Modi is popular because he has no opponent: A look at India's Opposition politics over the years

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Former prime minister Manmohan Singh had said in early 2014 that Narendra Modi as the country's PM would be disastrous. Two-and-half years since that remark, Prime Minister Modi has proved his predecessor wrong and continued to rule over the hearts of an overwhelming number of Indians.

After over two years since he took over as the PM and despite certain odds that his government has faced in issues like economic reforms or mismanaging episodes related to late Dalit student Rohith Vemula or the JNU fiasco, Modi is still a popular leader. In an impatient democracy like ours, this is quite unique. In the past too, leaders like Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee, despite their initial popularity, could not maintain the same momentum after a 24-month period.

What then has helped Modi rewrite the story afresh?

narendra modi and rahul gandhi

The biggest reason of Modi's continued popularity is the lack of a credible Opposition leader. Even if there is no formal Opposition leader, a counter leadership is a key necessity for a balanced democratic functioning. Modi's India has neither of them and it has inevitably made him the boss of all business.

How India's opposition leaders have performed in the past? 

Nehru's time was different for he himself had eclipsed everybody else

If we take a look at the past, most Indian prime ministers barring Jawaharlal Nehru had a strong opposition leader at some point of time. Nehru can be considered an exception for the Congress had a hegemonic presence in Indian politics then and though there were leaders of weight around, there was technically no Opposition party or a leader because nobody could attain the required number of seats in Parliament (10 per cent). Nehru more had ideological opposition from the communists or regional resistance from the South on issues like language and statehood.

jawaharlal nehru

Indira Gandhi's run was uninterrupted till early 1970s when JP challenger her

But after the Nehru years, there was always a credible Opposition face to counter the ruler of the day. Indira Gandhi had an uninterrupted run till the early 1970s but thereafter with the strong emergence of former Congress leader Jayaprakash Narayan, she had a tough challenge to handle.


indira gandhi and jayaprakash narayan

JP's Total Revolution was met with the Emergency but there was no denying that the iron lady in Indira Gandhi was given the most difficult fight by a man 15 year older than her. Indira Gandhi ultimately lost power in 1977 and the Janata Party platform, which was formed under the guidance of JP, came to power. But JP's demise in 1979 saw the experiment weakened and political squabble saw Indira Gandhi returning to power the following year.

Rajiv Gandhi was defeated by Bofors and VP Singh gave the leadership

The next prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, came to power with a massive mandate (even his mother Indira or grandfather Nehru couldn't get over 400 seats) but after three years of serving in office, his government was hit by the Bofors scam and it was none other than Rajiv Gandhi's own former finance and defence minister VP Singh who rose to the occasion and capitalised on the anti-incumbency factor.

rajiv gandhi and vp singh

In those days when the slogan "Gali gali mein shor hain, Rajiv Gandhi chor hain" (There is noise at every nook, Rajiv Gandhi is a crook), Singh's face featured prominently on the streets. Rajiv Gandhi clearly had an alternative in Singh and the 1989 election saw the latter toppling the former.

Rajiv Gandhi also set the agenda as Opposition leader by seeing the fall of Chandra Sekhar govt

The era that set in thereafter was one of uncertainty. The governments of VP Singh and Chandra Sekhar after him were short-lived and just like his mother had set the agenda in 1979 to rattle the Janata government, Opposition leader Rajiv Gandhi pulled the strings when Chandra Sekhar's vulnerable government was in power in 1990-91. Rajiv Gandhi looked favourite to become the prime minister again but was assassinated during the campaigning for the 1991 Lok Sabha election.

Thereafter, it was the rise of the BJP: Advani set the agenda when Narasimha Rao was the PM by mobilising Hindu sentiments

Thereafter, it was the rise of the BJP. In the PV Narasimha Rao era, the BJP was no more a fringe player as its presence in Parliament had increased significantly and the two BJP stalwarts---LK Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee (in that order) became the Opposition leaders in succession.

pv narasimha rao and ab vajpayee and lk advani

It was during this time that the Babri mosque was demolished and Advani particularly had given the Opposition BJP a massive boost by mobilising the Hindutva sentiments. Rao though had initiated the economic liberalisation, but his minority government's failure to stop the Babri demolition showed how the Opposition set the agenda in those days.

Period between 1996-1999 was uncertain: No stable PM nor any worthy Opposition 

The period between 1996 and 1999 was again a turbulent one in Indian politics as three general elections were held in four years and there was no constructive role to play---either for the short-lived governments of Vajpayee, HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral or the opponents (in fact all were opponents then aiming for even a 24-hour premiership). The chaos came to an end only in 1999 when Vajpayee formed his third government at the Centre. It was Sonia Gandhi, who had just taken over as the Congress chief then, who served as the Opposition leader.

Sonia Gandhi as the Opposition leader (1999-2004): Nothing extraordinary but yet not ineffective

It was not that Sonia had given a great leadership to the Congress as the party did poorly in the 1999 election but she did work hard to dethrone the NDA from power in 2004. Vajpayee was surely a premier who maintained a lead over the Opposition leader (who could beat Vajpayee in his unique political stance of reaching Parliament in bullock carts to protest rise in fuel price).


vajpayee and sonia gandhi

Sonia's only high points as an Opposition leader were during the defence scam in 2001 when the Congress forced adjournments and compelled the government to review plans to send troops to Iraq to join the US-led forces during the second Gulf war in 2003.

But yet, Sonia Gandhi was still seen as a leader who gave the grand-old party a direction and the supporters knew that she had her children, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, by her sides. She deserved the credit of single-handedly taking the Congress to the doorsteps of victory by puncturing the NDA government's much-acclaimed 'India Shining' slogan.

When Congress-led UPA came to power in 2004 and 2009, BJP had virtually an ineffective opposition till the rise of Narendra Modi around 2012 

The Congress-led UPA came to power twice in 2004 and 2009 and on both times, the post-Vajpayee BJP could not make any visible impact till the rise of Narendra Modi around 2012. It was the UPA II's continuous slide under the silent leadership of Manmohan Singh which made Modi a natural preference as the Opposition leader though he had never been an MP till the 2014 Lok Sabha election.


Post-2014, Rahul Gandhi has failed to do what his grandmother and father had done as Opposition leaders

Post-2014, one can see the same inertia in the Opposition's ranks as it was during 2004-12. In fact, the ageing Sonia Gandhi and the failure of Rahul Gandhi to take off against the ever-strengthening appeal of Modi meant that the Congress could do little as the Opposition (though technically it is not an Opposition party with just 45 seats).

rahul gandhi

Modi's only realistic opponents in this year have been Nitish Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee but all of them are more regional strongmen with geographically limited reach. The lack of a credible face in Opposition at the Centre and the non-starter politician in Rahul Gandhi (unlike Indira in 1977-80 and Rajiv in 1989-91) made sure that Modi remained the darling of an overwhelming section of the Indian voters even after two years of governance.

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