This week, Indian politics was like a Hollywood heist film. There were offers of bribes to politicians, secretly recorded phone conversations, mafia-like movement of legislators to swish hotels, and a midnight hearing by the country’s Supreme Court.
All of this happened because no party managed to secure an absolute majority in a critical election in the southern state of Karnataka. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fell short by roughly six seats. It did its best to offer inducements to break the post-election coalition of other two political groups, the Indian National Congress and the (Secular) Janata Dal. This attempt conclusively failed.
India’s opposition has gotten its mojo back. And the BJP, which successfully attacked the Congress for corruption in 2014, has not just been embarrassed — it has also lost a lot of its political sheen.
The BJP miscalculated in Karnataka. Had the party taken the decision to sit this one out (it is in power in 20 Indian states, so it could easily afford to take the risk), it could have claimed the moral advantage. BJP leaders purportedly offered money to opposition legislators over the phone. Worse, Vajubhai Vala, the state’s governor and a former colleague of Modi, audaciously made the decision to give 15 days to his old party to close the gap in numbers and form the government. This was more than enough time for shady dealmaking. When the Supreme Court stepped in to shrink the window for an electoral test to 24 hours instead, it revealed the blatant partisanship of the governor. If his office is to retain any constitutional integrity, he must resign.
It’s just as true that the opposition cannot lay claim to any special public morality, either. Its legislators were clearly vulnerable to both muscle and money. They had to be shepherded to luxury resorts where they could be quarantined in the safety of golfing greens and buffet spreads so they wouldn’t be tempted by efforts to woo them. H.D Kumaraswamy, the Janata Dal leader whose party got the smallest number of seats, will in fact be chief minister with the Congress’s support. Is this alliance all too convenient, even cynical? Yes it is. But is it constitutional? Inarguably so.
The fact that not a single legislator broke away from the opposition camp despite the big bucks on offer brings home two facts for Modi and his team. First, the opposition, divided by a million ambitions and ideologies, has now been jolted out of its slumber. It seems ready to unite in a coalition to take on Modi’s domination. Second, and more important, the Congress and other opposition parties are no longer rolling over and playing dead while the BJP conquers large swaths of political territory.
In the initial aftermath of the Congress’s stunning decimation (in 2014, the Congress was reduced to 44 seats in a Parliament of 543 elected members), it appeared that the party might have lost the will to fight or suffered from the entitled arrogance that plagues many legacy parties. Congress leaders would suggest that even if Modi got two terms, their turn would come around again soon in the revolving-door inevitability of politics. Now the non-BJP parties, in particular the Congress, have finally shaken off their complacency and flabbiness. By fighting like their life depends on it in Karnataka, they have shown a new tenacity not just for survival but also for winning. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president so often targeted harshly by us in the media (though ironically the right wing accuses us of precisely the opposite), has shown a steeliness that many had not given him credit for.
Of course, the BJP will point to the many instances of similar subversion of constitutional protocol when the Congress has been at the helm. This is absolutely true. Buta Singh and Romesh Bhandari were among the governors who took infamous decisions that blotted their posts in exactly the same way the Karnataka governor has today. And of course the former Congress prime minister Narasimha Rao was accused of bribery. Four parliamentarians said they had been paid money to help Rao win a vote in 1993. If you ask most Indians today, it is hard to spot the variance between parties and their leaders when it comes to political corruption.
But Modi had promised that things would be different. A huge part of why he won so handsomely in 2014 is because the Congress was caught in a quagmire of cronyism and scandals. Modi represented a new way of doing things, promising to break the old networks of business mafias and politics. Thus, if the BJP’s best answer to the criticism of its actions in Karnataka is that the Congress did it, too, then what distinguishes it from its adversary?
The opposition fought well this week on many fronts: in the courts, in how it communicated its message and in being quick-footed enough to stitch up alliances as needed. It still needs to learn how to beat the formidable Modi at winning elections.
For months the BJP’s sheer domination and gigantic election machinery made it feel as though India may end up as a one-party democracy one day.
Now at least, we know that India has a real opposition.
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