Introduction

Over the last eight years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has established itself as the dominant player in Indian politics.1 The party’s unchallenged reign is due not just to its own efforts but also to the moribund state of the political opposition in large parts of the country.

One only needs to glance at the round of five state elections held in March 2022 to understand the extent of the BJP’s dominance. The BJP was the incumbent in four of the five states, but opinion polls suggested high rates of anti-incumbency in at least three contests. Inflation, unemployment, and a devastating COVID-19 wave presented formidable headwinds for the BJP’s success. Yet the party breezed to victory in all but one election, including in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, highlighting the inability of opposition parties to channel popular dissatisfaction into votes.

Asim Ali
Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in Delhi.

At the aggregate level, the Indian opposition does not seem to be in a crisis. If one considers all non-BJP coalition parties together, the opposition still controls twelve out of thirty state assemblies and comprises more than 55 percent of the national election vote share. Indeed, in almost one-third of parliamentary seats in the 2019 general election, the BJP was not even competitive (meaning it won less than 25 percent vote share or finished outside of the top two spots).2 These seats represent large parts of southern and eastern India, where the BJP—unlike the earlier dominant Congress—has struggled to break through.

All too often, analysts explain the opposition’s weakness as a natural consequence of the Hindu nationalist wave that has transformed the Indian polity and propelled the BJP to power. There is some truth to that perspective, but it is also worth exploring this question from the other side. If the post-2014 era of BJP dominance is considered in Darwinian terms, certain political parties have adapted and even thrived. This success is self-evidently true in the case of the linguistic-based regional parties in the East and the South, where the BJP has never beaten them in a state election. The West Bengal assembly election of last year, where the regional heavyweight All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) comfortably trounced the BJP, is a case in point.

On the other hand, the BJP has easily gobbled up the space of those political formations that were already in a state of decay prior to its rise.

Thus, we can divide the Indian opposition space into two camps: a crisis-ridden group and a healthier, more resilient group. The first two sections of this essay describe the challenges and possible future trajectories of both of these camps. The third section examines the dynamics of the aggregate opposition space, including possibilities of reconfiguration, fragmentation, and coordination. The concluding section uses these arguments in service of a central question: Does the Indian opposition have the capacity to dislodge the BJP in the near future?

The Crisis-Ridden Opposition

Three opposition formations, each representing a distinct ideological space, have found themselves in a state of deep crisis during the present era of BJP dominance: the Congress, the so-called “Mandal” parties, and the Left. While ideological and organizational atrophy in these parties preceded Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, the BJP exploited their glaring weaknesses, diminishing the legacy effects they once enjoyed.

The Congress Party

First, let’s consider the Congress. The party has historically represented centrism and mainstream nationalism. However, the centrist space has been shrinking since the early 1980s, coinciding with the increased politicization of caste and emerging religious cleavages. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—two of the biggest states in the country, located in the Hindi heartland—the Congress fell between the two stools of the Mandal movement (backward caste) and Mandir (Ram temple) movement, losing the upper castes to the BJP and the lower castes to the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), two caste-based regional parties. In the aftermath of these movements, the Congress was rendered a largely spent force in this vast Gangetic plain.3

Meanwhile, the Congress has conceded mainstream nationalism to the BJP over the last three decades. Postindependence, Indian nationalism had two politically operative components: developmental nationalism and unitary nationalism. The Congress defined these two faces of nationalism and used them for popular legitimacy and electoral mobilization.

Developmental nationalism was exemplified by former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: projecting the party as a vanguard leading the nation-state through a project of “collective development.” Dams and steel plants, in Nehru’s words, were the temples of modern India. National pride was summoned through this imagery of a newborn nation galloping from poverty and backwardness toward a developed future. Nehru’s successors, especially Indira Gandhi, leaned more heavily on the Congress’s ownership of unitary nationalism—the claim that the Congress was the only party that could rise above sectional interests and articulate the national interest. Indeed, Indira Gandhi routinely played up the threat of secessionist elements in Punjab and Kashmir to bolster the nationalist appeal of the Congress. That era has long since passed.

