ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Against Despair

How should the opposition avoid a slippery slope while responding to its electoral setback?


The electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is spectacular in terms of both scale and margin. However, one should refrain from offering knee-jerk or extreme reactions to it, as it might preclude serious analysis. In any case, such analysis cannot be done in a haste. It, in fact, needs to be carried out

by the stakeholders in inclusive democracy that demand on their part to take a pause and reflectively look at the election results. However, we come across frenzied jubilation from the supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi/BJP and a considerable degree of despair among the opposition. Considering the advantage of resources that the NDA could utilise for producing the victory, fairness demands we focus our attention on the conditions that seem to have led the opposition to develop a sense of despair. Privileging our attention on the post-election state of the opposition is also important particularly for the normative reason that the robust health of the opposition is so crucially important for the very life of democracy.

Arguably, the moment of despair seems to have been manifested in different forms. Within the oppositional camp, one instance of the reactions of despair is evident in the acts of self-righteous criticism, resultant advice, and blame games. It is indeed true that parties, particularly the Congress, from the opposition camp have utterly failed in terms of making a dent in the BJP’s traditional stronghold. This is evident in the increase in the number of seats it has lost in straight fights with the BJP since 2014. Its failure to build on its electoral performance in the recently held state elections in three central Indian states is a cause of serious concern, as is its inability to retain its strongholds in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Amethi. This dismal performance becomes more a matter of democratic concern, especially in the context of the absence of a non-Congress oppositional alternative in these states. It is also possible to criticise the lack of opposition unity and the responsibility of Congress therein, but the failure of the alliances of parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to build a social coalition or bloc is starkly visible in the results.

Furthermore, drawing subsidised satisfaction by pointing out a North–South divide in the BJP’s performance could be an exercise in self-deception. It is not only due to the BJP’s sweep of Karnataka and the inroads that it has made particularly in West Bengal and in Telangana, but also due to the structural limit of regionalism in posing an alternative to authoritarian majoritarianism. Another avoidable way of seeking comfort is to harp on how the total number of votes polled by the non-BJP or non-NDA parties is more. This was visible during the last five years in the frequent invocation of the 31% versus 69% rhetoric. Apart from a refusal to confront the reality of the first-past-the-post system, such rhetoric overlooks the popular legitimacy built around the BJP’s political narrative. It lapses into an arithmetical understanding of politics without broaching the problem of building counter-legitimacy.

It is also necessary for the opposition to guard against the tendencies of self-flagellation and its polar opposite: casting final judgments on the character of the public. The former makes one overlook the magnitude of the affirmative vote for the BJP. This is evident from the number of states where the BJP has won close to or more than 50% of the vote, reflected in the massive margins of victory particularly in central Indian states. Prima facie, it does indicate a positive affirmation of the BJP’s ulterior design to become the ruling party without having to use the election mode and the support of Sangh Parivar’s political ideology. However, acknowledging this should not lead us to make a quick judgment blaming people for their entrapment in the Parivar’s project. Resorting to such blaming tactics entails a withdrawal from political activity that is followed by dangers associated with glorifying powerless truth. Such diffident glorification by the opposition induces a stupor and harms the task of mobilising popular power behind the truth. One must not neglect that the public(s) in politics are not always already given, but forged; in fact, that is the task of making politics. Since there is never a real choice of electing a new people, oppositional forces will have to forge these public(s) or counter-public(s) from within the masses of people, including a substantial section that has voted for the BJP/NDA.

Considering the social character of the agenda and political project of the BJP, the popular will that it has sought to construct has existed in some form in Indian society; in an amorphous if not a consolidated form. This can work to its advantage as a relatively fertile ground is available to it. On the other hand, building political legitimacy for the normative agenda of opposition (around the ideas of fairness and harmony) would require cultivation of the political soil, so to speak. Overcoming the bouts of self-righteousness, self-deception, and self-flagellation is a prerequisite for orienting the opposition towards this task.

Updated On : 1st Jun, 2019


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