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Will opposition unity help in defeating the BJP at the national election?

Will anything come of all the opposition parleys including Wednesday’s Bangalore gathering that came up with the name INDIA to replace the old and discredited UPA?

Well, we know what the Prime Minister thinks of them.

He has already contrasted INDIA with Bharat, a nice bit of rhetoric that will go down well with BJP loyalists in the Hindi-belt but may play less well with non-Hindi-speakers in the rest of India.


   Earlier Narendra Modi inaugurated a terminal at an airport named after that bravely unapologetic freedom fighter Veer Savarkar, and let the Opposition have it.


   “Their Common Minimum Programme is to increase corruption for their families. Democracy means 'of the people, by the people, for the people’,” he thundered. “But these dynastic parties have the mantra of “of the family, by the family, for the family ‘. For them the family is first and the nation is nothing.”


   The Prime Minister’s rhetoric told us how the BJP would combat Opposition unity: by going back to 2014. At that General Election, the BJP won a landslide by portraying the Congress (and the UPA) as a collection of scamsters whose leadership was decided by birth not merit; a not so subtle reference to Rahul Gandhi who was the face of the Congress in that campaign.


   The Prime Minister’s position has a certain intuitive appeal. And who can deny that the Opposition has its share of corrupt dynasts?


   But here’s the problem: as we have seen recently in Maharashtra, Bihar and other states, the BJP has no real problem with dynasts or with those it has previously accused of corruption, as long as they are willing to join the BJP or, at the very least, align with the newly resuscitated NDA.


   I am sure, for instance, that there is much to commend in Chirag Paswan’s career but it is foolish to deny that he is where he is only because of dynasty. And as for the BJP’s latest distinction — we are not against dynasts, only against family parties — I am not sure what you could call a party named Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) except for the very epitome of a family party.


   So yes, the Prime Minister is right when he points out that much of the opposition leadership is dynastic in nature. And he is also correct in saying that many opposition leaders do not have the cleanest reputations. But when he said all this in 2014, he spoke from a position of lofty detachment. Now, his party is doing business with the very people he is simultaneously condemning. The basic rule is: they are corrupt dynasts unless they come over to our side. In that case, they are honest and wonderful meritocrats.


   Leaving aside for a moment the BJP’s two-tone approach to the opposition and its contempt for Opposition unity (unless they unite with the BJP), there is also the bigger question: will opposition unity help in defeating the BJP at the national election?


"The primary positive advantage of a strong opposition alliance is that democracy will benefit from having two substantial entities fight for the mandate at the next election."

   My view was outlined here some weeks ago. I don’t believe that the arithmetic is as clear-cut as the opposition seems to think it is. The BJP gets its numbers from a limited number of states. And in those states, opposition unity will make very little difference. The SP has tried all kinds of alliances in UP and the BJP has still swept the state. In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the BJP won the last parliamentary elections not because of any split in the opposition but because voters clearly preferred it to Rahul Gandhi’s Congress.


   I am as unconvinced that the relaunched NDA alliance will make a significant arithmetical difference either. At the 2019 election, the NDA fought 543 seats. Of these, 437 were fought by the BJP on its own. They accounted for 303 MPs, the bulk of the membership of today’s Treasury Benches. Of the other so-called NDA allies who contested the other 100 or so seats, the substantial partners (JDS, the Shiv Sena and the SAD) have all broken away. Replacing them with smaller (tinier, even) parties is like counting loose change while trying to make a fortune.


   So, why then are both the Opposition and the BJP making so much fuss about building pre-election coalitions? For the BJP, the idea is to make the NDA look more like a national force rather than a mostly Hindi-belt party that wins elections on Hindutva and the Prime Minister’s personal charisma.


   For the Opposition, the reasons are more complex. Some of it has less to do arithmetic and more to do with ambition and selfishness. Many of the leaders of regional parties hope to wield power at the Centre if the BJP is defeated. They want ministerships, control of the organs of the Central government and an opportunity to direct more resources to their states.


   That is the primary motivation and while I may call it selfish, the truth is that all politicians are in the game for power and all regional parties want a better deal for their states from the Centre. So perhaps this is how all coalitions are constructed.


   There is a second reason. Many state political parties fear the punitive power of the Centre. They have been at the receiving end of raids, arrests, gubernatorial misbehaviour and an unfair allocation of resources. They believe that if the BJP wins a third term then it could get even more difficult for them to survive. They see this election as being about the direction that India will take in the future.


   This is all very well but for me — and for most voters, I suspect — the primary positive advantage of a strong opposition alliance is that democracy will benefit from having two substantial entities fight for the mandate at the next election. No country benefits from one-party dominance and every government needs a strong opposition.


   Moreover, should the opposition put aside its petty differences, then it may seem like a credible alternative to the BJP monolith. In 2004, when the UPA took office, most people remembered the experience of the previous coalitions and expected the government to collapse in a few months. But the UPA held on to office for ten years, demonstrating that if a coalition has a strong centre, it can rule for two whole terms and not fall apart as happened in the past.


   Privately, most people in the Opposition will admit that the UPA only lasted because it had the Congress as its fulcrum and a conciliatory leader like Sonia Gandhi who had the respect of leaders across the UPA.


   Judging by the reports emanating from Bangalore, Sonia Gandhi seems willing to play that role again and the Congress has suggested that it will not insist on the Prime Ministership of any future non-BJP government. That should help cement any opposition alliance. Further Sonia seems to have successfully over-ruled protests from her own party men and given Arvind Kejriwal the support he needed to stop whining and to come on board.


   Three factors will now decide the future of this alliance. One: can Sonia play peace-maker right till the election while coping with people like Kejriwal who have no real stake in opposition unity and who might well have been on the BJP’s side if politics had not forced them to become opponents? Two: the Congress needs to be at the centre of any alliance. But it can’t do that with just the 50 or so seats it keeps winning at parliamentary elections. So, everything depends on how it performs at the next General Election.


   And finally, like it or not, no political leader in India has the popularity of Narendra Modi. Will any alliance ever be popular enough to win against the Modi charisma? At the moment the answer is no. But there are still several months to go before votes are cast. And even a single month is a long time in politics.



Posted On: 19 Jul 2023 10:40 PM
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