Since the 1990s, a liberalized economy meant that the Congress could no longer rely on grand, state-led projects to conjure up feelings of nationalistic pride. At the same time, the imperatives of coalition politics forced the Congress to negotiate and bargain with an array of regional parties. It could no longer project itself as the sole, uncompromising guardian of the “national interest.” Meanwhile, the BJP has bridged the gap between mainstream unitarian nationalism and ethnic nationalism, aided by the securitization of anti-Muslim discourse. The idea that Pakistan and Indian Muslim extremists (categories that often intersect) pose the biggest security threat to the country has gained ground, especially among the middle classes.

In a 2014 Lokniti survey, 31 percent of people named the BJP as the most trusted party on national security, a key indicator of the party’s nationalist leadership, while just 19 percent selected the Congress. The BJP’s lead only widened in similar 2019 surveys.

Can the Congress regain its former dominance? The last eight years do not paint a promising picture. The party has struggled to create its own brand of nationalism and has not succeeded in correcting perceptions of its leftward drift on national security matters. In its 2019 manifesto, the Congress promised to scrap a draconian military law (the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA) and a colonial-era sedition law (Indian Penal Code Section 124A) to compete with the BJP’s nationalistic campaign. More recently, the de facto Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has taken to framing the Congress vision of India as a “union of states” in contrast to the BJP’s top-down, unitarian vision. However, these efforts have proven unsuccessful. This dispassionate depiction of India as a nation created by compacts and sustained through negotiation might be intellectually valid, but woefully lacks nationalistic content. It represents a pale comparison not only with the BJP’s national vision, but also with the Congress of an earlier era. 

Even the Congress’s articulation of secular nationalism remains circumspect. It is, of course, true that public opinion in India has taken a sharp majoritarian turn. However, one might also argue that the Congress has failed to design a new grammar of secular nationalism to coherently demonstrate how the BJP’s divisive politics can hurt the national interest. In December, bands of extremist Hindu seers assembled in the holy city of Haridwar and gave incendiary speeches targeted at the Muslim community. The Congress condemned this hate-fest (termed dharam sansads in the media) much like it flayed the BJP for the recent controversy over derogatory comments on the Prophet Muhammad. But the Congress’s articulation of secularism is often limited to reactive and episodic rebuffing of Hindu nationalism, rather than representing a clear and consistent narrative. Further, as Yamini Aiyar has pointed out, such secular posturing lacks power of conviction as it remains confined to social media posts and press conferences rather than concrete mobilization.

However, this ideological dilemma is not the key obstacle to the Congress’s revival. Even more important is the dwindling trust voters have in its party brand. The Congress’s ownership of the centrist space rested primarily on its image as India’s natural party of governance. As the comparative political science literature shows, centrist parties can survive periods of ideological polarization if their valence remains on solid ground.4 But that image took a severe beating during the last fateful years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government (2009–2014), which were marked by a succession of corruption scandals, economic missteps, large-scale protests, intra-party battles, and policy paralysis.

Has the Congress’s valence improved over the last few years? The answer here is a resounding “no.” In the Uttarakhand and Goa assembly elections earlier this year, which were largely bipolar contests between the BJP and the Congress, voters didn’t trust the Congress to govern despite the lackluster performance of the ruling BJP. In Punjab, the Congress was swept out of office amid widespread claims of corruption and misgovernance. In the future, the Congress can take two steps to improve its reputation. First, it must settle its protracted leadership question, which makes the party appear to be a confused mess. Congress has been without a full-time, elected president since its defeat in the 2019 general election. The leadership of the Gandhi triumvirate (Sonia Gandhi and her children, Rahul and Priyanka) has muddled chains of command and diminished the principle of accountability in the party. Second, the party should develop and promote a distinctive model of governance in the states where it still holds power on its own: Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

In the 2019 election, the Congress lost 171 out of the 186 seats where it battled the BJP in a head-to-head contest. Therefore, any hope of opposition success in the near term depends on an electoral revival of the Congress.

