent voice of dissent against the establishment. Earlier, they kept their focus on their objectives and desisted from engaging openly with opposition parties to raise the heat against the government. That no longer appears to be the case—and the lines between ‘unregistered opposition’ and formal political opposition have increasingly blurred, starting a new trend. The narrative is set by the former, with the formal opposition being anaemic. Instead of leading from the front, the formal opposition is often forced to coordinate with these players. In this, they have broken a longstanding pattern of opposition being anchored by politicians in India. It is now a case of the cart leading the horse.
The work on the ground to mobilise opinion against a government in power, as history demonstrates, involves heavy-lifting on many fronts and knitting many strands together. When the students of the LD College of Engineering in Ahmedabad began their protest on December 20th, 1973, little did they realise that their actions would lead to the ouster of Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel. But that is what happened less than two months later, on February 9th, 1974. A protest that is normal in student life across the country—a hike in mess bills—had become a political lightning rod. Large sections of the otherwise quiescent Gujarati population—workers and ordinary middle-class people—joined the students in the protest. All this had happened at just about the time a similar student protest had broken out in Bihar against corruption. What is notable is that these protests were coordinated across the country by a politician of long standing, Jayaprakash Narayan. Civil society—students, workers, lawyers and others—may have formed the backbone of the protests but they were spearheaded by a politician.
The interesting part of the story is that these protests marked the beginning of events that finally led to the Emergency of 1975. But even when the protests began, there was no threat to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Government or her personal popularity. Months before the Gujarat protests, India had carried out a peaceful nuclear explosion, an event that marked the apogee of her popularity as a political leader. For Indira Gandhi, 1971 to 1974 was a clear period of political popularity and ascendancy. Then suddenly, within the span of a year, everything had unravelled. Galloping inflation, especially for food and essential items, gave an issueless opposition something to protest against a leader who was otherwise impregnably secure.
With a rudderless main opposition party, the opposition space has withered away. Akhilesh Yadav chooses to tweet occasionally from the confines of his home. The blue pachyderm-driven revolution is supine. BSP chief Mayawati held a rare press conference days after the merger of its Rajasthan unit with the Congress. Formal opposition to the central government has wound up operations
Another decade passed before political turbulence rocked a different Congress Government, this time under Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister. The Bofors case is well-known in the annals of Indian corruption scandals. Controversies and disagreements around the arms deal led then Defence Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh to quit the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet. To be fair, the tipping point was the HDW Submarine deal wherein there were allegations of kickbacks to middlemen. Singh first created the Jan Morcha immediately after his exit. This nascent formation was then expanded into the umbrella Janata Dal—an amalgam of other Janata Parivar parties—which contested the 1989 General Election that led to the ouster of the Congress from power. But in no time, VP Singh himself ran into political trouble when he tried to consolidate his base among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) by implementing the recommendations of the BP Mandal Commission. It was a report that had been ‘filed and forgotten’ much like other reports. But the ambitious Singh thought he could dust it off and implement affirmative action without any political consequence. Instead, the issue galvanised the then politically irrelevant middle class of India. The ultimate gainer of Singh’s misadventure was the BJP.
In these and other such episodes of political opposition to a ruling party, the pattern has been clear. Either by miscalculation or by accumulation of political errors, the opposition builds up momentum over the course of a five-year political cycle. But the actual work of opposing the government always lies in the hands of some political party, be it national or regional. This pattern began eroding soon after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in May 2014 but has dramatically accelerated since May 2019 when he returned to form the Government in New Delhi for a second time.
ANY POLITICAL party that forms a new government seeks to fulfil its electoral mandate by various measures available to it. One big area is the passage of new laws in Parliament. It is normal for Parliament to debate and discuss Bills that are introduced. There is always some give-and-take between the treasury and opposition benches but ultimately the fate of the Bill—its content and whether it becomes law—depends on who commands the majority in the two Houses. For the BJP, too, this was—and remains—the chosen path for implementing its promises. The opposition lacks numerical strength in Lok Sabha and very often is unable to coordinate its act in the Upper House. In contrast to its first term, the BJP Government has been able to pass some of the most momentous pieces of legislation in its second innings.
