The State of Opposition in South Asia

Over the course of the last year, the Carnegie South Asia Program published a series of essays on the politics of opposition in South Asia. The inspiration for this series was the commonly held assessment that democracy in many parts of South Asia appears to be struggling. This has not always been the case.

Less than a decade ago, voters across South Asia were imbued with a sense of democratic optimism. In 2014, India ushered in its first single-party majority government in three decades, a reprieve from decades of fractious coalition politics. Pakistan’s 2013 elections represented the first civilian transfer of power following the successful completion of a five-year term by a democratically elected government. Voters in Nepal successfully elected a new constituent assembly, incorporating erstwhile Maoist rebels into mainstream politics. Sri Lanka, having emerged from decades of civil war, held important provincial elections, including in its contested Northern Province—the first time elections had taken place there in a quarter-century.

Today, optimism has given way to widespread pessimism. Across the region, democracy’s fortunes have suffered significant setbacks. In 2021, both Freedom House and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute downgraded the quality of India’s democracy. While the Pakistani state has achieved success in reducing extremist violence, the military continues to dominate key aspects of domestic and foreign policy. Bangladesh is moving further toward consolidated autocracy, with the ruling party cracking down on dissent and political opposition. In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa family may have exited the scene (for now), but it remains unclear what political formation might fill the void. Across the region, regular elections co-exist with deepening challenges to liberal democracy. Far from being a beacon of democratic hope, South Asia now instead fits a larger global narrative of democratic malaise.

Paul Staniland
Paul Staniland is a nonresident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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There has been no shortage of scholarship on South Asia’s democratic backsliding, exploring topics such as declining representative institutions, civil-military relations, and the suppression of individual freedoms. However, what is missing in many of these accounts is a clear understanding of the state of opposition politics. For obvious reasons, most accounts of backsliding focus on the strategies and tactics of regimes, often treating the opposition as a passive actor. Yet, unpacking the nature of the opposition—and the dramatic variation in its forms—not only helps explain regime dynamics, but it also informs the possibilities of democratic renewal as well as the further consolidation of autocratic dynamics and the prospects for violence.

The ten essays in this series on the politics of opposition in South Asia cover a range of countries—Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—as well as a diversity of themes, from digital repression to violent militancy and citizen mobilization. This article reflects on the series, as well as other examples from the region, to identify a set of themes that sharpen the understanding of opposition dynamics in contemporary South Asia.

Which Opposition?

Perhaps the most obvious theme emerging out of this series is that the category of “opposition” is an incredibly heterogeneous phenomenon across the subcontinent. It includes intensive anti-state insurgency, so-called normal party politics, the intertwining of elite competition with mass mobilization, and efforts to carve out an autonomous citizens’ space beyond political control. There are very different worlds of opposition, but all can be active forms of political contention.

In some cases, these forms of mobilization may have potential for overlap—for instance, between mainstream parties and citizens’ movements. The morphing of the popular “India Against Corruption” movement, which arose in the early 2010s in response to a series of graft scandals, into a political vehicle that came to be known as the Aam Aadmi Party is a good example of this kind of overlap.

Milan Vaishnav
Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program and the host of the Grand Tamasha podcast at Carnegie, where he focuses on India's political economy, governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.

In other cases, these mobilizational forms may be diametrically opposed to each other, as in insurgents’ assaults on both ruling and opposition political parties. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), for instance, targeted Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka with a ruthless intensity equal to their attacks on the state. This illustrates just how complex politics in the region are: opposition is multifaceted, frequently lacks unity, and is at times even intertwined with regime actors rather than cleanly standing apart from them.

Given this extraordinary complexity, what are the ways in which one can organize the dynamics of opposition in contemporary South Asia?

