By Bhanu Dhamija

Voices are becoming louder by the day that India’s government needs a strong opposition. But there seems to be none on the horizon. This has been the case for most of India’s independent history.

Instead of nurturing Opposition parties, India’s political system actually harms them. The BJP is the only success story. This party overcame India’s systemic challenges, and therein lies the hope for India’s new opposition.

How Opposition Movement Against Congress Fizzled

Many well-meaning efforts made in the early years of India’s Independence to provide opposition to the ruling Congress party ended as total failures. These attempts were not made by small men, inexperienced or politically un-savvy. Consider for example the Swatantra Party, started by C Rajagopalachari and KM Munshi in 1959.

Both were stalwarts of India’s freedom movement and right-hand men for Nehru and Patel. Rajagopalachari was Nehru’s first choice to be India’s president, and Munshi was the Congress party’s chief lieutenant in the Constituent Assembly. They formed the Swatantra Party to provide an alternative to Congress’s growing statism. Rajagopalachari said their party stood for “the protection of the individual citizen against the increasing trespasses of the state. It is an answer to the challenge of the so-called socialism of the Indian Congress Party.”

Such a centre-right party was desperately needed in India’s polity. The Swatantra Party made good electoral progress. In its first general election it emerged as the second biggest party, ahead of the Communist Party, Socialist Party, and Jan Sangh. By 1967, it had 9.6 percent of the votes nationwide and 44 seats in Parliament. But by 1974, the party had disappeared.

Similar is the story of many other opposition movements. The Socialist Party formed by Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia lasted only 20 years; the Kisan Majdoor Party by Acharya Kriplani merged with socialists within two years; the Republican Party started by BR Ambedkar fragmented into many factions soon after his death in 1956.

Factors that Hinder Growth of Robust Opposition

India is unable to produce robust Opposition parties or leaders due to several features of its system of government. At least six fundamental problems come to mind:

First, by not giving Opposition parties any power whatsoever, our system ensures that they don’t last.

By design, and in the name of efficiency, the parliamentary system keeps the Opposition toothless. It can make speeches, ask questions in Parliament, or walk out. But it cannot pass legislation, affect government programmes, or influence executive officials.
This makes the members of the Opposition useless to their constituents. Within a short while, they begin to lose support.

Second, our system grants power to parties, not to individual MPs. This causes fragmentation of the Opposition. Ambitious Opposition leaders must form their own outfits to bargain with the ruling party and come to power. Small local and regional parties proliferate.

Third, India’s system impairs the Opposition by driving them to vote banks and extremism. To stay relevant and avoid breakups, parties begin to represent one special interest, caste, or religion. They inflame the feelings of their constituents, make outrageous promises, and breed hatred of other groups. Since in the parliamentary system, there are no nationwide elections, parties don’t have to come together on a centrist programme.

Fourth, our system also doesn’t help Opposition parties acquire good leaders or become strong organisations. Most parties stay small due to the reasons cited above, and thus remain one-man shows.

Even larger parties are under no pressure to decentralise, hold internal elections, or select candidates through primary elections. Hence, they produce poor leaders and function like dynasties.

Fifth, our system doesn’t provide Opposition parties with institutions to hone their skills. Unlike the UK, India’s Opposition is not offered a shadow Cabinet, or opportunities to pass private member bills. So the Opposition always lacks an agenda, and its members become party hacks adept only at bluster.

And last but perhaps worst, India’s system allows the ruling party to scare the Opposition into submission. The use of the CBI, tax, and other government agencies against Opposition leaders is commonplace. This harms their reputation and scares good people away from politics.

How BJP Overcame Systemic Challenges

It is for these reasons that it took the BJP 60 years to become a strong party and come to power. Its precursor, the Jan Sangh, took three decades only to be a part of the failed Janata Party coalition in 1977. Even in its new incarnation, the BJP was down to two seats in Parliament in 1984. It was only after the 1989 Ayodhya movement that the party came to prominence.

The BJP had two key strengths that the other parties lacked: an ideology that could rally the majority Hindu population, and a grassroots organisation in the RSS. Since 1925, the RSS was systematically mobilising Hindu youth into an institution.

Strength, it should be remembered, comes only through organisation.
KB Hedgewar, founder of RSS

These fundamental strengths allowed the BJP to survive and grow. It was able to rely on the RSS organisation and support without being in power. It didn’t fragment because individual leaders came from RSS ideology and depended on that institution.

It didn’t have to chase a vote bank because it already represented the biggest vote bank, the Hindu majority. And it had no dearth of leaders, because the RSS training provided ideologues with organisational skills.

Lessons for New Opposition

The BJP’s success points to factors that are necessary for new Opposition in India to emerge. It must have a centrist ideology that appeals to the majority of the people. It must be supported by a rank-and-file organisation, with a decentralised structure. It must practice internal democracy to bring up good leaders. And it must have a practical agenda, with good slogans.

A broad ideology is the first requirement. Such a vision must appeal to minorities as well as Hindus. The existing formula of anti-BJP parties, the so-called secularism, has lost its appeal. The new Opposition must believe in true secularism, rooted in uniform laws and separation of religion and state.

Similarly, socialism is passé. For any new opposition to succeed, it must propagate a new political creed, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire.

Sadly for the country, however, India’s new Opposition should expect no help from her current system of government. And while change may be in the air, such a fundamental change requires consensus, and hard work over a long stretch of time.


(The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija )

This article was first published on The Quint on 02 October 2017