Building a Political Opposition Is No Laughing Matter

Shallow engagement with politics and constitutionalism is the biggest danger for the country right now.

One of the most-often-heard opinions about Indian politics is the ‘lack’ of a strong opposition.

What a strong opposition means is, of course, not something that is easily intelligible. If the role of an opposition is to bring out the shortcomings of the government and to present an alternative ideological vision and a political programme, then we do have a strong opposition. If, however, a strong opposition is one which can match the government PR stunt for PR stunt, then we emphatically do not have a strong opposition.

The reason that this term, the strong opposition, is to be understood and engaged with is because of the frequency with which it is used. While in the immortal words of Otto Von Bismarck, politics may be “the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best”, in the media-centric view of politics, politics is nothing but the art of the most pithy comeback.

Being faced with a government whose ideological project is to replace the country’s constitutional values with its own mixture of feudal and authoritarian ideas, there is a vociferous oppositional voice which seeks to oppose the government. This oppositional voice is made up of the members and supporters of the political opposition and also a large number of people who identify ideologically with various shades of oppositional opinion, as also those who are simply in disagreement with the government and what it is doing.

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It is in this last category of people, the ideologically unaffiliated, that the cry of ‘no strong opposition’ is heard the loudest. It is, of course, for every individual to stipulate their political preferences and to accordingly bestow the gift of their political loyalty. What is, however, damaging to the oppositional cause are the parameters used for judging what a strong opposition is, and what a strong opposition should be.

The tendency to earmark stand-up comedians, actors and social media personalities as ‘the real opposition’ in the perceived absence of a strong political opposition helps swerve the narrative towards the government. This is not so only in India but across the world. To use the UK and the US as examples, the post-2000 rise of satirical news shows (and comedy panel shows in the UK) as the most prominent anti-conservative voices has led to a situation where all earnestness, all sincerity has come to be viewed as suspicious. Worse, sincerity has come to be seen as a demerit whether it be in Rahul Gandhi, Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders.

Satire is useful, even imperative, for any society, to question and to renew itself from time to time. It, however, makes for very unhealthy politics by itself. One of the reasons that the likes of Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson and of course, Donald Trump, have been able to come to power is because they are now seen as ‘straight talkers’, lampooning the establishment, raging against the machine. If rich, liberal commentators can do it, why not the illiberal rich?

Lost in this consumerist view of politics, which rates political effectiveness on the basis of entertainment value, is the genuine political debate. The satirist can point out the absurdity of the rich demanding more from the poor, and the purveyors of violence posing as apostles of peace, but in reducing the criticism to a joke or a sound-byte, the depth of the required criticism is destroyed. After all, who needs a lecture on the MNREGA when you can simply laugh at a meme of how ‘2002’ can be so easily rearranged to ‘2020’.

Shallow engagement with politics and constitutionalism is the biggest danger for the country right now. Any opposition party, any civil society group actually working with the people, any organisation actually willing to engage with the issues that are required to be engaged with, can be a vehicle for opposition politics. An opposition is strong when people join it. The government needs to be contested, and political power needs to be won through elections to protect the country and the constitution. This requires serious engagement, not constant retweeting of jokes about the prime minister.

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Expectations from those in the opposition are that they should be able to hold up a mirror to what the government is doing and to ask the voter two questions: whether the government is performing well and whether the opposition can perform better. This is done through parliamentary debates, questions and protests as well as debates, questions and protests outside parliament.

There is, however, a very strong tendency to discount these political methods as irrelevant. The average middle-class citizen, or consumer of politics, if one may be a bit judgmental, does not see the protests, dharnas, rallies organised by the opposition. The middle class neither participates in these, and the venue of such activities is also usually removed from urban middle-class spaces.

The middle-class consumer of politics gets their information from television, increasingly buttressed by social media. When the mainstream media resolves to show a one-sided story, repeated ad nauseam by the channels on social media and their popular anchors’ social media accounts, there is an acceptance of the untruths propagated by the government. There is no more pernicious untruth than the propaganda that the opposition is ineffective.

The effectiveness of the opposition lies in raising the right questions. We are still not at a stage in this country where people do not know what the issues with the current dispensation are. Whether the issue be corruption, communalism or a general lack of competence, the issues are well-known. Where the criticism of the lack of a strong opposition comes in is that nothing the opposition does reflects the lustre that the government seems to easily achieve for its most mundane activities.

Politics is a serious business, and deserves to be taken seriously. Witty comments about the government’s tendency to make grandstanding announcement without notice (usually at the hallowed time of 8 pm) serve no purpose. The BJP and the RSS’s foot soldiers work on the field to spread its propaganda and to actually deliver promised benefits to the people that they are intended for. The fact that these schemes are not well-designed and that after the initial enthusiastic rush, this government has a weak record of keeping these schemes going are also facts that have to be communicated to the voter.

Opposition politics needs the vast numbers of social media users and commentators to be willing to work with the people. Otherwise, the party of social justice and progressive politics will keep losing to the party of communal politics. Having reached a stage where BJP leaders are openly speaking out against the constitution, there is no choice but to coalesce around the political opposition. Those who choose to do so will find the opposition to be a lot stronger than they imagined it to be.

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As long as their engagement with politics remains superficial, these vast numbers of potential social media allies will only be marginally effective. The opposition in general, and the Congress in particular, needs these allies. The current oppositional project, most clearly articulated by the Congress, is to end the perceived erosion of constitutional values and the constitutional structure. Until the political conversation reflects this as the real political battlegrounds for our times, the government’s PR machinery will continue to have an upper hand.

Of course, the recent anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests have brought out this cleavage between the government and the opposition very clearly. It is the articulation of the anti-CAA argument, as a fundamental constitutional issue, by the Congress and other opposition parties which was adopted by the protesters. Their energy on the ground added to the parliamentary opposition that resulted in a coherent critique and opposition of the CAA and the NRC.

To put it bluntly, the opposition needs social media users to become activists, protesters and politicians. Social media critics and activists also need to recognise that the purported weakness of the opposition is a propaganda campaign by the government.  It is time that they also also reach out and continue this conversation.

Sarim Naved is a lawyer in Delhi.