Systemic Orientation

One axis of differentiation is the systemic orientation of opposition forces. For instance, in some countries, there exist radically anti-system actors that explicitly seek to overturn the fundamental bases of the status quo; the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Pakistan and the Naxalites in India come to mind as revolutionary aspirants. The TTP, whose evolution Abdul Sayed documented in his essay, is the largest militant organization targeting the state in Pakistan. As Sayed notes, al-Qaeda’s waning influence, the Afghan Taliban’s rising power, and the TTP’s efforts to remain relevant inside Pakistan have collectively fueled its transformation into a focused, anti-state militant movement.

However, there are also nonviolent, extra-systemic movements that are not reducible to conventional party protests. Mass protest movements from below in both Sri Lanka and Nepal have occupied this role, as have dissidents in Bangladesh. These mobilization efforts may blend into supposedly conventional opposition but seek to operate free from the dominance of politicians. However, some movements—like the Brihat Nagarik Andolan (BNA) in Nepal—have tried to shun traditional mainstream politics. As Amish Raj Mulmi explained in his essay on this citizen-led street movement, the BNA has adhered to a liberal, inclusive form of discontent, but its decision to remain outside of politics has tested the limits of its effectiveness.

The most standard use of “opposition” refers to political parties operating clearly within the system but in an adversarial role; at the national level, the Indian National Congress and Aam Aadmi Party occupy this role in India. In the Maldives, as Rasheeda Didi writes, the political opposition has championed a slogan of “India Out” to highlight its dismay over the government’s close military and diplomatic links with India. In this role, however, it has channeled its disagreements primarily through the formal political system as opposed to engaging in street or other forms of activist politics.

Yet, the formal role played by opposition parties can be complicated by coalitional and/or federal politics, as Asma Faiz shows in the case of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Pakistan, at times blending ruling in some places while opposing in others. As in Karachi, a city whose armed politics are skillfully unpacked by Zoha Waseem, one can also see parties deploying violence or acting in collaboration with violent actors, bridging standard-issue party politics with gang-like warfare.

There are also actors that operate as part of the system but in shifting alignment with, or opposition to, other parts of the system: Yasser Kureshi’s account of the Pakistani judiciary provides a clear example of an institution that can occupy multiple roles despite being firmly embedded within the state structure. This can also be true of politically active militaries, in addition to courts. In India, for instance, politicians with intimate local links to Maoist rebels have long held sway in eastern and central parts of the country.

Spatial Variation

Another axis of opposition is spatial/scalar. There is significant variation in the geographic space within which opposition forces, of whatever form, can mobilize. This spatial variation has hugely important implications for the kinds of coalitions that can plausibly be constructed. In some cases, there are relatively isolated pockets of mobilization, like among dissidents in Bangladesh protesting a draconian digital security law described by Ali Riaz. In other locales, opposition politics exists in distinct and somewhat self-contained political ecosystems, such as the Pakistani megalopolis of Karachi.

In both Nepal and India, a panoply of regionally defined opposition forces, which can be linked to both national and subnational arenas, battle for political space. Asim Ali’s essay on India, for instance, disaggregates regional opposition parties, highlighting the superior performance that linguistically based regional parties have enjoyed vis-à-vis the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These linguistically based parties, sometimes dubbed regionalist parties, have thrived in their local bastions even as they have proven unable to halt the BJP juggernaut in New Delhi.

Finally, there are cases in which opposition functions on a national scale, as in the massive protests during Sri Lanka’s 2022 political-economic crisis discussed by Bhavani Fonseka. In this case, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans across the country joined demonstrations in a largely peaceful display of political activism demanding the ouster of the powerful Rajapaksa family.

Dynamics of Protest

The dynamics of protest are obviously important to opposition but are also highly variable. Some opposition parties eschew mass protests in favor of more supposedly conventional forms of mobilization. Insurgents, for very different reasons, also tend to use other strategies as well. State actors, even though they may at times link themselves to protesters, tend not to directly engage in these activities.

