The Crumbling Pillar of Opposition Parties


Democracy in the post-world war era is understood as a form of government which permits rotation of power. For democracy to thrive, it requires incumbents to lose elections from time to time. When reelection is guaranteed, ruling parties do not see any incentives to respond to public opinions or ensure the general welfare. Such structures even witness a deterioration of human rights, particularly those relating to the rights of minorities. Lack of rotation of power also leads to increasing levels of clientelism and corruption. Only with effective opposition parties can a rotation of powers be achieved.

Nevertheless, that is not the only reason democracy needs opposition parties. Beyond facilitating a rotation of political power, opposition parties have several responsibilities and roles in a democracy. First, the presence and effectiveness of the opposition parties can confer greater legitimacy to the government. Second, opposition parties also aid in improving governmental functioning by raising objections to the policies and actions of the government. Lastly, opposition parties can be one of the most vital safeguards for ensuring that democracy does not erode or backslide to variants of authoritarianism. When opposition parties have made use of their institutional leverages proficiently, they have successfully thwarted a ruling party’s attempts to entrench their political power. Democracy depends on the efficacy of opposition parties.

In many parts of the world, opposition parties are rendered impotent due to incumbents who seek to consolidate power by such actions as manipulating parliamentary procedures, rigging electoral systems, and co-opting institutions of regulation and oversight. Yet, at times, opposition parties fail to play their part to ensure their survival. Considering how central opposition parties are to democracy, it is imperative to discuss why oppositions fail and what they can do to endure.

We take the case of the opposition parties in the largest democracy in the world, India, with a hope to provide a catalyst for discussions on opposition parties in the broader comparative context.

Ever since winning the 2014 parliamentary elections, the National Democratic Alliance (“NDA”), the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (“BJP”) led coalition, has been spreading its branches across India and establishing provincial governments in state after state. They even easily obtained a second term in the Parliament by cruising to a landslide victory in 2019 wherein they won almost sixty-two percent of the total seats. Despite some state election losses in the last year, their power in India remains unscathed. The historically powerful Indian National Congress (“INC”) has been reduced to a fraction of what it used to be. Even though it is the second largest party in India today, it holds less than 10 percent of the seats in the Parliament. The opposition in India includes several regional parties as well, but most of them have similarly been diminished in strength. Currently, the ideological landscape in India has been monopolised by the BJP’s Hindutva driven nationalist ideology. This has resulted in opposition parties frequently toeing the government’s line on decisive issues like the inauguration of the temple on a contested Mosque demolition site, the retraction of autonomy of a Muslim majority state, and the criminalisation of the Islamic practice of triple talaq. In such a scenario, what the opposition offers to the bulk of the populace is just a weaker version of the ruling coalition. It would be an understatement to say that this political and ideological environment for opposition politics is prone to give way to their disintegration. Nevertheless, the opposition parties have also not done much to help their cause.

To start with, a critical reason for the weak position of the opposition is their lack of coordination. According to disgruntled opposition party members, there has been little to no attempt at introspection regarding the enormous failure in various state elections and the 2019 parliamentary elections. Additionally, since the 2019 parliamentary elections, the INC has remained without a full-time leader. It is currently being run on an interim basis by Sonia Gandhi, a member of the dynastic Gandhi-Nehru family that has held consistent command of the INC since 1947. The effusive letters by her son, the ex-President of the INC Rahul Gandhi, and the statements by her daughter Priyanka Gandhi have not actualised to create a robust, non-dynastic organisational culture in the grand old party. There seem to be no attempts to carry out reforms in sight. Instead, the senior leaders who sought organisational reforms through elections to party leadership positions were victimised and sidelined. The situation with the INC is illustrative of the bigger problem with the regional parties that make up the opposition. Several of these regional parties are embroiled in their own dynastic politics and have their prominent leaders charged with serious cases of corruption and other wrongdoings. In this context, it is worth noting that during the COVID-19 pandemic, certain opposition-ruled state governments suffered destabilisation and even collapse.

Beyond the internal problems, there is another reason why the opposition in India is floundering. As mentioned, opposition parties are frequently siding with the ruling coalition on significant issues. As a result, they are not providing a concrete ideological alternative to the BJP that the electorate can consider and vote for. While there are routine criticisms of the government’s economic policies, the main policy questions remain unsettled on the part of the opposition. Moreover, not only are opposition parties not providing an ideological alternative, but their lack of a unified front is providing no alternative at all. There has been an extreme unwillingness on the part of the opposition parties to keep ambitions for the premiership aside and strengthen coalitions. This has been demonstrated in the apparent hesitation to build alliances in most major states. In fact, rather than forming opposition alliances, opposition party members are time and again defecting to the BJP led NDA. In contrast, the BJP led NDA has largely demonstrated an ability to build coalitions with regional parties and maintain a coherent ideological platform. All these factors weaken any claim of opposition parties to wrest political power from the BJP. The rare occasion, when in the state of Maharashtra, the INC and regional parties kept their historical differences aside and entered into a coalition, it saw them forming the state government over a rather popular BJP one. This itself shows the enormous potential a united opposition can achieve.

So, what does all this mean for opposition parties? Though the ultimate sustenance of opposition parties in India might require constitutional reforms to ensure more efficient parliamentary structures, their short-term revival would require them to pursue certain immediate strategies. There are two primary tactics that we believe opposition parties would need to follow, tactics that would go a long way in reinvigorating democracy in India. We term these tactics ‘Internal Strategies’ and ‘External Strategies’.

Internal strategies would mandate opposition parties to ensure their own health by settling inhouse conflicts, ensuring stability and ushering in more transparency and party level fairness. For example, for the INC and other regional parties, it would require them to abandon their dynastic control and conduct open and transparent elections to leadership positions. If opposition parties, want to play a part in democracy, the least they should be doing is adopting democratic practices at an internal level. Opposition parties should also make sure that there is a system in place by which divergent voices are considered in their own internal governance. These internal strategies could provide party members with a feeling that they have a say and a future in their party and reduce the number of disgruntled party members. This would go a long way in improving the health of opposition parties by incentivising opposition party members to stick with their own parties rather than defecting to the NDA alliance.

On the other hand, external strategies would warrant opposition parties to keep aside premiership and other leadership ambitions as well as develop a coherent ideological platform. Questions of who might lead the coalition in case the opposition coalition comes into power would necessitate compromises and issues to be decided in a collective and good-faith manner. Opposition parties should front leaders that present to the electorate the strongest pre-election candidate to govern the state or central government depending on the election. For ministerial posts in the government, these issues can be left for post-elections where positions can be allocated in proportion to the number of seats each member of the collation wins. The priority at all stages should be to present a united front that can compete against the might of the NDA alliance. There is strength in unity and opposition parties are to gain very little by not building alliances and deciding to go their own separate (and smaller) ways. Similarly, external strategies would also require another thing from opposition parties. It would need them to show to the electorate how they have coherent positions on important policy issues and offer something better than the NDA alliance. Currently, the primary strategy of opposition parties is to try and get elected based on anti-incumbency sentiments. Although this might work at times, it surely is not a viable strategy to defeat the NDA alliance. Opposition parties should develop clear ideological platforms like the NDA alliance and present to the electorate a viable alternative that they could choose to vote for.

The strategies that are presented above might even be relevant beyond India’s borders as well, as opposition parties exhibit similar problems in many democracies around the world. Calibrating these internal and external strategies could be a useful tool for opposition parties if they hope to replace incumbents. If democracies are ever to overcome their manifold challenges of governance, improving the robustness of opposition parties will be vital to their survival. Opposition parties must reclaim lost ground before it is too late.

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