As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes the first year of his second term in office, India also completes its sixth straight year without a formal leader of the Opposition. Like 2014, the Congress failed to win more than 54 seats that are required to stake claim for the Leader of Opposition’s position in the Lok Sabha.
The vacuum became even more pronounced when Rahul Gandhi – the de-facto leader of the Opposition during much of Modi’s first term – resigned as Congress president in July 2019.
If surveys are to be believed, the Opposition enjoys little credibility in the eyes of the Indian public, as compared to the Modi government.
According to CVoter’s credibility survey conducted in May 2020:
“19.4 percent respondents said that they had a ‘lot of trust’ on Opposition parties and 31.7 percent said that they have ‘some trust’ while 38.2 percent said they had ‘no trust at all’”.
The central government fares much better, with 68.8 percent expressing “a lot of trust”, 19.5 saying they have “some trust” and just 8.6 percent with “no trust at all”.
Despite this, the last one year has been far from smooth from PM Modi. And not having one Opposition figure has helped several political actors take on the government at different points of time. There have been two dimensions to the Opposition against Modi: in Parliament and outside it.
Let’s look at both.
Opposition in Parliament
The BJP began bulldozing its way in the Lok Sabha right from the onset, beginning with the swearing-in ceremony itself, during which BJP lawmakers heckled Opposition MPs. In particular, they targeted Muslim MPs and those belonging to strong regional parties like Trinamool Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, heckling their oath-taking with “Jai Shri Ram” and “Vande Mataram”.
However, the Opposition didn’t take this lying down and gave it back to the BJP with slogans of their own.
TMC’s Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar outshouted BJP’s Jai Shri Ram with her “Jai Maa Kaali”, AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi responded with “Jai Hind, Jai Bhim, Allahu Akbar”.
Samajwadi Party’s Shafiqur Rehman Barq and ST Hasan responded to the heckling with a polite “Constitution Zindabad” and “Hindustan Zindabad” respectively.
This set the tone for what followed during Modi’s first year in office – the BJP tried its best to bulldoze its way through, at times successfully, but the Opposition put up a fight when the government least expected it.
Another such moment was during the motion of thanks on the President’s address. TMC MP Mahua Moitra took everyone by surprise during her maiden speech, in which she laid down the “seven stages of fascism” and accused the government of “fake patriotism”.
However, unlike Modi’s first term – in which the Opposition managed to push the government on the backfoot on legislations like the Land Acquisition amendment and the Triple Talaq Bill – the brute majority helped BJP ram through a number of key Bills in its second term. This includes the Triple Talaq Act, the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the UAPA Amendment.
The Opposition just couldn’t match the BJP’ s floor management even in a Bill like Triple Talaq, in which the numbers weren’t in the government’s favour in the Upper House.
In some legislations such as the UAPA Amendment and the NIA Bill, the largest Opposition party – the Congress – ended up supporting the government.
One Opposition voice who stood against the BJP on every key Bill was four-time MP from Hyderabad Asaduddin Owaisi. Mixing his knowledge of law with fiery oratory, Owaisi’s speeches were often the highlight of a losing Opposition battle in the Lok Sabha on several issues, especially those concerning minorities. The manner in which he tore the draft of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the House, was seen as representing the anger of crores of Indian Muslims.
Two other parties which remained consistent in their Opposition to the government in key legislations were the DMK and the Left.
The Congress proved to be far more effective in the Rajya Sabha, with top leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Jairam Ramesh and Digvijaya Singh leading the charge on several key issues. Another MP who made an impact was Viplove Thakur from Himachal Pradesh.
Opposition Outside Parliament
The first year of Modi’s second term proved the opposite of the beginning of his first term. The Opposition proved to be far more formidable on the electoral battlefield than in Parliament.
The Congress under Bhupinder Singh Hooda almost pulled of an upset in Haryana, winning 32 seats in the Assembly elections and bringing BJP below the majority mark barely a few months after the BJP had swept the state in the Lok Sabha elections.
In Jharkhand, Hemant Soren defeated the ruling BJP, reversing his alliance’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections earlier in 2019.
The Jharkhand and Haryana results showed that while Modi’s popularity may have remained intact at the national level, it could no longer guarantee BJP victories in state elections, especially given the party’s unpopular state governments.
A few months later, the Aam Aadmi Party won a second term in office.
However, the biggest coup that the Opposition pulled off was in Maharashtra, where BJP’s oldest ally Shiv Sena ditched it after the elections to form a government with the Congress and NCP. Maharashtra witnessed several weeks of political drama, including an early morning swearing-in of BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis with NCP’s Ajit Pawar, and MLAs being herded into resorts. But in the end NCP’s Sharad Pawar and Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray managed to outwit the BJP, pulling off the biggest upset of Modi’s second term.
However, the BJP’s “Operation Kamal” led to the fall of non-NDA governments in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and the BJP grabbed power.
COVID-19 A Gamechanger for Opposition?
Surveys suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a consolidation of support for the PM Modi, with people feeling compelled to rally behind the government during the crisis.
According to the CVoter tracker, nearly 90 percent people feel that the Modi government has done a good job in handling the crisis.
It’s credibility rating has also increased by roughly 20 percentage points compared to 2018.
However, the crisis has also given an opening to the Opposition.
It has led to a revival of the Congress leadership to some extent. Former party president Rahul Gandhi had forewarned the Modi goverment about COVID-19 in February itself, over a month before the lockdown was imposed. Through his regular interactions with experts and suggestions on how to deal with the economic fallout of the lockdown, Gandhi is being presented as a leader with concrete policy solutions to India’s biggest problems.
There appears to be a division of responsibilities within the Congress’ first family, either by default or design.
While Rahul Gandhi stressed that he wouldn’t use the crisis to score points, Congress president Sonia Gandhi cleverly put the Modi government on the backfoot with her offer to fund the rail travel of migrant labourers.
Party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, on the other hand, has been focussed on Uttar Pradesh and her offer to transport migrant labourers in buses put the Yogi Adityanath government in a spot.
The other aspect in which the crisis has helped the Opposition is at the state level. Several non-BJP chief ministers most notably Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan and to a lesser extent Chhattisgarh’s Bhupesh Baghel, Punjab’s Captain Amarinder Singh, Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot and Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik have made an impact by their deft handling of the crisis. Kerala is being acknowledged as model worth being emulated not just in India but internationally as well.
On the other hand several BJP CMs – most notably Vijay Rupani from the party’s model state Gujarat – have been found struggling in their response.
Despite this, the truth remains that the challenge against Modi is much stronger at the state level than at the national level. Nationally, many Opposition leaders at different points of time have tried to pull their punches as far as PM Modi is concerned. For instance, Congress leaders like Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Milind Deora and Deepender Hooda praised Modi for the abrogation of Article 370. Similarly, Congress’ media in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala took a stand similar to the Modi government on the Ram Mandir verdict.
The Aam Aadmi Party also has become more or less silent on PM Modi and even supported him on matters like the abrogation of Article 370 and the COVID-19 lockdown.
Therefore, the Opposition has a long way to go as far as putting up a national challenge against PM Modi is concerned. The challenge remains far stronger at the state level and at the level of civil society protests.