In many other cases, however, opposition actors regularly generate mass protests. For instance, Nepal has experienced extensive street protests, both citizen- and party-led; Mulmi’s essay argues that the former tends to only succeed when it aligns with the latter. Sri Lanka saw extraordinary levels of mass protest against a government seen as incapable of managing the country’s economic collapse.

Many of Pakistan’s major parties use mass marches as a signaling device, as do non/quasi-parties like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). For instance, in February, the PPP launched a “long march” from Karachi to Islamabad to force the ouster of the Imran Khan–led central government. The agitation culminated in Khan’s April ouster after he lost a no confidence vote on the floor of Parliament. India’s opposition politics regularly feature protests, but with substantial variation in both size and outcomes.

State-Party Fusion

Another theme that emerges from this collection of essays is the variation in the fusion of state and party institutions. In Bangladesh, for instance, an Awami League party-state, albeit one resting uneasily on potential instability, is clearly evident. As Riaz notes in his essay on digital authoritarianism, the country’s Digital Security Act is a thinly veiled attempt by the government to silence critics and dissenters. The law is part and parcel of a larger project by the government to consolidate power and further marginalize the political opposition.

In India, party dominance over the bureaucracy and, to some extent, the judiciary is apparent at both the national and state levels. Here, there is no neat breakdown between BJP- and non-BJP-ruled areas; the hold Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress exerts on the state in West Bengal is comparable to both the sway Jagan Reddy and the YSR Congress hold in Andhra Pradesh and the iron grip the BJP’s Yogi Adityanath wields in Uttar Pradesh.

In Sri Lanka (surprisingly, after a period of seemingly resurgent Rajapaksa hegemony) and Pakistan, one sees a murkier picture, in which fragmented and contested political power leaves interesting gaps and opportunities for jockeying actors (for example, the curious position of the PPP). In Nepal, no party has established lasting hegemony over the state apparatus. This is important both for dynamics of patronage and patterns of state repression.

Decline of the Left

There are also areas of consistency across contemporary South Asian cases. One of these is the weakness of the left, whether classical Marxist-Leninist or highly redistributionist demands from below. For instance, Tahmina Rahman documents the distinct decline of leftist parties in Bangladesh, a country that has moved rightward as well in a more authoritarian direction with seemingly little pushback from leftist forces. Rahman identifies challenges of both an ideological and organizational nature that have impeded leftist parties’ electoral success. In fact, in many respects, the left has been its own worst enemy—struggling to engage civil society, manage intraparty disputes, or overcome perceptions of both elitism and atheism. Nepal is a partial exception to this trend, but in general leftist parties have ceded enormous territory to a wide variety of other political parties. Given high inequality and rapid economic change, which might be expected to trigger growing redistributive demands, this is an important finding. The ability of right-leaning regimes to mobilize around economic development—in reality and/or in rhetoric—is striking.

It also raises old questions about the usefulness of the left-right spectrum in the region. This is an interesting contrast to the recent leftward tilt in Latin America. What is the aspirational twenty-first century “developmental state” model in the region? One might suggest a comfortable bargain between the private sector and a statist party mobilizing a combination of development and identity/nationalism and in control of the state apparatus. Yet this is not a guarantee: Sri Lanka and Pakistan stand as failed developmental projects, unable to maintain sufficient economic growth or political stability. For a period, the Rajapaksas fused statist political economy mixed with ethnonationalism but could not sustain meaningful growth.

Digital Politics

Riaz’s essay highlights how contestation over digital technologies is an emerging political dynamic. His work grapples with state-led digital repression and surveillance, a phenomenon that has grown in scope and ambition as sophisticated technological tools became increasingly available to regimes. Pakistan has introduced an amendment to a digital security law that human rights organizations have criticized, and multiple civil society reports have explored Indian surveillance strategies.