Mandal Parties

The states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are considered the political heartland of India, contributing 120 out of the 543 seats of Parliament. The BJP has sealed its place as the dominant party of Uttar Pradesh, underscored by its spectacular re-election earlier this year, where it overtook the SP, the largest Mandal (backward caste) party of the state. In neighboring Bihar, the success of the BJP has been comparatively modest. Even so, it has emerged from the last election as the most powerful party in Bihar, eclipsing its Mandal rival, Rashtriya Janata Dal, or RJD, as well as its Mandal ally, Janata Dal (United), or JD(U).

As mentioned earlier, the BJP is a staggeringly effective political machine that grinds down and feasts on decaying political spaces. Rot in Mandal politics, much like in the Congress, had been brewing for decades. A series of factional splits in the 1980s and early 1990s had left the Yadav community in charge of the largest Mandal parties in the Hindi heartland, the SP and the RJD. Over the ensuing decades, this single dominant caste deepened its stranglehold on the Mandal space further. Thus, the BJP was easily able to penetrate party defenses with its own backward caste strategy, making non-Yadav backward castes the centerpiece of their larger Hindutva movement.

In the Uttar Pradesh campaign, the SP tried to counter this strategy by rebranding. Proclaiming itself the “new SP,” the party tamped down its Yadav centrism, making broad appeals to backward castes and re-emphasizing its socialist roots. In the end, the critical non-Yadav backward caste voters—representing more than a third of the electorate—judged this strategy to be a cosmetic exercise and remained loyal to the BJP.

It was the fourth consecutive electoral drubbing for the SP at the hands of the BJP in the Modi era. In fact, in the aftermath of the election results, many commentators declared Mandal politics to be a spent force. The veteran journalist Vandita Mishra wrote, “Mandal politics is now seen, in large sections of even its home ground, UP [Uttar Pradesh], as casteist and divisive.” The political scientist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, argued the SP relied excessively on “social arithmetic” rather than a “generative conception of politics.” He expanded, “The project of now opposing any national party on the basis of a coalition of fragmented identities is dead.”

However, a reinvigorated Mandal space could still be a potent political force, but it is patently clear that the Mandal stock has never been lower and these parties do not possess the capacity to realistically challenge the BJP. If Mandal parties are to climb back from political irrelevance, they need to revamp their ideological content by articulating relevant goals. They should not limit their horizons to settled battles of the past, such as caste reservation. Moreover, for ideological renewal to be perceived as a genuine programmatic shift rather than an electoral gimmick, it must take place outside of electoral cycles and the domain of campaign speeches.

The Left

The third political space that has been steamrolled by the BJP is that of the Communist or Left parties. In West Bengal (as well as in neighboring Tripura), the BJP’s spectacular rise was facilitated by the wholesale shift of voters fleeing from the imploding Left Front bloc. The Left finds itself in the political wilderness in both these states, the legacy of its decades-long reign receding from public consciousness, as it shrivels under the weight of its own structural weaknesses. The Communist parties have been unable to define their role in a polity where economic or class cleavages have progressively become depoliticized following the liberalization of the economy.

While these parties once occupied a comfortable niche as a left-wing pressure group in larger coalition governments, the return of the single-party-dominant phase in the form of the Modi era has proved to be a disconcerting jolt. Except in Kerala, where the state unit is run efficiently by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the party is weighed down by its slow, frozen, bureaucratic style of functioning. Decisionmaking in the party is subject to deliberations within a large Politburo and a bloated Central Committee. In an era where identity and culture are the predominant site of politics, the silver-haired grandees of the Politburo cut an anachronistic figure.

