The Gorakhpur bypoll has set the tone for 2019. The result is important not only for the SP and the BSP coming together, but it has also shown the feasibility of a united opposition and lent it credibility. However, the opposition lacks both a credible leader and a sustained narrative that would make it more than merely anti-Narendra Modi brigade. This is where the opposition needs to rally around Mayawati as the face of the opposition. Doing so will offer both a credible leader and a narrative that has the potential to push BJP on the backfoot.
A united opposition with Mayawati as the face offers a clear narrative of social justice with the possibility of electing a woman Dalit leader for the first time as prime minster. Having Mayawati in the lead will also negate criticism that the opposition is either merely an anti-Modi brigade or a rag-tag coalition without clear direction.
Further, with Mayawati in opposition to Modi, he wouldn't be able to make it a presidential-style contest as he can no longer pitch it as Modi, the humble, lower caste leader from outside Lutyens' Delhi taking on an elite dynast, Rahul Gandhi, or any other leader from the upper echelons of society. Most importantly, it will rob Modi and his campaign of the 'oratory' advantage as any attack, personal or otherwise, will work against Modi. He will necessarily have to be guarded in the choice of his words or claims he makes.
Consider that while making unproven allegations against Manmohan Singh in the Gujarat elections might have earned Modi some brownie points and saved the election for BJP, Yogi Adityanath's 'saanp-chechunder' rhetoric against the SP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh clearly went against him. It made Adityanath look casteist and helped ease the unity between backward classes and Dalits.
Given the motormouths in the BJP, not least the newly inducted Naresh Agarwal, it would be difficult for the party to hide the caste prejudices that exist amidst them.
Further, projecting Mayawati will provide the opposition a credible narrative for deepening democracy by supporting a Dalit leader. This will work to the advantage of various regional parties in consolidating the Dalit votes in their own states.
Especially for the Congress, which often reminds us of the respect it offered Ambedkar, including the fact that Nehru invited him to join his cabinet and head the Constitution-making process despite his differences with the Congress. It will be a second watershed moment for the party if it helps make a Dalit woman the prime minister. It will also checkmate Amit Shah's strategy of drawing on Dalit votes in different states.
Moreover, Congress party and Rahul Gandhi may not be serious contenders to form government and become PM as the party is unlikely to get 272 seats on its own, and heading a large coalition may not work to his advantage in emerging as a formidable leader in the long run.
Congress already has the precedent of Sonia Gandhi offering the PM's post to Manmohan Singh which, in fact, helped her consolidate her hold over the party and blunted the BJP's criticism of a 'foreigner' taking over the country's reins. Putting up Mayawati for PM will in all probability similarly help Rahul Gandhi acquire the image of a leader with purpose and concern for social justice.
For the Left, accepting Mayawati as the leader will be far more feasible than accepting any other regional leader. It will provide them with a historic opportunity to show that it is prepared to work under a Dalit leader. It will also provide the Left a credible reasoning for joining the opposition, which it is hesitant to if Congress is at the helm of affairs.
For the various regional parties, Mayawati poses a far lesser challenge than any other leader amongst them. She has no presence in the states that regional parties would contest, unlike the Congress with whom they are in direct competition in many states.
The key to opposition's success this time around, unlike previously, is to have a leader to unite around, rather than look like a loose coalition of parties that would start bickering soon after winning the election - the memory of the Janata Party government post-Emergency and the Third Front governments of the 1990s still haunt coalition politics. Unity under a single leader with a strong social justice motive will help convince voters of stable governance. Stability is an important issue that the opposition needs to factor in. Otherwise, Modi could well make it a strongpoint of his campaign.
With the TDP pulling out of the NDA and YSR Congress moving the no-confidence motion, the possibility of an exodus from the BJP-led NDA has gained momentum. Instead of a non-Congress alternative, which is far riskier in terms of electoral arithmetic, a unified opposition stands a better chance.
Adversity can create its own set of opportunities, and in the current situation, with grave threats to democracy itself when institutional autonomy and opposition of every kind is being undermined, rallying behind a realistic alternative is important.
Indian democracy has been robust in terms of its political dynamism, which has not often translated into social mobility or cohesion between various caste and religious groups. While a united opposition rallying behind Mayawati may not as yet bridge that yawning gap between the political and social dimensions of democracy, it will nevertheless provide a chance to revisit that question.
This alone can effectively counter an otherwise popular strategy of creating a unified Hindu nation that in essence means a halt to institutionalising the lived diversity of India, which will necessarily undermine the autonomy of the regional players and the diversity they represent.
(The writer is with the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi)