Can street protests compensate for Indian Opposition's electoral bankruptcy?

When it comes to the hard currency of democracy—electoral popularity and success—the BJP has been nearly unbeatable for over half a decade

Abhijit Majumder December 13, 2020 09:56:59 IST
Can street protests compensate for Indian Opposition's electoral bankruptcy?

Representational image. AP

When it comes to the hard currency of democracy—electoral popularity and success—the BJP has been nearly unbeatable for over half a decade. The Opposition has been steadily crumbling.

The only other pan-India party, the Congress, is in internal tumult. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress is eroding, cornered and in violent panic in West Bengal. K Chandrashekar Rao’s citadel Telangana has been shaken lately. In Bihar, Tejashwi Yadav fought bravely but lost. And Maharashtra is being held precariously by an ideologically incoherent coalition.

If you are getting increasingly unelectable, what else can buy political clout in a democracy? Protests.

Street protests have become the centrepiece of the anti-government, anti-BJP strategy in Narendra Modi’s second term in office. The anti-CAA protests raged from Murshidabad in Bengal to Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, Jamia and Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, Azad Maidan in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and several other cities. Several buses were burnt, trains and stations set on fire, police vehicles stoned, public property mass-vandalised.

The violent streak ultimately did a pyrrhic dovetail into the Delhi riots, in which more than 50 people were killed, according to official figures.

Now, farmers are protesting in Delhi. The violence has been comparatively less, and the naked communalism of the anti-CAA protests has been absent, either by design or because the subject of farm laws does not immediately leave sufficient room for religious bigotry.

Still, posters lionising arrested Islamist activists like Sharjeel Imam and Umar Khalid have been spotted often, also indicating that the protests have been outsourced to the same professionals.

The Bharatiya Kisan Union, for instance, was for some strange reason on the frontlines of the anti-CAA protests. They are at the forefront of the farmers’ protest now, fitting in better.

Only this time, Khalistani separatists are a new show in the circus. Wanted terrorist and fugitive Paramjit Singh Pamma showed up at the London chapter of the protests. Pro-Khalistan groups have been openly rallying support in the UK and Canada. Some have been spotted in India, vocally championing their cause to the media crews.

In all this, the Opposition does not seem to have a plan to win elections. They simply want to destabilise the establishment.
Activist-politician Yogendra Yadav has recently made remarks that seem to encapsulate the larger plan. “Even if NDA forms the government, they would not be able to claim that they have a mandate to rule,” he said after the Bihar defeat of the Opposition bloc.

He followed it up saying, “Bihar is no longer the epicentre of north Indian politics. State elections are no longer the indicator of the national mood. And elections are not the big happening place in politics.”

This clearly indicates his waning faith in electoral politics. Ironical, coming from a man whose day job used to be psephology.

Activist Harsh Mander, during the anti-CAA protest, had voiced similar sentiments. He said that the Supreme Court has failed to uphold secularism, and that the decision about what kind of country the younger generation inherits will be taken “on the streets”.

With the anarchy, communalism, and swirling undercurrents of separatism, the aim seems to be to provoke the government to retaliate violently. It can then be portrayed as heartless, despotic and cruel. After all, in the United States, the Antifa and BLM protests by the extreme Left and the police response may have gone against Donald Trump in the elections.

The protests of the Arab Spring did overturn governments, although almost all of those except in Tunisia turned into an eddy of Islamism, followed by a chaotic vacuum, and sometimes by the return of the old order like in Egypt.

The only problem with the Opposition’s plan is that Modi runs a popular government. Unlike Trump, and certainly unlike the Hosni Mubaraks and Muammar Gaddafis of the Arab Spring.

To dislodge the NDA government by street anarchy alone will be near-impossible. Even when the police use force, as it sometimes did during the anti-CAA protests, public opinion has been firmly with the Centre.

Also, just as the anti-CAA protests were drummed up even though the law did not affect Indian Muslims at all, the farmers’ protest has largely been restricted to Punjab which has a strong lobby of rich middlemen. There is neither wood nor wind to fan up a forest fire.

The Opposition will have to re-strategise at some point. Money is clearly coming in hundreds of crores to propel the disruption. The puppets of this theatre are getting rich. But the puppeteers and their goal are at risk of getting further relegated to the dark shadows.

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