Why the political opposition in India is so weak

By | April 3, 2024

Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi speaks out against the arrest of opposition leader Arvind Kejriwal during a rally organized by INDIA, an alliance formed by opposition parties, in New Delhi on March 31, 2024. Credit – Manish Swarup – AP Photo

WWhen more than two dozen opposition parties in India announced last June that they would band together as the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (or INDIA), critics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party hoped they could pose a formidable challenge to the widely popular incumbent government. But weeks before voting begins in the country’s general elections, the big-tent alliance has been torn by infighting, clashes and competing interests. Worse still, the Indian government’s crackdown on opposition has now reached what Amnesty describes as a ‘crisis point’.

“We see a situation where opposition parties are very, very weakened as elections approach,” said Anjali Bhardwaj, the founder of Satark Nagrik Sangathan, a Delhi-based citizens’ group working to promote transparency and accountability in government. “They have been attacked, their leaders have been arrested or seriously investigated, and their homes and offices are being raided.”

The latest – and perhaps most historic – blow to the opposition came on March 21, when Delhi became prime minister Arvind Kejriwal was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), a federal economic law enforcement agency, for bribery in the granting of liquor licenses to contractors in the national capital almost two years ago – charges he denies. Several others involved in the case are also in jail on corruption charges.

Kejriwal’s arrest sparked massive outrage in Delhi, with protesters taking to the streets to demand the release of one of the country’s most influential and outspoken critics of the Indian prime minister. Narendra Modi. As the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, which currently controls state governments in the National Capital Region and Punjab, he is considered a thorn in the government’s side.

The buck doesn’t stop with Kejriwal and company. India’s largest and main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has accused the government of hampering its ability to campaign by freezing its bank accounts over a 2018 tax dispute. That’s after Congress leader and party colleague Rahul Gandhi was jailed for two years got. judgment last March for defamation, which was later stayed by the Indian Supreme Court. Gandhi joined other opposition party leaders on Sunday to protest in the country’s capital, where he told the crowd that Modi was “trying match-fixing in these elections.”

While Kejriwal’s arrest is not exactly a surprise, it still raises eyebrows considering that Modi has little to fear in these elections. The Indian leader has seen a surge in popularity following the inauguration of the Ram Temple in the city of Ayodhya earlier this year, a capstone for a powerful leader who has built a large following on religious nationalism. A recent survey showed that 78% of respondents approved of Modi. Experts predict an easy victory for the BJP.

“Mr. Modi is a popular leader who has won strong support among the Hindu majority,” Bhardwaj said, “but we are also seeing a complete crackdown on political opposition and the capture of institutions.” The result is a situation where “someone who portrays himself as a strong leader is popular and then uses the machinery to stay in power,” she says.

With the elections just seventeen days away, all eyes are now on the Indian opposition to see if it can successfully raise the alarm about the prospect of a constitutional crisis. The big question, Bhardwaj says, is “how free and fair the elections are likely to be with these kinds of challenges.”

Read more: Income inequality in India is now worse than under British rule, according to a new report

The weaponization of institutions

Political experts say the main reason behind the decline in Indian opposition is that many of the key institutions essential to the functioning of democracy – such as independent media and the judiciary – have fallen into the hands of those in power.

For example, in the 2014 elections, corruption was a prominent issue in the BJP’s platform, creating a wave against the then Congress party. “Thousands of people took to the streets of Delhi to protest against corruption, and it was widely reported by the mainstream media,” Bhardwaj recalls.

But over the past decade, India’s mainstream media has largely come under the control of large corporations whose CEOs often work with the prime minister. “Given that the mainstream media is essentially an echo chamber celebrating the Modi government, it is not surprising that the opposition is struggling,” said Maya Tudor, associate professor at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford.

Even when the media discusses issues of importance to the Indian electorate, Bhardwaj says they fail to question the timing or manner in which certain events occur. For example, Kejriwal’s arrest is being portrayed in the mainstream media as if “the party in power is really serious about fighting corruption,” says Bhardwaj, while little attention has been paid to the timing of the arrest, which occurred just a few weeks ago. before the elections took place. .

The space for civil society has also been reduced through the use of different laws and institutions, which has had a chilling effect on the protest. Police have suppressed peaceful protests and jailed activists and dissidents using draconian anti-terrorism laws. The courts have largely refrained from granting bail to many of these individuals.

Federal investigative agencies such as the ED and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have worked to strengthen the government’s policies or actions by going after their critics. This is evident from a survey by the national broadcaster Indian ExpressSince 2014, about 95% of the agencies’ investigations have focused on the opposition. Under the previous government, that number was much lower, with 54% of ED and 60% of CBI investigations investigating the opposition.

As a result, Bhardwaj says that many of the issues that “would normally bother voters and capture their imagination” – such as unemployment, inflation, corruption or the incarceration of civil society leaders – “are not finding attention” among the Indian audience.

Leiders van de INDIA-alliantie houden een persconferentie in de Constitution Club om hun pact voor de komende Lok Sabha-verkiezingen bekend te maken, op 24 februari 2024 in New Delhi, India.<span class=Vipin Kumar—Hindustan Times/Getty Images” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/kwVBoWRlXMSbrZ.ch_WxKg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTYwNQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/time_72/73a91f7bd78bd73a03562e8 4c64bd571″ />

Leaders of the INDIA alliance will hold a press conference at the Constitution Club to announce their pact for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections on February 24, 2024 in New Delhi, India.Vipin Kumar – Hindustan Times/Getty Images

A united front, but broken alliances

The BJP has denied political interference to suppress the opposition, arguing that the Congress is “conveniently blaming their irrelevance on ‘financial problems’.” Yet several opposition leaders embroiled in corruption investigations have typically seen these charges dropped when they joined the ruling party. “All cases against them seem to be shelved,” says Bhardwaj.

The Wire, an Indian outlet, recently published a report showing that at least twelve opposition leaders in Indian states had joined the BJP while facing criminal charges in recent months. This is also what happened to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who switched to the BJP earlier this year, just before the ED planned to arrest him on money laundering charges.

A term has even been coined for this phenomenon. “We have come to call it the ‘washing machine effect’,” says Bhardwaj, which in turn has lent credence to the idea that opposition leaders are more interested in power over political ideology in serving their electorate.

The INDIA alliance has made little progress in presenting itself as a united front in the fight against Modi, thanks to party infighting and conflict over seat-sharing negotiations. The Congress Party, which dominated politics after India’s independence in 1947, has increasingly fielded its own candidates to fill seats in a majority of states, alienating regional parties, many of which already span state lines were in conflict with each other. This has also contributed to the loss of another critical figurehead, Mamata Banerjee – the head of the All India Trinamool Congress – who declared in January that her party would operate independently.

All of this has amounted to, at best, a feeble attempt to cast doubt on Modi’s popularity. “Oppositions prove to be most effective for incumbent governments when they coordinate one opposition candidate per district and when they are ideologically united,” says Tudor, whose research examines what electoral conditions need to be met for elections to succeed in India.

Simply put, “the opposition has not done a good job of meeting these criteria,” she says.

Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com.

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