But the story and the script in its case have turned out to be very different and there has been a major twist in the tale. If the opposition has been unable to stall legislation, activist lawyers have donned the mantle of ‘opposition’ and challenged virtually every important law passed by the Modi Government in the Supreme Court. First off the block, the 99th Amendment to the Constitution, which enabled the creation of the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC), was quickly challenged in the apex court. The Amendment was cleared by both Houses on August 13th and 14th, 2014 and, a little over a year later, in October 2015, the apex court declared it unconstitutional. This was a major piece of judicial reform but what was acceptable to Parliament was not acceptable to activist lawyers.
Since then, this list has grown considerably. The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act was passed in March 2016 and, sure enough, it landed in the Supreme Court fairly quickly. The court upheld its constitutionality in 2018. Again, the Bill passed muster in Parliament but the ‘opposition’ to it came from elsewhere. One major source of corruption in India was from the leaky services and benefits delivery pipeline. The law was one of the measures meant to plug it. It was challenged on an unrelated ground: privacy.
The problem is not with the laws but with those who seek to oppose the government by any means. The time for such ‘activism’, however, is running out. The higher judiciary is an institution that is alive to its role being abused by those who petition it and realises the legitimate role of the executive. Much of the current frustration with the Apex Court stems from this changed situation
An entire volume can be written on attempts at this sort of ‘legal politics’. It is sufficient to note that almost every piece of legislation and legislative action that has national ramifications has been challenged in court. The latest law to be challenged is the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. In between, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019, abrogation of Article 370, delaying tactics in the Ram Mandir case and a number of other cases that had political overtones were subjected to judicial review. To be fair to the apex court, it dealt with these cases fair and square. The problem lies with ‘lawyerly activism’ and not the much-maligned ‘judicial activism’.
Then there is a group of retired civil servants that routinely tags its names to virtually any petition that goes against the Government. It does not matter what the subject matter is: from economic grievances to space policy, this group has ‘expertise’ in virtually everything. This also passes off as activism.
Judicial review is a key feature of the Indian Constitution. But should every law be subject to judicial review? At one time, such reviews were undertaken when there was some major flaw in the law, or the law on the face of it ran afoul of the Constitution. But surely not every law is unconstitutional that it requires such scrutiny in a forum outside the one where it was passed? The problem is not with these laws but with those who seek to oppose the Government by any means. The time for such ‘activism’, however, is running out. The higher judiciary is an institution that is alive to its role being abused by those who petition it and realises the legitimate role of the executive. Much of the current frustration with the apex court among a section of lawyers stems from this changed situation.
This ‘activism’ did not spring out of the blue. There were earlier instances of such activism as well but these were not geared towards political ends. This process began with the formation of the National Advisory Council (NAC) in the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government. The NAC was an extra-constitutional body where many important pieces of legislation were first drafted. Later, they were introduced in Parliament. The Right to Information (RTI) law was first discussed and drafted there. As was the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) (later the Mahatma Gandhi NREGA), the Right to Education Act and the Food Security Bill.
The ‘activism’ did not spring out of the blue. This process began with the formation of the National Advisory Council. In 2012, the NAC suggested something called pre-legislative security of potential bills to be introduced in Parliament. It was a ham-handed attempt to bypass parliament. There are close parallels between what the NAC did then and what ‘lawyerly activism’ does today
MATTERS WENT almost out of hand when, in 2012, the NAC suggested something called pre-legislative scrutiny of potential Bills to be introduced in Parliament. It said: “The need for such a policy of consultation is necessary to evolve from a representative democracy to a participatory, deliberative democracy, particularly for accountability to the people in the formulation of law and policy.” It was a ham-handed attempt to bypass Parliament even if the NAC denied that it was doing that.
