INA COURT November 19 speech Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, gave a humiliating speech U-turn. Barely a year after he passed a trio of agricultural reform laws through Parliament, he announced their repeal. The shame was not only to have given victory to the horde of peasants mounted on tractors who had been stubbornly protesting at the gates of the Indian capital since last November. It was to have spoiled the problem from the start.
Indian agriculture is indeed in desperate need of reform. Yet Mr Modi made no effort to reach consensus for his three new laws last year, pushing them through without debate. When farmers in northern India, many of whom are Sikhs, protested, he redoubled his fury, calling them thugs and traitors. The most powerful Indian leader in a generation then did nothing for months, as if the stalemate was someone else’s problem. That is, until elections in a few important agricultural states approached uncomfortably, after which Mr. Modi completely collapsed.
In any other democracy, a leader who flouted parliament, broke trust with an influential religious minority, and insisted on controversial reforms, then rejected them, paid a heavy political price. But although the farm bill fiasco is only the last link in a long chain of embarrassment under Modi, the prime minister remains largely unscathed. Admirers attribute his resistance to his personal charisma. They say it projects the strength and dignity that Indian voters seek in their own lives. Critics instead point to the deep pockets, cruelty and military discipline of his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), discreetly supported by a network of allied Hindu-nationalist organizations and loudly amplified by relentless propaganda.
All of this surely matters, but it wouldn’t be enough without another secret weapon: the opposition. Throughout Mr. Modi’s tenure, the BJPOpponents of ‘s remained divided, weak and largely ineffective. That’s not to say they gave the prime minister a free ride. The withdrawal by Mr. Modi from circulation in 2016 of high face value banknotes, the BJPThe escalation of Islamophobia in a country of 200 million Muslims and the erratic handling of covid-19 made it easy for opposition politicians to trigger disgruntled voters. But despite the strange blow to Mr. Modi and beating the BJP in occasional state elections, they have so far failed to change India’s larger narrative.
For three decades, two major trends have marked the country’s politics. One is the rise of the BJP, which itself is the spearhead of a century-old movement founded on the idea that the predominantly Hindu nature of India has been unjustly suppressed for a thousand years. This idea of victimization helped consolidate a so-called Hindu vote behind the BJP and made it difficult for other parties to challenge it without being vilified as less nationalist or flattering towards minorities.
The other trend has been the slow disintegration of the Congress Party, which carries the legacy of India’s secular independence movement. Congress was the party of government during the first decades of the Indian Republic, but its efforts to keep its tent as large as possible led to fragmentation. Of the leadership of almost all Indian states in the 1950s and 1960s, it now heads only three out of 28, compared to 12 for the BJP.
The main rival of the BJP in many states, it is no longer Congress itself, but rather local spinoffs led and largely led by former members of Congress. In some large states, these parties have mostly supplanted the parent party. In others, local parties have sprung up on their own and poached the congressional electorate. Their success left Congress with a barely residual presence in much of India and helped reduce its share of seats in the lower house to less than 10%, from 56% for the BJP (see table).
At the state level, all these opposition parties pose a strong challenge to the BJP. The diversity of the country means that ethnic, caste or religious sensitivities create perpetual repressions against an overly dominant center. The problem is that compared to the BJPA simple central message of Hindu pride and nationalism, its dispersed and multiple opponents have no common story to tell.
But Congress in particular suffers from another handicap: the Gandhi family. They are not descendants of Mahatma Gandhi but of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister, through the marriage of his daughter Indira to Feroze Gandhi, journalist and politician. It was under the dictatorial regime of Indira Gandhi (Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 to 1984) that the family domination of the party was consecrated. It now extends to his grandchildren Rahul (51) and Priyanka (49), although it is their mother of Italian origin, Sonia (74), who remains as the official head of the party.
Young Gandhis are sympathetic and capable, but their pedigree exposes them to the barbarians of the celibate Mr. Modi on nepotism. Party insiders complain about ideological drift, lack of internal democracy, and the inordinate influence of courtiers rather than street voters. The party has lost a flood of defectors and frustrated workers in recent years, and has been repeatedly sidetracked – in the tiny state of Goa, Congress won more seats in a recent election, but has woken up to find the BJP had drawn his allies into a coalition overnight. The fact that Rahul Gandhi was often right – he called early for action against covid and said a year ago that the BJP would be forced to abandon agricultural reform – impressed Indians less than its lack of gravity. He twice led his party to defeat in national elections, losing in 2019 the seat he inherited from his uncle, father and mother.
Mr. Gandhi seems ill-suited to prop up a large but sagging tent in a raging storm, but he shows no inclination to hand the role over to someone else. Without a better voice-catcher at the head of Congress, the opposition’s only other hope of defeating the BJP in 2024 would be to form a broad coalition of regional parties. But few unites them, except the disgust for the BJP. Even that is suspect: many regional politicians would be happy to be bought off.
It is also a fact that regional leaders, however popular they may be on their own turf, have little national stature. Perhaps this will prove that, just as Mr Modi’s best ally has been the weakness of his opponents, the opposition’s best chance of seizing power can come from the actions of the prime minister himself. But it will take a gargantuan mistake to defeat the seemingly unassailable Mr. Modi.■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “With Enemies Like These”