SURRENDER WITHOUT A FIGHT
Rattled by the Lok Sabha poll defeat, a demoralised opposition appears to have ceded all space to the ruling dispensation— both in and outside Parliament
An incoherent and divided opposition is giving the BJP-led government a walkover—both in and outside Parliament
DDURING PARLIAMENT’S BUDGET SESSION,
the Narendra Modi government introduced four contentious bills—the RTI (Amendment) Bill, the Aadhaar and Other Laws (Amendment) Bill, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, which renders instant triple talaq illegal, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill. Almost all the opposition parties and some allies of the ruling BJP, such as the Janata Dal (United), raised concerns about the proposed new laws. Yet, the government has successfully steered the first three bills through both houses of Parliament and the fourth is also unlikely to face any resistance. The BJP has a brute majority in the Lok Sabha—303 in a house of 543 members. With NDA allies, the strength goes up to 335. In the Rajya Sabha, the BJP and allies have 113 seats, eight short of the majority mark of 121 in the 245-member house where four seats are vacant.
The numerical strength may have given the BJP immunity from any resistance from rivals, but what’s startling is the meek surrender by opposition parties both in and outside Parliament. Despite the ritualistic Twitter protests and some forceful statements in Parliament by the likes of Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), the house saw no coherent, united or compelling counter against the ruling dispensation on several bills. Opposition parties wanted the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill sent to a select committee for greater scrutiny, but support from the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) helped the BJP avert such a motion.
Seventeen opposition parties, in a letter to vice-president and Rajya Sabha chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu, have accused the government of “hurriedly passing” legislation without parliamentary scrutiny. The letter says 60 per cent of the bills in the 14th Lok Sabha were referred to parliamentary committees. In the next one, 71 per cent of the bills went to such committees. But in the 16th Lok Sabha, when the Narendra Modi-led government came to power first, the figure dropped drastically to 26 per cent. Now, in the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha, 14 bills have been passed, but not a single one was sent to a house committee.
The Congress, the main opposition party with 52 Lok Sabha members and 46 Rajya Sabha MPs, did make some noise in Parliament. But post-May 23— when Modi shot to power for a second consecutive term with a broader mandate—an existential crisis has gripped most regional parties not officially aligned with the BJP.
This is not the first but the ninth time a single party has won over 300 seats in the Lok Sabha. The Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress won 426 seats in 1984. Under Indira Gandhi, the party crossed 370 seats twice, in 1971 and 1980. Yet these central governments were kept in check by an array of strong opposition leaders, such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, George Fernandes and Chandra Shekhar. The states, too, had iconic leaders—Jyoti Basu in West Bengal, N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, Bal Thackeray in Maharashtra and Devi Lal in Haryana.
While the BJP has monopolised the country’s political power, the legacy of other political heavyweights is almost shattered now. Most regional parties are family-run and have, of late, gone through generational transitions. But while the veterans are ailing or fading away, the inheritors look out of place in the chairs they have occupied.
In Maharashtra, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, 78, withdrew from the Lok Sabha election to accommodate grandnephew Parth in Maval constituency, a new terrain for the family, in a desperate attempt to avoid a family feud in public. The NCP’s future leadership remains undecided between Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule and nephew Ajit Pawar. Several top leaders have deserted the party and there is speculation that while Pawar may merge the NCP with the Congress after the Maharashtra assembly poll, scheduled in October, Ajit may float a new party. The NCP chief, however, dismisses the prospect. “We have seen defections in the past too. We will rebuild the party. The BJP is using central investigation agencies to pressurise our people,” he says.
In Uttar Pradesh, a nasty spat in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family caused a split, with Shivpal Yadav, one of the Samajwadi Party’s (SP’s) founding members and Mulayam’s brother, forming a splinter group that may have helped the BJP in the Lok Sabha election. SP chief Akhilesh Yadav has not won a single election since he took charge of the party in 2016. Mulayam, now 79, embarrassed his son before the Lok Sabha election by saying that he
IN THE FIRST SESSION OF THE 17TH LOK SABHA, 14 BILLS HAVE BEEN PASSED, BUT NOT A SINGLE ONE WAS SENT TO A HOUSE COMMITTEE
wished Modi would return as prime minister. Despite a much-hyped pre-Lok Sabha poll alliance with archrival Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the SP’s tally remained static at five while the BSP won 10 seats, up from zero in 2014. “The main reason for our poor performance was [our party’s] failure to explain its good policies to the people,” claims SP chief spokesperson Rajendra Chaudhary.
The increase in tally, however, did not satisfy BSP chief Mayawati and she has since broken away from the alliance. “The BSP’s tie-up with the SP didn’t work. The SP failed to transfer its votes to our party. The BSP will contest elections on its own in the future,” Mayawati said, ignoring the fact that her party’s vote share has been consistently falling since the 2007 Uttar Pradesh assembly election. Other than Mayawati, the BSP has no credible public face and may be turning into a family fiefdom. Mayawati’s brother Anand Kumar is the party’s national vice-president and his son Akash Anand is the national coordinator.