The Healthy Opposition Space

Which political formations have been prospering in the Modi era? Subnational, linguistic-based parties have proven to be the only reliable identity-based counter to the politics of Hindu nationalism. Even in eastern states where the BJP has made massive inroads, it has largely done so by replacing the Congress or the Left, not by encroaching on the space claimed by regional parties. When facing an incumbent espousing regional pride, such as the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha or the TMC in Bengal, the BJP has been soundly defeated. Similarly, in the southern state of Telangana, which is the next high-growth frontier for the BJP, the party’s strategy is to become the second pole of politics by replacing the Congress rather than challenging the stronger regional Telangana Rashtra Samithi. In terms of generating visceral emotional resonance, language has turned out to be the only competitive tool against religion. In fact, in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, the BJP has been largely marginalized, partly because it is seen to be the party of Hindi-speaking outsiders.

While language is one barrier to Hindutva’s failure against healthy opposition forces, there are other variables at play. The first is organizational capacity. Unlike the Congress or the Mandal parties of the North with their frozen patronage structures and dormant local units, the linguistic parties of the East and the South are more professionally organized. The TMC spent two years before the West Bengal elections overhauling its grassroots structures with the aid of efficient feedback networks designed to gauge the performance of its local leaders. Similarly, both the ruling Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh and the BJD in Odisha effected a wholesale resignation of the cabinet, dispatching their senior leaders to guide organizational revamping. The parties of the deep South—Kerala and Tamil Nadu—have a historical legacy of firmly rooted, cadre-based party structures. In these states, the BJP loses the comparative organizational advantage of its large Sangh Parivar network that it enjoys in northern and western India. Hence, the superior organizational capacity of these regional linguistic parties has made them resistant to BJP encroachment.

Second, the inclusive nature of linguistic parties represents a stark counterweight to Hindu nationalism. The Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu and the Congress-Left bipolarity in Kerala are both steeped in an egalitarian ethos. In West Bengal, the quintessential Bengali identity has been portrayed as pluralistic. While the BJD’s Odisha model emphasizes social harmony more than progressivism, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has reiterated the vitality of an inclusive Odia identity. In Maharashtra, too, the regionally rooted Shiv Sena has engaged in an intriguing recalibration of its Hindutva identity, moving away from its traditional anti-Muslim rhetoric to emphasize its contrast with the BJP.

Further, the BJP-dominant party system has also given opportunities to these regional parties, who have an ambiguous relationship at best with democratic norms, to present their crusade against the BJP in pious terms of anti-authoritarianism and the defense of constitutional federalism. In the midst of the West Bengal campaign, TMC leader Mamata Banerjee wrote a letter to fifteen top opposition leaders urging them to unite against “a series of assaults by the BJP and its government at the Centre on democracy and constitutional federalism in India.”

Configuration of Opposition Space

Beyond the dichotomy between healthy opposition groups and those in crisis, the aggregate present opposition space possesses two overarching features.

First, there is no alternative national pole to the BJP. After the reversal in Punjab, the Congress party directly controls just two states. Thus, the BJP is the only national party in India’s current party system, mainly competing with a string of regional or supra-regional parties. The closest historical parallel to this system is the second phase of Congress dominance (1967–1989), which ended with the strengthening of the BJP as an alternative pole. Over the last year, opposition parties have competed to find similar footing, with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the TMC challenging the Congress. Of the two, the more serious contender is the AAP, a party that, following its landslide victory in Punjab, controls two states (Delhi being the second).

The AAP is a formidable challenger in the centrist space that has been largely vacated by the Congress. Unlike the TMC, the AAP is not tethered to a fragmented identity of either caste or region. Further, it has two distinct advantages over the Congress. One, it has built a positive valence based on assiduously marketing the Delhi model of development, which features free and “high quality” public services. Secondly, it is free from the baggage of missteps accumulated by the Congress, particularly on matters of national security, enabling it to craft a contemporary model of nationalism from scratch.

