Has India become a single-party democracy?

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By C.P. Surendran

For some time now, since the 2014 elections to be precise, India has been that strange creature, a single-party democracy.
The BJP continued its dominance in the 2019 elections, securing over 300 seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) out of a total of 543. It’s not much different in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House), where the BJP has climbed to 86 seats, as opposed to the Congress’s 41 out of a total of 245 seats.
In short, as the configuration of state assemblies change (the assemblies elect the Rajya Sabha members on a rotational basis), the BJP is well on their way to a single-party majority position in RS, too.
BJP’s real victory in the last decade or so has been the appropriation of the idea of benevolence. What they have achieved is the seemingly impossible task of changing the perception that they are the party that represents national interests, not the Indian National Congress, the one that had played a historical role in galvanising a whole ragged country to fight for their Independence from the British, and built ‘modern’ India.
The most drastic bills will find the easiest passage toward the status of an ‘ineluctable’ (a favourite word of Hitler as he issued orders out of the top of his head) law.
Single-party democracy
To be granted the status of the official Opposition, a party has to win 10 per cent of the total seats. That’s why India is, technically speaking, a single-party democracy.
From the relatively phlegmatic reaction all around to this situation, it is also clear, most Indians appear not to mind a benevolent dictatorship. The definition of benevolence itself could be a matter of dispute, of course.
BJP’s real victory in the last decade or so has been the appropriation of the idea of benevolence. What they have achieved is the seemingly impossible task of changing the perception that they are the party that represents national interests, not the Indian National Congress, the one that had played a historical role in galvanising a whole ragged country to fight for their Independence from the British, and built ‘modern’ India.
The Congress Party, for its part, has diligently conspired at its own downfall. Last week, a Congress leader from Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot, was sacked from the party and a senior ministerial position by the Congress.
Pilot, 42, comes from a family that swears allegiance to the Congress Party down generations. That means substantively allegiance to the Gandhi/Nehru family.
Just months before, Jyotiraditya Scindia (50), from Madhya Pradesh, had quit the Congress Party and joined the BJP. Scindia is from a wealthy royal family; a family, like Pilot’s, that has a history of great and sustained friendship with the Congress and the Gandhis.
Young Turks revolt
Both men expressed their frustration at the working of the party. Reports said, their relationship with Rahul Gandhi has not been going well for a while now. Scindia joined the ruling BJP; Pilot is likely to follow his friend’s footsteps.
Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are large and wealthy and, therefore, crucial in deciding electoral fortunes. Both young leaders had of late developed a distance with Rahul Gandhi.
That should not have mattered. Rahul Gandhi stepped down as the party’s president a little over a year ago, after the 2019 election defeat. The acting president now is Sonia Gandhi, which is not saying much for either the party or the Gandhi’s.
Why are potentially promising and relatively young leaders leaving Congress? It is easy to say — and probably true as well — that the party has no future, and that therefore individual fortunes are best forged in hotter smithies. And that perhaps explains the exodus of two.
That’s one way of looking at it, certainly. Another, an equally valid one is to ask if it is the future of the Gandhi family that is really over. Ironically, the leading members of the family, Sonia, Rahul, and Priyanka have all grown in stature against great odds since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991.
Sonia weathered her personal tragedy, waited out her isolation stoically and with grace at the hands of the late Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, led the party back to power in a subsequent election, got back into the prime game when her choice, Dr. Manmohan Singh became the prime minister.
Rahul and Priyanka have weathered many a political storm and daily media assault to mature into grounded personalities that are impressive improvements on their earlier, callow selves.
As individuals then the triumvirate has grown. Yet they seem alienated from the real politic. Is a new set of moral considerations they have collectively discovered standing in the way of achieving practical political ends?
It is possible. An Opposition normally will by default sound more morally virtuous than those in power.
Rahul factor
In Rahul Gandhi’s case, it is clear from his pronouncements and stance in many issues (on Kashmir, for instance; on the Citizenship Amendment Act, for another; on the allegedly vested intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office in the Rafael jets contract, for yet another), he stands for a more reasoned fairness and transparency in public affairs.
And most impressively, to my mind, he has withstood the sapping personal abuse he is nightly subjected to by Arnab Goswami and his team of rabid hyper-nationalists who seem convinced that the Congress and the Gandhis are in power, not the BJP.
This writer finds that role reversal — that the real power is still with the Gandhis — hallucinatory. But it must work well with the TRP ratings.
Yet, despite their personal growth, the Gandhis seem not adept at leading their party. Why else is a Pilot or Scindia leaving? The access of the younger brigade to the Gandhis has been limited of late. One reason for this could be that the old guard — veterans like Ahmed Patel, A.K. Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ashok Gehlot — stand as gatekeepers. They also seem to hold the purse strings of the party.
Is there a way out for the Congress, and India? In 1929, Jiddu Krishnamurti disbanded the Order of the Star in the East, some 20 years after it was set up to promote his Messianic role conferred on him by Annie Besant and her Theosophist friends. Krishnamurti said he represented nobody, doled out no salvation; he was just a seeker. –GN