In Bihar, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav is in jail following convictions in fodder scam cases. His absence has provoked a saga of sibling rivalry being played out in public between elder son Tej Pratap and the younger Tejashwi, who runs the party. To the RJD’s embarrassment, Tejashwi stopped making public appearances soon after the RJD’s historic low—drawing a blank in the Lok Sabha election—while Tej Pratap continued with his street spectacles, periodically appearing in public dressed up as Lord Shiva.
In West Bengal, chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), the fourth largest party in Parliament with 22 seats, is still smarting from the dramatic erosion of its base, owing to an aggressive campaign by the BJP, which won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats from the state and is now gearing up to challenge the party in the 2021 assembly poll. The TMC has also suffered a series of defections of MLAs and councillors to the BJP. Banerjee, who fancied herself as a prime ministerial candidate of the opposition conglomerate in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, is now busy protecting her Bengal fortress. Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee, though, predicts a turnaround soon: “The TMC’s vote share increased by 3 per cent in the Lok Sabha poll. The BJP will be ousted in the 2020 municipality and 2021 assembly elections.”
The Left, which once monopolised Bengal and Tripura and was a strong opposition voice in Parliament, is now reduced to five MPs in the Lok Sabha. Gasping for breath in Bengal and Tripura, its only saving grace is the incumbent government in Kerala. However, if the Lok Sabha poll is any indication, the future doesn’t seem bright for the Left even in Kerala.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose politics blends Mamata’s streetfighting skills and the Left’s populism, has failed to grow beyond the Delhi assembly. In two consecutive Lok Sabha elections, it could not win a single seat from Delhi and it also failed to dethrone the BJP in the municipalities of Delhi. In Punjab, its Lok Sabha tally has gone down from four in 2014 to one. The AAP, which started as a movement against corruption, has, like most parties in India, degraded to a party built around a personality cult—that of Kejriwal.
Kejriwal’s newfound friend N. Chandrababu Naidu’s political fortunes have also taken a downturn. In Andhra Pradesh, his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) has been wiped out in both the assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Several TDP leaders moved to the BJP or Jagan Mohan Reddy’s Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP). A similar prospect now faces the Janata Dal (Secular), which lost power in Karnataka, thanks to defections by its MLAs and those of its ally Congress. The
defeat of JD(S) patriarch Deve Gowda, 86, in the Lok Sabha poll added to the humiliation.
Two anti-BJP parties that have seen an upswing in 2019 are the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the National Conference (NC). Both drew a blank in 2014, but in 2019, the DMK won 23 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu while the NC won three of the six Lok Sabha seats from Jammu and Kashmir. Both parties, however, owe their turnarounds to the disintegration of their rivals and the BJP’s failure to make inroads into their turf. In Tamil Nadu, the death of former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa in 2016, infighting and lacklustre leadership hit the ruling All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), now a BJP ally.
In J&K, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) saw a dramatic erosion of its core base after it joined hands with the BJP to form the state government in 2014. The alliance is over and Mehbooba Mufti, who took charge after PDP founder and father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death in 2016, lacks a decisive grip over the party. Afflicted by desertions, the PDP failed to win any Lok Sabha seat this time. Party spokesperson Suhail Bukhari, however, says: “The PDP has a viable self-rule document to bring J&K out of this political morass. We face challenges but are certain that our agenda is going to attract people.”
And then there are regional forces that have maintained a ‘neutral’ position, a ploy to strike deals with the Centre to serve their states’ interests. In Odisha and Telangana respectively, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) faced challenges from the BJP in the Lok Sabha poll, but both swept to a majority in the assembly polls. BJD chief and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik and his Telangana counterpart K. Chandrashekar Rao remain vocal opponents of the BJP at the state level, but are eyeing hard bargains with the Centre in exchange for their support in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA is short of a majority. Andhra Pradesh chief minister and YSRCP chief Jagan
Mohan Reddy has adopted the same policy though he has more bargaining power since the BJP is a non-starter in the state.
The opposition parties are headed for a deep leadership crisis. Most of them are staring at the retirement of heavyweights who earned their spurs in mass movements or intense political battles. The likely inheritors have no such experience. What makes the job easier for the BJP is that the control of several anti-BJP parties is shifting to inept or inexperienced dynasts. But that also offers the saffron party a lesson of its own. Vajpayee and Advani nurtured a range of second generation of leaders, such as Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Narendra Modi. In the Modi era, the prime minister outshines everyone else, leaving a huge leadership vacuum. The party still has at least five years to fix that gap. ■