In a short speech on November 19th Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, made a humiliating u-turn. Barely a year after pushing a trio of laws reforming agriculture through parliament, he announced their repeal. The shame was not only to have handed victory to the horde of tractor-mounted peasants doggedly protesting at the gates of India’s capital since last November. It was to have bungled the issue from the start.
Indian farming does indeed desperately need reform. Yet Mr Modi made no effort to build consensus for his three new laws last year, instead ramming them through without debate. When north Indian farmers, many of whom happen to be Sikh, protested, he doubled their fury by tagging them thugs and traitors. The most powerful Indian leader in a generation then did nothing for months, as if the stand-off were someone else’s problem. That is, not until elections in a couple of important farm states drew uncomfortably near, whereupon Mr Modi crumpled completely.
In any other democracy a leader who flouted parliament, broke trust with an influential religious minority and insisted on—and then scrapped—controversial reforms would pay a heavy political price. But although the farm-bill fiasco is only the latest link in a long chain of embarrassments under Mr Modi, the prime minister remains largely unscathed. Admirers ascribe his staying power to personal charisma. They say he projects the strength and dignity Indian voters crave in their own lives. Detractors point instead to the deep pockets, ruthlessness and military discipline of his Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp), quietly buttressed by a web of allied Hindu-nationalist organisations and noisily amplified by relentless propaganda.
All this surely counts, yet would not suffice without another secret weapon: the opposition. Throughout Mr Modi’s tenure, the bjp’s opponents have remained divided, weak and largely ineffectual. This does not mean they have given the prime minister a free ride. Mr Modi’s withdrawal from circulation in 2016 of high-denomination currency notes, the bjp’s stoking of Islamophobia in a country with 200m Muslims, and the erratic handling of covid-19 made it easy for opposition politicians to fire up disgruntled constituents. But despite landing the odd blow against Mr Modi, and beating the bjp in the occasional state election, they have so far failed to shift India’s broader narrative.
For three decades two big trends have marked the country’s politics. One is the rise of the bjp, which is itself the spearhead of a century-old movement based on the idea that India’s essentially Hindu nature has been unjustly suppressed for a thousand years. This idea of victimhood has helped to consolidate a so-called Hindu vote behind the bjp and made it hard for other parties to challenge it without being smeared as less nationalist, or as pandering to 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 for the first decades of the Indian republic, but its efforts to keep its tent as wide as possible led to fragmentation. From running virtually all of India’s states in the 1950s and 1960s, it has been reduced to running just three out of 28 today, compared with 12 for the bjp.
The leading rival to the bjp in many states is no longer Congress itself, but rather local spin-off parties led and largely manned by former members of Congress. In some big states these parties have mostly supplanted the mother party. In others, local parties have sprung up on their own and poached Congress’s electorate. Their success has left Congress with barely a vestigial presence across much of India, and helped reduce its share of seats in the lower house to below 10%, compared with 56% for the bjp (see chart).
At the state level, all these opposition parties amount to a strong challenge to the bjp. The country’s diversity means that ethnic, caste or religious sensibilities create perpetual pushbacks against a too-dominant centre. The trouble is that compared with the bjp’s simple core message of Hindu pride and nationalism, its scattered and multiple opponents have no shared story to tell.
But Congress in particular suffers from yet another handicap: the Gandhi family. These are not descendants of Mahatma Gandhi but of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, via his daughter Indira’s marriage to Feroze Gandhi, a journalist and politician. It was under the dictatorial rule of Indira Gandhi (prime minister from 1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984) that the family’s dominance of the party was consecrated. It extends now to her grandchildren Rahul (51) and Priyanka (49), although it is their Italian-born mother, Sonia (74), who remains the party’s official head.
The younger Gandhis are personable and capable, but their pedigree exposes them to the celibate Mr Modi’s barbs about nepotism. Party insiders grumble about ideological drift, the lack of internal democracy and the overweening influence of courtiers rather than street-level vote-getters. The party has lost a stream of defectors and frustrated workers in recent years, and repeatedly been outfoxed—in the small state of Goa, Congress won more seats in a recent election, but woke to find the bjp had lured its allies into a coalition overnight. The fact that Rahul Gandhi has frequently been proved right—he called early for action on covid, and declared a year ago that the bjp would be forced to scrap farm reform—has impressed Indians less than his lack of gravitas. He has twice led his party to defeat in national elections, losing in 2019 the seat that he had inherited from his uncle, father and mother.
Mr Gandhi seems ill-suited to propping up a big but sagging tent in a raging storm, yet he shows no inclination to hand the role to anyone else. Without a better vote-catcher at the helm of Congress, the opposition’s only other hope for defeating the bjp in 2024 would be to form a broad coalition of regional parties. But little unites them except loathing for the bjp. Even this is suspect: many regional politicians would be happy to be bought off.
It is also a fact that regional leaders, however popular on their own turf, have little national stature. Perhaps it will prove that just as Mr Modi’s best ally has been the weakness of his opponents, so the opposition’s best chance to capture power may stem from the actions of the prime minister himself. But it will take a gargantuan mistake to undo the seemingly unassailable Mr Modi.
This story first appeared on economist.com