Can oppn leaders sink differences, ambitions to unite?

Can oppn leaders sink differences, ambitions to unite?

With Lok Sabha elections just a year away, ‘alliance’ is the buzz word, with opposition parties seeking to bury old hatchets and come under one banner to fight the BJP.

Apart from the ‘communal’ versus ‘secular’ debate, there is also the worry that a second term in power for the Narendra Modi-led BJP could reduce the Congress and much of the rest of the opposition to total irrelevance. The BJP literally gobbling up the entire Trinamool Congress unit of Tripura (the erstwhile Congress) and demolishing the last citadel of the Left in India, its increasing success in polarising urban West Bengal in its favour, the near decimation of the SP, BSP and Congress in Uttar Pradesh, its foray into the North-East, starting with Assam, are issues that the opposition cannot ignore.

While these factors have spurred talk of a federal front of regional parties or a Congress-led alliance to halt the Modi juggernaut, the question is whether any such divergent grouping will last? Is there a real ideological glue that can hold them together or is it a cosmetic unity that will crack at the slightest provocation? Are parties ready to give up or adjust their competing interests? Will the regional satraps be able to keep their ambitions and egos in check and agree on one leader to project?

The real test will be Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, which together have 122 Lok Sabha seats (80 and 42). In UP, the BJP won both 2014 Lok Sabha polls and 2017 assembly polls hands down. The SP and BSP are the main players and Congress a distant third. In West Bengal, it is Trinamool Congress, Congress and CPM, in that order, while the BJP has begun to gain traction in the urban areas and among the middle class. While the intent of coming together is there among all these opposition parties, the devil lies in the detail — that is, seat-sharing. How they work out that mathematics in the two states remains to be seen.

In UP, where the BJP and its allies won 73 seats in 2014, they may end up below 25 if the votes of the SP and BSP get pooled. Recently, when the two parties came together, the BJP lost both its Lok Sabha seats — Gorakhpur and Phulpur, held by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya, respectively) in a bypoll.

Maharashtra has 48 seats. In 2014, BJP won 23 and its alliance partner Shiv Sena 18 (41 together), decimating Congress and NCP, which fought separately. In 2009, the latter two parties had fought as an alliance and won 17 and 8 seats respectively against the BJP-Sena alliance. This time, Shiv Sena is against the BJP even as the latter is confident it can keep the alliance intact in 2019.

BJP chief Amit Shah has sought to differentiate between the main elections and by-elections. But the pattern does show that if the SP and BSP come together in UP, and NCP and Congress in Maharashtra, Congress-JMM-RJD in Jharkhand, Trinamool Congress-Congress in West Bengal, Congress-JD(S) in Karnataka, Congress-INLD-BSP in Haryana, the going could get tough for the BJP. But it is easier said than done, given the mutual rivalries among the parties concerned in the states as well as the ambitions of many a regional satrap to become prime minister.

Many aspirants

Trinamool’s Mamata Banerjee has been meeting leaders, pushing for a non-Congress, non-BJP “federal front” ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, an idea that has understandably irked Congress. Her supporters also look at her as a potential PM, but the party does not have a pan-India presence.

NCP chief Sharad Pawar has been the most speculated prime ministerial face for quite some time whenever talk of opposition unity has surfaced but, at 77, age does not seem to be on his side, besides the issue of acceptability to Congress.

Mayawati is a prominent Dalit leader, whose influence on Dalit votes goes beyond the frontiers of UP, but she has said her party will go in for an alliance only if it gets to contest a respectable number of seats. She has never hid her ambition to be PM.

Rahul Gandhi’s remarks in the run-up to Karnataka polls that he is ready to become PM if his party gets the required number of seats was met with little response from other opposition parties. There is a view that unless Congress gets at least 150 seats, the possibility of the party leading any front is dim. In such a scenario, Gandhi would have to make way for someone else in the opposition camp, just like Congress ceded the chief minister’s post to JD(S) in Karnataka despite it having won more than double the seats of H D Kumaraswamy’s party.

Many in the opposition do not believe, however, in projecting a PM face for 2019. There was no common opposition face or even a pre-poll alliance when Atal Bihari Vajpayee got a drubbing in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, which saw Congress and other opposition parties stitching up the UPA, which lasted two terms. Similarly, the United Front government of 1996 was also a post-poll arrangement.

Another challenge is that Congress, the main opposition party, is the principal rival of regional parties in many states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Delhi, where it has to fight against the TDP, TRS and Aam Aadmi Party.

While Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony in Bengaluru was attended by several leaders, the absence of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik (BJD) and Telangana CM K Chandrasekhara Rao (TRS) due to their discomfort in being seen with rival Congress is a telling comment on this dilemma.

In 1989, when the National Front government was formed, dethroning Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress, the Janata Dal had got 143 seats and the Left had 45 (CPM-33 and CPI-12). The BJP, with 85 seats, had backed that government from outside. Again, in 1996, when H D Deve Gowda became PM with outside support from Congress, the Janata Dal had 46 MPs and CPM and CPI had 44 together. While the United Front and National Front coalitions could not survive beyond two years each, the NDA and UPA alliances that emerged later,  with BJP and Congress in the lead, respectively, lasted full terms.