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India's political opposition wakes up to new reality under Modi & Co

  • K S Dakshina Murthy
  • 24 Aug 2019

Political opposition in India is all but fading away as Prime Minister Narendra Modi bulldozes laws through the Indian Parliament and 'convinces' politicians to defect to his party.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah sit during a public meeting in Ahmadabad, India, Sunday, May 26, 2019. ( AP )

India’s federal government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been having an exceptionally smooth run passing a slew of laws including the controversial move to remove a seven-decade-old constitutionally guaranteed 'special status' to India-administered Jammu and Kashmir state. 

Politically there has been minimal opposition, if any, to the government’s successful bulldozing of at least six more pieces of legislation through parliament including banning instant triple talaq among Muslims and diluting the much-acclaimed Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Except for protests within parliament, there has been no sign of opposition elsewhere. The biggest move was the abrogation of special status to Jammu and Kashmir state under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. That the state has been shut for the most part since the law was all but annulled on August 5 does not seem to have triggered reactions elsewhere, especially among political parties opposed to the move like the Congress party.

On the contrary, the Congress—which spearheaded special status to Kashmir after independence—seems paralysed with some prominent voices like Jyotiradithya Scindia supporting the move to neutralise Article 370. 

Since returning to power in the recent elections with an absolute majority, winning 303 of the 543 seats in the lower house of Indian Parliament, the prime minister in association with his aide, Home Minister Amit Shah, have gone about legislative business marked by a ruthlessness rarely seen in Indian politics. Scrapping special status to Kashmir, for instance, was a key agenda of the Hindu-right now in power. 

In the last few weeks, Indians have witnessed in surprise the spectacle of opposition legislators and parliamentarians in sizeable numbers moving out from their political parties to either join the BJP or to help the party gain a majority by default.

Though formally never acknowledged by the BJP, the defections have been accompanied by reports that allege large sums of money have exchanged hands to make this possible. In the southern state of Karnataka for instance, a Congress-led government saw at least 17 legislators deserting the coalition – resulting in the BJP in power.

A few more states are in the crosshairs of the BJP including the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and the western state of Rajasthan where the Congress is in power through a simple majority.

In cases where money possibly has not been the reason for desertions, businessmen turned elected representatives have allegedly been coerced into supporting or joining the BJP under threats of punitive action using government agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). 

One prominent legislator and former minister D K Shivakumar from Karnataka had made these allegations several months ago after he was called for questioning by the ED and Income Tax departments. He claimed that officials had in private suggested he shift to the BJP if he wanted charges against him dropped. But Shivakumar, despite the alleged threats, has so far remained with the Congress.

Again, though none of these allegations has been proven, what makes the claims believable is that many legislators and parliamentarians who faced a number of cases of fraud and other irregularities have found the charges either dropped or pushed to the back burner once they joined the BJP.  

In the past too, politicians have deserted one party to join the other. To prevent this, the government in the ‘80s enacted an anti-defection law. But enterprising politicians and political parties seem to have found ways to circumvent the law.

In fact, the joke going around is that politicians in financial trouble, either not having enough money or those in excess and under investigation, should join the BJP if they want relief. 

The BJP leadership of Modi and Shah have made no secret of their intention to let loose the country’s premier financial and investigative watchdogs like the Central Bureau of Investigation, the ED and the Income Tax department to ostensibly punish the corrupt. But going by the recent track record, the motives seem to be an attempt at political aggrandisement using the cover of righteousness.  

The latest is the high-profile arrest of the former home minister and finance minister P Chidambaram, a star politician of the Congress party credited with, among others, the liberalisation and globalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s.

Many, including in the Congress, have described the manner of his arrest as being vindictive while some have questioned the need for government agencies to get so aggressive almost as if Chidambaram was a fugitive and would escape if he were left alone. 

The larger question, however, is whether the Indian opposition has the answers to politically respond to the unprecedented tactics of the ruling BJP to browbeat dissent and refashion a nation in line with its right-wing pro-Hindu agenda. 

As it stands now, the opposition is in disarray with the Congress even unable to find a full-fledged successor after the resignation of its president Rahul Gandhi. Other parties are fighting in their own backyards against the BJP which aims to come to power using any means – a situation with ominous implications for this 72-year-old democracy.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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