In India, there are also public battles over the use of technology, such as with the Aadhaar biometric identification scheme and questions surrounding its linkage with voter lists, a priority of the present government. Previous programs supposedly meant to cleanse the electoral rolls have resulted in the disenfranchisement of large numbers of citizens, raising concerns that digitization could result in the further marginalization of certain classes of citizens, especially those belonging to religious minorities. Digital politics will clearly be a crucial area of competition between governments and opposition forces in the years to come.

Opposition Coordination

A final theme is the difficulty of opposition coordination in complex, federal systems where the opposition is fragmented and regionally oriented. Faiz’s essay points to the difficulties the PPP faces, for instance, in stitching together an opposition coalition. The party has competing objectives in Sindh versus the center. The same is often true in India, as Ali points out in exploring the complex mix of opposition parties operating at the state and national levels. Aggregating state-level oppositions is much easier said than done, while building and maintaining (including financing) strong national parties is an immense challenge in the face of powerful incumbents. These challenges can make it difficult both to push out incumbents and to then deliver cohesive, stable governance afterward.

Conclusion

The dominance of powerful regime incumbents in South Asia, from the BJP in India to the Awami League in Bangladesh and the military in Pakistan, should not obscure the reality that the opposition space in the region is dynamic, fluid, and highly consequential. As the example of the Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka illustrates, a coterie of political elites that is widely viewed as untouchable can quickly be made obsolete once domestic economic, political, or social currents begin to shift against them.

The opposition—parties, street protests, civil society collectives, armed groups, and even institutional veto players—all have agency in terms of exercising pushback. The essays in this series demonstrate that though opposition forces may be down in many parts of South Asia, they are not out. And, to complicate matters, the opposition that may be most worth heeding does not always come in the conventional categories that analysts have long identified: rather than a simple binary of state and opposition, there are complex and shifting constellations of political power. This series expands the collective imagination about the diverse array of forces that incumbents must reckon with.

 

The authors are grateful to Alie Brase, Haley Clasen, and Nitya Labh for editorial assistance.

Contents

Acknowledgments

The genesis of this project dates to a conversation the two of us had in July 2021 about the state of the opposition in South Asia. During that conversation, it struck us that we knew far more about powerful regime incumbents across the region than the varied dynamics of opposition actors, most of whom were treated as afterthoughts by the scholarly literature and most media analyses.

Apart from the introductory essay, the chapters in this compilation were first published as essays on the website of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace between November 2021 and December 2022. Reflecting on this yearlong initiative, we thought it would be a good idea to publish all the pieces in one place, along with an introductory essay highlighting the key themes connecting these contributions.

As editors, we owe a debt of thanks to several people who contributed to this project. Above all, we would like to express our gratitude to our wonderful authors, whose expertise spans the region from Pakistan to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and all points in between. This project would not have been possible without support from a research incentive pool grant provided by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We are grateful to the members of the incentive pool committee, especially Tom Carothers, whose feedback helped shape the final product. We also acknowledge Evan Feigenbaum’s unwavering support of this initiative.

We also owe special thanks to our Carnegie colleagues for their editorial and production assistance. Caroline Duckworth provided terrific editorial support for nearly all the pieces in this collection. We are also grateful to Natalie Brase, Haley Clasen, Anjuli Das, Ryan DeVries, and Nitya Labh for their editorial assistance. Amy Mellon and Jocelyn Soly assisted with the design of this compendium. We also thank our Carnegie Communications colleagues Dayanna Centeno, Cliff Djajapranata, Douglas Farrar, Jessica Katz, Nicholos Palmer, Katelynn Vogt, and Cameron Zotter for their assistance.

Finally, we acknowledge the able administrative support of Aislinn Familetti, Kathryn Hockman, and Mohammad Khan with the Carnegie South Asia team.

Our hope is that this compilation will not only expand our knowledge on political dynamics in South Asia but that it will also contribute to the richness of the discourse by highlighting diverse, important voices from the region.

Paul Staniland
Milan Vaishnav
January 2023