From arrests to defections, it’s not easy being the Opposition in India today

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On Sunday, the Central Bureau of investigation arrested the Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, who belongs to the Aam Aadmi Party. Before this, on Thursday, the Congress’s spokesperson was arrested by the Assam Police on charges of being disrespecting the prime minister. Another Opposition spokesperson, this time from the Trinamool, has been in jail for a month, after being arrested by the Gujarat Police.

Meanwhile, over in Maharashtra, former chief minister Uddhav Thackeray finds himself without a party. On February 17, the Election Commission delivered a controversial decision to recognise a breakaway faction of the Shiv Sena as the real Shiv Sena. Uddhav Thackeray, who had been chief minister of Maharashtra, has been kicked out of the party he headed till 2022.

As all these examples show, it’s not easy being an Opposition party in India today. More than ever before in Indian history, the democratic playing field is not level, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party holding a massive advantage.

Running away with the party

Before we go to the most troubling example of the arrest of senior leaders, let’s take a look at what happened to the Shiv Sena, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s oldest ally. In 2019, the two split in a highly acrimonious feud. While the coalition had won a majority of seats, the Shiv Sena pulled out, unhappy with power sharing arrangements with the BJP. Instead, it allied with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Indian National Congress to form the government.

At the time, the party’s leader, Uddhav Thackeray bitterly blamed the BJP for making attempts to “destroy us in our own home”, blaming his party’s coalition with the BJP for the Sena’s decline. Indeed, while the two parties started out as the Sena being the senior partner in the state, in the 2019 elections, the positions had been reversed.

Unfortunately for Thackeray his fears came true in spite of his last-minute decision to leave the BJP. In 2022, his party split. The defectors, while not joining the BJP, seemed to have the party’s support, taking shelter in the BJP-ruled state of Assam. More bad luck for Thackeray came in the form of rulings from the Supreme Court, which undercut the Anti-Defection law and, in one case, even one of its earlier rulings on the powers of the speaker (who was, at the time, a Sena man). Under these conditions, the Supreme Court then allowed a floor test, leading to the collapse of the government.

In theory, the Supreme Court orders in the Maharashtra case were interim. But, of course, now that Thackeray has lost control of the party itself, not to mention his ministry, any final order would be of little interest to him. Not only had his government been brought down but his party itself had been snatched away from Thackeray.

What has happened to the Shiv Sena is an example of the difficulties Opposition parties face when taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party. On every count, from the courts to the Election Commission to losing legislators to the alleged lure of money, the Shiv Sena has been checkmated by the BJP – even before it faced an election.

How has the BJP managed to stifle the Opposition so thoroughly?

Outspending the competition

The first disjunction is money. The BJP’s domination when it comes to funds is extreme. One analysis published by election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms reveals that the party received nearly 80% of all donations given to national parties in the year 2021-’22. The BJP received more than six times the donations that the next highest party received. James Manor, a British academic who is an expert on Indian politics, estimates that in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had an incredible 18 times more money than all other parties combined.

Partly from this flows the BJP’s media control. Much of the English and Hindi-language television media is openly partisan in favour of the BJP. The Opposition either gets little space or gets attacked. In a country with 1.4 billion people, mass media is critical for messaging. Without it, the Opposition faces an uphill battle in simply reaching the voter, much less convincing her to vote for it.

Money also means the BJP has a unique advantage when it comes to playing off party factions in the Opposition, fatally wounding their leadership. In fact, of the eight major states where the BJP is currently in power, governments in three have been formed as a result of defections. Given its deep pockets, an election loss for the BJP does not necessarily means it stays out of power.

No recourse to the law

The BJP’s capture of institutions means that the legal safeguards put in place to ensure a level playing field are now severely damaged. In theory, India’s Anti-Defection law is meant to prevent defections. However, of late, courts have used a string of interim orders to deny the law’s protection to Opposition parties in the states. To add to this, the Election Commission’s decisions, like in the Shiv Sena case, make Opposition allegations that it is not an unbiased umpire louder. Questions around how Election Commissioners are appointed have even reached the Supreme Court, with petitioners pointing out that the current system allows the Union government full leeway in appointments.

A similar institutional capture plays out with central law enforcement agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate. As Scroll has reported, the Modi government has weaponised the ED to go after the Opposition, slapping cases on them so flimsy, they almost never result in convictions. In Opposition states from West Bengal to Delhi, ministers have been jailed by the CBI, hobbling state governments who have won massive mandates at the ballot box. Given this is partisan action, BJP leaders (such as Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma) have not faced arrest in spite of being accused in corruption scams.

The frequent arrest of senior leaders and even ministers is especially serious. Indian politics can often be quite violent at the grassroots but one thing that has kept democracy alive is that senior Opposition leaders do not, beyond a point, face the vendetta of the ruling government. In this, India stands in stark contrast to its neighbours. Bangladesh’s main Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, for example has been in jail or house arrest since 2018 on charges of corruption. Pakistan’s longest-serving prime minister is in exile in the United Kingdom, given that he would be arrested for corruption were he to return to Pakistan.

However, this gap between India and its neighbours seems to be narrowing. Clearly, it is not easy being an Opposition leader in India today.

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