India’s Opposition Can’t Stop Campaigning Now

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(Bloomberg Opinion) — For a decade now, India has not had a functional opposition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party won such sweeping mandates that even the official position of Leader of the Opposition lay vacant. Last week, Modi was sworn in for a third term as prime minister and — keen to convey that nothing much had changed — he largely reappointed his cabinet of ministers.

Yet something feels different. For once, there is less interest in what Modi will do in the next few months than in how a revitalized opposition will seek to contain him. 

India’s electorate has clearly tired of giving Modi a free hand. Voters reduced the BJP to a minority in Parliament in the recent elections. Modi must now govern alongside two notoriously unreliable allies. The opposition alliance is itself only 40 seats short of a majority.

Of course, that agglomeration is somewhat ramshackle. It is composed of 28 parties, many of whom cannot stand each other. Some are regional groupings with few demands beyond special treatment for the states they represent. Others more closely resemble family-run businesses. Still others are ideologically closer to the BJP than to their current partners. It’s hard to imagine them operating cohesively enough to cramp Modi’s freedom of action.

Much will depend upon how the glue in the alliance, the 139-year-old Indian National Congress, behaves. The party’s heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi — son, grandson, and great-grandson of prime ministers — was long the target of mockery in the press and online. He seemed too earnest, awkward, and privileged to offer a credible alternative to Modi.

But Gandhi has at least demonstrated the importance of endurance. Literally, in fact: Most observers trace the turnaround in his party’s fortunes to Gandhi’s months-long marches through battleground districts across the breadth of India.

While those treks didn’t offer too many clues about how he would govern, they did address worries that many voters had about his commitment to politics. Now that Gandhi, the Congress, and the rest of the opposition have cleared that hurdle, they will have to address a larger question: What can they offer Indians that Modi can’t?

It is tempting, as an opposition, to oppose everything. That might be unwise. Charging at every issue that presents itself tires you out.

And, while such a strategy may reveal what the opposition is against, Modi’s rivals need to show what they are for. After 10 years in the wilderness, Congress and its partners have to reintroduce themselves to the electorate.

That means, while the election may be over, opposition parties must continue to sell their policy proposals. The secret of Modi’s success as a politician is that he campaigns 24/7, 365 days a year. His party’s formidable messaging machine dominates every possible public narrative. To compete, the opposition will have to work as hard but focus its rhetoric on the issues — from jobs to welfare — that are most likely to cut through the noise.

Above all, the opposition needs to avoid the curse of infighting that has always plagued such alliances. They must give the impression of a government-in-waiting much more focused on India’s problems than its own ambitions. In another five years — maybe less if Modi feels fenced in without a majority and wants to risk an early election — the voters will pronounce on whether they have learned enough about the opposition’s credentials to trust them with power.

Another task faces Congress and its allies before that: to ensure the next election is fairer than the last. India’s public sphere has begun to crumble after 10 years of one-party rule. Indians were beginning to wonder whether independent institutions — the media, the judiciary, and regulators — would remain non-partisan in an age when a single party seemed to likely to win forever.

Modi’s reappointment of his ministers seeks to tell waverers within these institutions that nothing has changed. The opposition needs to convince them otherwise. Spineless and crumbling institutions help incumbents to stay in power; the opposition must prioritize rebuilding them if it wants a real shot at power. 

In New Delhi after the election, it was widely noted how different this result felt. Normally, the people vote in a government. This time, it felt like they voted in an opposition.

Even as Indians gave Modi another chance to rule, they demanded that other parties create a real alternative. India’s long-beleaguered opposition should not let them down. 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”

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