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Negative Politics: OPPOSITION FOR SAKE OF IT, By Dr S Saraswathi, 17 August,2017 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 17 August 2017

Negative Politics


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


In the midst of political churning preceding presidential and vice-presidential elections, a   thought-provoking comment was heard from some leaders that there is no point in supporting the losing party or the candidate. Such an idea is of course not new, but its manifold significance in the context of current politics is gradually unfolding its full implications.


Similar position has often been taken by voters mostly in State Assembly elections. By-elections generally go in favour of the ruling party due mostly to the obvious benefit of supporting the the party in power. This is indeed strange logic in support of winning party and against losers at any time in any election. But, Indian elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies have often produced waves of ebbs and flows that last without change for some years. Thereafter, the waves continue though the positions of parties in the wave may change.


When the change occurs, it generally comes wholesale, that is, as a decisive verdict. Several instances in Parliament and Assembly elections may be cited. The change is partly due to another tendency of voters to apply their choice alternatively or after some gap as if votes are gifts or donations to the needy. “Last time, I voted for X Party and this time, I will vote for Y Party”, is often heard from voters assuming to be fair and unbiased in casting their vote!


Anti-incumbency is a common phenomenon going against ruling parties -- a factor that is devoid of political or policy support. In this scenario, there are a few confirmed supporters for some parties like traditional Congress supporters or people who have undergone ideological conversion to Bharatiya philosophy, who form the core supporters to their respective parties, and some adventurists attracted by vehement campaigning of newcomers with some specific agenda like fighting corruption.


Opposition unity is a familiar strategy adopted in Indian politics to oust well-entrenched ruling party/coalition. One of the earliest instances was the anti-Congress alliance formed by the efforts of Rajaji in 1967 in the then Madras State which brought the DMK to power.


It was then a simple arithmetical calculation to pool anti-Congress votes and had no positive ideological base. The alliance included the extreme rightist Swatantra Party as well as the leftist Marxist Communist (in the days prior to the breakup of the USSR) neither of them nursing any ambition to form the government. It is still the best example of “Opposition Unity” as it successfully ended Congress rule in Tamil Nadu from which the grand old party has still not come out though half a century has passed. Congress is forced to remain a junior party to a regional party and at one point to even refrain from Assembly elections for a few seats in Parliament.


In the case of Tamil Nadu, Opposition to the DMK came from within itself and the rise of another regional party. The Congress could not bring about Opposition unity. Since then, the politics of alliances has become the chief feature of Indian elections. Several terms have come into vogue – Grand Alliance, United Front, National Front, Third Front, United Progressive Alliance, National Democratic Alliance, Mahaghatbandhan, Secular Front, and so on.

Opposition Unity brought about by the merger of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Congress (O), Swatantra Party, Janata Morcha, Bharatiya Lok Dal, Janata Dal and Socialist Party (India) against Internal Emergency and the rule of the Indira Congress was a big and quick success, but had short life due to internal conflicts. Janata failure exposes the reality of multi-party politics for a plural society.  


Opposition unity can only be an electoral strategy and that too with no consistent partners in any place. More than that, an all-India pattern has not been evolved and cannot be manufactured with the result that an ally in one State is an opponent in another at the same time. For, Opposition unity is merely a negative concept.


In the first few decades after Independence, a tendency to decry multi-party democracy was common. Two party system like the Whigs and Tories in Britain, or the Democratic and Republican Parties in the US were considered to be the models to emulate. But, it took no time to learn that unity -- ideological or practical -- cannot be artificially enforced or emergence of parties of various sizes prevented. Diversity of needs, priorities, capabilities and interests gave rise to numerous parties. A significant aspect of this is the recognition and importance gained by regional and State parties and emergence of interest-based local parties as voices to be heard and replied by people and government.


In recent past, Opposition Unity formed under the Mahagatbandhan to fight Bihar Assembly election in 2015 is most noteworthy for its success and for stemming the rapid growth of the BJP. It was an alliance of JD(U), RJD, and the Congress along with a number of smaller parties.   It raised a great hope among the anti-BJP lobby for repeat performance in other places eventually leading to the capture of the Lok Sabha in 2019. The NCP in Maharashtra started talks with the Congress for alliance for contesting Legislative Council polls.  


The Mahagatbandhan, however, has faced severe stress in recent months particularly on two occasions. A group of parties in the alliance comprising SP, BSP, NCP, JD(U), and JD(S) attended the midnight session of Parliament to mark the launch of the GST ignoring the boycott call given by the  alliance  leader -- Congress. Both JD(U) and BJD which has been attending meetings convened by the Congress extended their support to the BJP candidate against that of the Opposition.


The first reflects an issue based position taken by the members of the Grand Alliance while its leader evidently took a position guided by a blind conviction that it is the job of the Opposition to “oppose”. It is a misconception among several parties that when they occupy left side in the Assembly/Parliament, they must speak against the government of the day even if it be a matter once initiated by them.


In the second, Nitish Kumar had to choose between “Ghatbandhan Dharma” by opposing the BJP candidate or take a principled stand against corruption and dissolve the government. His decision to go with the BJP exposes that “opposition unity” has no meaning. The Mahaghatbandhan collapsed.


Opposition unity is, indeed, a negative concept and cannot be sustained long by raising the bogey of communalism or majoritarianism, or even authoritarianism. It requires an adhesive that will hold together groups nursing different ambitions. It is still to be produced. Attending meetings and parties convened by opposition leaders does not show unity of purpose. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has proved this many times.


Issue-based support by a party seems to be an Indian invention, but is meaningless. One expects that any party has to take up a responsible role on every issue without blindly supporting or   opposing. Their stand should not be pre-ordained but issue-based. But, Opposition in India very often oppose for the sake of opposition, stall proceedings of Parliament and conduct street level politics within Parliament. This very approach destroys unity.


Political parties have to learn a lot about the role of opposition parties before attempting to forge Opposition unity. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

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