Rahul Gandhi Hathras
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi being stopped by police personnel while on his way to Hathras along with party workers to meet the family members of a 19-year-old Dalit woman who was murdered and gang-raped two weeks ago. Gandhi's vehicle was stopped by the authorities Image Credit: PTI

After a gap of five years, the Narendra Modi regime in India has succumbed to the opposition Congress Party and its leader Rahul Gandhi’s demand once again. Last time it was the withdrawal of the Land Acquisition Bill in 2015 and this time in allowing a delegation of the Congress Party led by Rahul Gandhi to visit a Dalit family in Uttar Pradesh whose daughter has been allegedly raped and killed by Hindu upper-caste men.

It is not that the Modi regime has accepted this demand without a fight. On 1 October, it used the brute police force to prevent the visit of Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi. On 2 October, it deployed the same strategy to stop the visit of a delegation of another opposition party’s Members of Parliament. However, despite much bravado and deployment of a huge force, the regime blinked on 3 October and allowed the visit of Rahul Gandhi and his team to travel to the Dalit girl’s house at Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.

The government agreeing to allow the travel of the Congress Party delegation sounds ordinary and innocuous, but it is a very important symbolic victory of the opposition and it can have larger political significance. It shows that India’s opposition still has the power to force the all-powerful Modi government to listen to its demands if it fights for the right issues. Moreover, this development coincides when the economic and health crises have made the regime apprehensive about popular support.

While serious questions are being raised about the health of India’s democracy as dissenting voices are dying in the country, the main opposition party gets its act together, and achieving a moral victory gives hope that everything is not lost. In recent years, when something has gone wrong in India, critics and commentators, instead of taking the ruling party to task, invariably have blamed the opposition.

Rahul Priyanka Gandhi
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra takes a look at Rahul Gandhi's hand after he manhandled by Uttar Pradesh Police at Yamuna Expressway while they were on their way to Hathras, on Thursday. Image Credit: ANI

If the opposition loses an election, it gets blamed for lack of leadership, absence of winning strategy, and even for not having a killer instinct. When BJP uses all sorts of means including huge money power and buys the lawmakers from other parties to form its governments at the state level, the opposition is also blamed for not following the so-called ‘Chanakya’ strategy as the BJP does.

Having a smart, competitive Congress Party will not only be good for the opposition but, it will also push the Modi government to make it rethink its divisive actions and policies and to provide better and inclusive governance. There are still four more years to go before the next election in India

- Prof Ashok Swain

When the commentators or critics say opposition they invariably mean the Congress Party. The Congress Party indeed is the largest and the only national opposition party. Though there are several other political parties operate in India, most of them are regional, or even state and in some cases constituency specific and don’t pretend to hold any ideological position. Neither they have the interest nor the courage to challenge an all-powerful dissent-despising Modi government. Almost all of them are prone to make political compromises in accepting the primacy of the ruling party BJP and its leader, Narendra Modi.

While the Congress Party, particularly its leader Rahul Gandhi has never shied away from criticising the Modi’s policies and politics, the media and commentators have always blamed them for not being sharp and consistent enough in challenging Modi. In the 2019 election, when Rahul Gandhi did exactly that on the Rafale fighter aircraft purchase issue, he was again criticised for being too critical of Modi. Those who criticised him and his strategy, they conveniently forgot the fact that Modi made Pakistan the focus issue of the 2019 election, thus criticism of irregularities in the purchase of Rafale did not help to get the voters’ attention as it was perceived as being an antinational act.

A nation intoxicated

The opposition party has consistently opposed the Modi’s policies. However, when the country is highly intoxicated with a supremacist ideology and ultranationalist sentiments there are limitations for secular opposition to the extent it can go to fight for the rights of minorities who only constitute one-fifth of the country’s population.

On issues like abrogating constitutional provisions on limited autonomy for the Muslim majority Kashmir or unlawful judicial verdicts on the cases of Babri Mosque demolition and transferring that land to build a temple or denying citizenships to Muslim refugees have been too easy for the ruling regime to frame them as the issues of Hindu pride, so terribly limiting the nature and intensity of the criticism for the main opposition party. The support of the smaller political parties siding with the ruling party on these issues has made the task of the Congress more difficult.

The Chinese occupation of large areas in Ladakh had provided the Congress Party a chance to corner Modi but it is a highly sensitive national security issue and when the enemy is overwhelmingly powerful, the need for keeping a façade of national unity kept it away from engaging in all-out street protests. However, there are signs that the tide seems to have turned in oppositions favour.

Besides minorities, the Dalits and other lower-caste groups are also feeling restless under the rule of Brahmin-Bania-dominated BJP. India is at the same time going through a serious economic crisis and the growing unemployment is becoming a major issue. Modi has failed miserably on containing the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite several warnings of Rahul Gandhi since mid-February, government initiallyblamed Muslims than taking concrete measures to contain the coronavirus and initiate steps to limit its economic and humanitarian impacts.

Growing disenchantment in India

While the pandemic has made the economy worse, the farmers in the country have been further affected by the recent farm bills passed in the Parliament, ignoring the well-established Parliamentary norms and procedures and making the big business houses major beneficiaries. The growing disenchantment has already led to increasing farmers’ protests in the country. The day after the visit to the Dalit girl’s family, Rahul Gandhi travelled to Punjab to show his support for the farmers’ cause.

The developing situation provides the Congress Party new political opportunities to corner the regime on the issues of economy, agriculture, and Dalit oppression and not to get entangled on extremely important but highly divisive issues like secularism, Kashmir, and Pakistan, which help BJP to consolidate its support base.

Having a smart, competitive Congress Party will not only be good for the opposition but, it will also push the Modi government to make it rethink its divisive actions and policies and to provide better and inclusive governance. There are still four more years to go before the next election in India.

Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.