Why India now needs a new kind of Opposition

As the Narendra Modi juggernaut rolls on, and the national elite joins the game of musical chairs around him, desperate to be accepted, the question almost lost in the popular imagination is what happens to the Opposition? The so-called experts are already behaving as if the Modi Sarkar will last at least for 10 years. There is almost a psychological sense of defeat which is embarrassing. It’s as if the Congress and CPI(M) are unemployed. Their failure hardly commands attention, not even a footnote as Amit Shah unfolds his plan to “capture” West Bengal. A BJP presence in Kerala or Bengal would have been unbelievable 10 years ago. Today, it appears inevitable as the Opposition has virtually disappeared. Every time Rahul Gandhi launches a campaign, all it invites is a snigger at his Boy Scout attempts to challenge Mr Modi.

The BJP’s strategic initiatives are undoubtedly impressive, but the danger is that its majoritarianism isn’t inclusive. The marginals, minorities, ethnic groups and the displaced have no place in such politics. The BJP’s electoral ultimatum is clear: “be like us to be us”. It’s a party that is erasing differences to secure an absolute majority.

The BJP’s dominance goes far beyond electoral politics. What the BJP does through the State, the RSS and VHP do with civil society. The BJP must be seen in two hyphenated parts — a majoritarian dream come true electorally and a civil society nightmare. The rise of moral policing, food vigilantism and jingoistic rhetoric has virtually destroyed the possibility of a creative opposition from society.

Worse, the very idea of an Opposition is embalmed in old oppositional categories. The old idea was based on a dichotomous view of the world, like a Manichean definition between left and right, Marxist and capitalist. This doesn’t allow a third option for alternatives, and sees politics as a zero-sum game. If one does a critique of the Modi Sarkar today, his supporters immediately attack you as a left-liberal. A dream of a third way of thinking is virtually destroyed. The classifications and categories don’t permit it.

Today our sense of an Opposition is closed. The majority Indian who thinks he/she is aspirational is a supporter of law and order. He/she wants stability in the markets and in law and order to pursue private interests. Opposition means chaos and anarchy, and almost seditious! In the clash between minority/majority or left/right, only one category can survive. Such an approach to the idea of an Opposition seals off a universe. Civil society becomes empty, majoritarian groups more authoritarian, as the minorities and “marginals” feel threatened.

To create a new idea of the Opposition, one must think of differences and diversity in a new way. Difference demands polysemy, diversity a worldview where either/or are a sign of impoverishment. One must see diversity not just in politics but in consumption, lifestyle, religion… This crisscrossing set of alliances creates a broader set of worldviews, out of which political coalitions are born. Dichotomies or even the mechanical idea of a two-party system impoverish the idea of the Opposition in India.

The idea of diversity and alternatives provides a whole repertoire of possibilities for a society. Plural societies need a theory of opposition beyond dichotomies. That is why the idea of the Opposition must go beyond the party level and encompass many layers of civil society. Mr Modi, Amit Shah and the RSS are shrewd enough to understand that it’s the innovative power of civil society that can defeat the BJP. The RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal in fact pretend to represent civil society while trying to prop up the regime through vigilantism and kangaroo courts.

A populist majoritarianism is close to brutal authoritarianism. The Modi Sarkar, through its policies is seeping into the intimacy of homes, destroying the autonomy of the body, legislating on food, and deciding who is a preferred citizen. It’s trying to alter and control worldviews while pretending it has been a victim of history for decades. A creeping totalitarianism pretending to be an electoral machine can undermine the fabric of our democratic way of life.

Today our sense of Opposition must go beyond the old logic of dichotomy to include a greater diversity. We need a new imagination, where the idea of defeat should move from a winner-take-all logic to the idea of a majority that allows for side bets, alternative histories, where politics is a quilt patch of ontologies, lifestyles and livelihoods, where difference is inbuilt into every layer of society. Such a holistic idea of Opposition, of difference, creates a plural world where hegemony is a more remote possibility. One of the most exciting ideas in this contest was suggested by ecologist C.S. Holling. He proposed the idea of “panarchy” — a life form that is opposed to the idea of hierarchy, where order and opinions are centralised. In the latter, decision-making mechanically flows down various levels. Panarchy challenges this centralised worldview by claiming different levels of life need different forms of knowledge and decision-making. The logic of life and knowledge is difference. In such a view, the Opposition is not a necessary evil but the lifeblood of a political system. We need such a theory of knowledge in the processes of our politics.

Ironically, political scientist Rajni Kothari had showed that the Congress in its original form was a coalition of such juxtaposed differences. It lost its sense of a plural self after Indira Gandhi and the Emergency.

Today one must revive and reinvent this plural imagination. This also demands we re-examine concepts like democracy, nation state and citizenship for their hegemonic bias. It’s clear that the old model of liberal politics is inadequate.

The sorry state of the Congress and CPI(M) today is an invitation to posit, invent and create a new world of differences, to make democracy more promising.


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