With the opposition coming together, a compelling battle can be expected. But whether they can paper over real contradictions, and assure India they can provide a better government, remains to be seen.
If there was one political image this past week, it was that of the opposition leaders congregating to celebrate the swearing-in of Janata Dal (Secular) leader, H D Kumaraswamy, as Karnataka’s chief minister — or more precisely, to celebrate the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not acquire power in one more state. Indeed, it was the common enemy which had brought the most unlikely of leaders together.
Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati waved together to the crowds. Those with even a fleeting familiarity with the politics of Uttar Pradesh know the deep enmity, not just rivalry, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have for each other. Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief and West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, shook hands with the leader of the party she has fought all her life, Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which, in turn, believes it is at the receiving end of Trinamool violence. The Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) contemporary face, Tejaswi Yadav, touched Sonia Gandhi’s feet, perhaps in deference to the high regard his father, Lalu Prasad, has always had for her. And Sonia stole the moment with her affectionate knock on the forehead with Mayawati, with Congress president, Rahul Gandhi,looking on. Even Arvind Kejriwal, who rose to power by branding the entire political class as corrupt, was in the medley.
The image has energised the opposition. And there is reason for it. But it would be prudent not to get carried away, for there is a hard political challenge they face. First, the possibilities, which rest on a mix of motivations, strategy and hopes.
The BJP, we know well, won 31% of the vote with 282 seats nationally in 2014. This makes it the highest vote to seat conversion in Indian electoral history. The opposition has realised that the fragmentation of the anti-BJP votes enabled the Narendra Modi-Amit machine to convert their robust — but less than majority — vote share into a majority of seats. Plain arithmetic thus suggests that if all major non-BJP forces come together, the Modi machine will halt.
But logic and arithmetic alone would not have brought the leaders together. There appears to be deep fear that their personal and political survival is at stake as the BJP expands state by state to become a hegemonic force. This fear of survival, coupled with a sense that their ideological framework may be rendered irrelevant and their ‘idea of India’ is genuinely under threat, has brought the opposition together. This is important because fear overwhelms the contradictions which emerge out of egos and competing ambitions. To think that the Congress, with 78 seats, would concede chief ministership to JD(S) with less than half that number would have been unthinkable in the past.
If arithmetic and fear are the motivating factors, the opposition has also evolved a strategy. Given the difficulties in carving out a national coalition, the non-BJP camp wants to focus on a state-specific strategy and ensure that pre- poll alliances happen at this level; everyone rallies together against the primary challenger to the BJP in that state which could be the Congress or a regional party; it becomes not one, but 543 different elections; and once the numbers come in, they form an all-India coalition.
And finally, the opposition camp is hopeful because of recent electoral trends: the slim victory of the BJP in Gujarat and the defeat in the bypolls in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. They believe that anti-incumbency is finally setting in; that disillusionment because of economic factors is growing and if they can mount a campaign based on Modi’s failures, they have a powerful narrative.
But there are clear limitations of this plan too. That is what the BJP is banking on.
For one, the fact is that the Congress — the only party with the pan India presence to take on the BJP — remains electorally vulnerable. The Karnataka post-poll victory cannot take away from the electoral setback the party received. It remains organisationally weak; it is not a major player in the entire belt from UP to Bengal; and in the states where it is in direct competition with BJP, it is still not clear if it can take on the saffron machine. Without the Congress making a significant leap from its current tally, the front halts in its tracks.
Two, there remain major contradictions within the parties who may constitute this front. Mamata and the Left in Bengal, or the Left and the Congress in Kerala, or the Biju Janata Dal (which was not present in Bengaluru) and the Congress in Odisha can’t come together easily. Even the SP-BSP alliance is fragile. Whether a common adversary is enough to paper over these differences is to be seen.
The third problem is leadership. For now, the anti-BJP camp appears to have postponed the problem to post-elections. But here is the rub. Narendra Modi converted 2014 into a presidential-style election. He remains the BJP’s biggest brand and all surveys and election results indicate his popularity is intact. Can an opposition front — without a leader — take an electoral machine with a clear and popular face?
And finally, the opposition has not yet been able to relay a common narrative and assure that they can provide a stable government. The 1977 Janata Party and 1989 National Front experiments against the Congress and the 1996 United Front experiment against the BJP collapsed within a few years. The electorate does not like frequent disruptions and yearns for stability. If the sense is that the opposition cannot provide five years of coherent government, it stands at a disadvantage.
As 2019 approaches, India’s political space has opened up. With the opposition coming together, a compelling battle can be expected. But whether they can paper over real contradictions, and assure India they can provide a better government, remains to be seen.