Paradoxically, the strengths of the AAP also seed its vulnerabilities. Its lack of a defined social base reduces its competitiveness in larger states. Its ideologically diffuse populist character can also shade into a lack of credibility, prone as it is to varying its positioning from state to state and at different points in time (such as the courting of migrants in Delhi and promises of job reservation to locals in Uttarakhand and Goa). Since the party chooses to largely play within the Hindu nationalist parameters set by the BJP, it also does not presently pose any substantive ideological challenge to the ruling party.

The second overarching feature of the opposition is its extraordinary placidity. There are no new ideas, animating political movements, or daring political experiments emerging from its ranks. This temperance makes the current opposition space quite distinct from the opposition space during the Congress-dominant era. The two big popular mobilizations since 2014 (the anti-Citizenship Act Amendment movement and the farmers’ movement) were civil society movements that consciously emphasized their distance from opposition political parties.

This hesitation to collaborate reflects misgivings over both the political will and the popular credibility commanded by the opposition parties. The anti-CAA demonstrators, a coalition of ordinary Muslims, student groups, and middle-class activists, developed their own leadership structures to mount sustained nationwide protests against the government’s new citizenship law, which they held to be discriminatory to Muslims. The fact that more professionally organized political parties have not been able to put together any street mobilization remotely comparable to the scale and spread of the CAA protests illustrates the paucity of political will. When protesters are better organized, such as the farmer protests led by the powerful farmer unions of Punjab and Western Uttar Pradesh, they have even less reason to let opposition parties piggyback on their demands in an effort to burnish their credibility.

Thus, the opposition has been unable to absorb energy and strength from popular movements. The only dynamic element in the opposition ranks is perhaps the AAP, and yet there are few parties as allergic to articulating their politics in terms of grounding ideas. “We are neither Left, nor Right, but practical,” is the governing credo of the party, in the words of its supremo Arvind Kejriwal.

In the absence of any ideological churning, several opposition parties (especially the crisis-ridden parties) have become closed political channels, unable to produce new leaders or to locate new bases of support.

Looking to 2024

As political parties turn to the 2024 general election, much of the opposition has found itself in a crisis that began long before the present era of BJP dominance. If these parties remain trapped in their rut, the only serious opposition to the BJP will continue to come from regional-linguistic parties, allowing the BJP to comfortably occupy the national space while ceding important territory in the southern and eastern parts of the country.

Since general elections are no more than an aggregate of state results, it will be hard to dislodge the BJP. Opposition unity is sometimes presented as a panacea for this challenge, but one must remember that the BJP faced a much more consolidated opposition in 2019 than in 2014, and still emerged with an even larger majority. Grand opposition alliances in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, for instance, did not make a huge difference to the outcome.

Therefore, what is required is not a more united opposition, but a renewed opposition. Much like a giant disruptor in business, the BJP has revealed and capitalized on the myriad weaknesses of crisis-ridden parties. However, opposition parties can use this opportunity to reinvent themselves, incorporating the lessons learned from healthy opposition parties, such as the need to build durable, agile organizational structures.

Given that in almost half the country the principal challenger to the BJP is either the Congress or one of the principal Mandal parties, an opposition challenge in 2024 is only possible if crisis-ridden parties revive themselves. The results of the assembly elections earlier this year do not suggest any reason for optimism in that regard.

Notes

1 Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma, "The Rise of the Second Dominant Party System in India: BJP’s New Social Coalition in 2019," Studies in Indian Politics 7, no. 2 (2019): 131–148.

2 A. Ziegfeld, “A New Dominant Party in India? Putting the 2019 BJP Victory Into Comparative and Historical Perspective,” India Review 19, no. 2 (2020): 136–152.

3 A. Farooqui and E. Sridharan, “Can Umbrella Parties Survive? The Decline of the Indian National Congress,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 54, no. 3 (2016): 331–361.

4 R. Johns and A. K. Kölln, “Moderation and Competence: How a Party's Ideological Position Shapes Its Valence Reputation,” American Journal of Political Science 64, no. 3 (2020): 649–663.