There are close parallels between what the NAC did then and what ‘lawyerly activism’ does today. In both cases, the attempt is to bypass democratically established majorities in Parliament. In that era, it was coalitions; now it is a solid legislative phalanx under one party. A certain kind of elite in India—leftist or liberal in orientation and removed from India’s national interest—has always displayed suspicion towards the ‘masses’. This is not an oxymoron: the leftist elite tolerates the masses as long as they conform to its worldview. This includes ideas such as secularism, destructive federalism (as opposed to the rational variant based on the provision of local public goods) and other ideas. The moment Indians at large display preference for a different set of ideas, alarm bells begin ringing. ‘Countervailing institutions’ like the NAC and, in recent years, attempts to rope in the Supreme Court as such an institution point to this extra-parliamentary politics that sought to neuter the ‘people’s will’ as embodied in a parliamentary majority.
It is noteworthy that many of the UPA-era projects, including the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and the MGNREGA, have not been abandoned by this Government. If anything, allocations under these laws have gone up and they remain active. For example, during the chaotic migration of workers in the weeks after the national lockdown was imposed, food security of migrant workers was a key concern among many policymakers and activists. Notwithstanding the dislocation, the Government quickly swung into action and ensured that foodgrain supplies reached the poor. States were provided ample stock of food as the Food Corporation of India had abundant supplies. There is plenty at hand with the states to last until December. So far, there has been no report of hunger or any other kind of food emergency among the poor. But there has not been a whimper of appreciation from economist-activists such as Reetika Khera and others who criticise the Government for any shortcoming.
Matters have now gone far beyond bickering over the enactment of laws and getting the Government to follow a policy agenda set outside. Now, even simple matters like the publication of books unpalatable to liberal opinion are fair game.
Recently, Bloomsbury India ‘cancelled’ a forthcoming book. Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story by Monika Arora, Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra looked at the Delhi riots of February this year. The problem appeared to build up when, during a pre-publication event, Kapil Mishra, a controversial local leader, made a virtual address. Soon, Bloomsbury India issued a statement that said: ‘In view of very recent events, including a virtual pre-publication launch organised without our knowledge by the authors, with participation by parties of whom the publishers would not have approved, we have decided to withdraw publication of the book.’
The reality was that a section of liberal writers reportedly worked behind the scenes to exert pressure on Bloomsbury India to withdraw the publication of the book. A series of tweets issued by dramatis personae clearly stated that. Since then, a controversy has broken out on the nature of freedom of expression and whether it rests on a superior pedestal for left-liberals and for people of other ideologies only at the mercy of the former. Very often it is asserted that the ruling party and its supporters have ‘vitiated’ the atmosphere in India and that public discourse has ‘coarsened’ beyond repair. But the Bloomsbury controversy has injected such poison into India’s public space that it is clear that a culture war, which until recently just bubbled away harmlessly, is now part and parcel of political opposition by other means.
Perhaps the most damaging role has been played by the media. The one-sidedness of coverage on ‘Hindu’ issues is now too glaring to be ignored. When a lynching happens and the perpetrators are Hindus, blame is heaped on the community generously. But when the victims happen to be Hindu, the blame and the outrage vanish quickly. A case in point is the lynching of two sadhus at Gadchinchale village in Palghar district of Maharashtra in April this year.
This is a remote village on the border of Maharashtra and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. On that evening, the two sadhus—Kalpavrukshagiri and Sushilgiri Maharaj—had stopped at the forest checkpoint. In no time, a flash mob surrounded and lynched them along with their driver. The issue was played down as one caused by WhatsApp rumours about child kidnappers being active in the area. No amount of pleading by the two saved them. What is instructive is that, in the days that followed, there was no outrage in the media as in other similar instances where headlines played out for weeks and op-eds and analyses dominated the proceedings. Grim warnings about ‘majoritarianism’ and the danger to democracy usually accompany the coverage. In this instance, because the two persons belonged to the ‘wrong’ religion, the attention was lukewarm.
With the ‘woke’ crowd raised through self-indulgence occupying the entire anti-Government space, the ‘registered’ opposition is certain to find itself on the margins for many months to come.