Opposition strategy: Coalitions, leadership vacuums and post-poll possibilities

In the Opposition benches, there is a difference of opinion on projecting a PM candidate
Last Updated : 04 June 2023, 02:32 IST

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Patna’s Gandhi Maidan has been a witness to many a historic moment in contemporary Indian politics. It was here, on the fifth day of June in 1974, that Jayaprakash Narayan gave the call for “total revolution” against the Indira Gandhi government.

Overlooking the ground is an auditorium, Gyan Bhawan, where a product of JP’s student movement and now the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, is likely to host Opposition leaders on June 12.

The upcoming Patna plenary can hardly be compared to JP’s momentous mobilisation in the 70s. If anything, it is a precocious first step towards the formation of the proposed anti-BJP front ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

“Nitish Kumar is not the PM candidate but the voice of the Opposition and non-BJP parties,” says Neeraj Kumar, former minister and MLC who is overseeing preparations for the event.

He adds, “If we adopt the Bihar model in other states, we will be able to bring down BJP considerably from its current Lok Sabha tally of 300-plus MPs in the Lok Sabha.”

That also broadly sums up the Opposition strategy for 2024: Minimise the division in anti-BJP votes and chip away bit by bit at the BJP’s current tally in each state to create a cumulative deficit. The bigger the deficit, the better. A hung parliament opens up a whole new set of post-poll possibilities.

But that’s easier said than done. Elections in India are becoming presidential in nature. The voter now clearly discerns between Assembly and Lok Sabha elections and is inclined to hand out decisive mandates.

Moreover, the Bihar Model has its own limitations — constituents in the proposed Opposition front are driven by their own political compulsions.

Just last month, the lone Congress MLA in the West Bengal Assembly walked over to the Trinamool Congress, widening the chasm between the two potential allies.

In a strong reaction, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh alleged such “poaching which has happened earlier in Goa, Meghalaya, Tripura, and other states is not designed to strengthen Opposition unity and only serves the BJP’s objective.”

The Bengal paradox

The Bengal poaching is symbolic of the inherent contradictions in the proposed grand anti-BJP formation at the national level.

These contradictions can be better understood if one were to divide India’s current polity into three broad groups.

India’s current polity comprises of states where a) BJP is in direct contest against the Congress; b) BJP is emerging as a political force against regional parties, while the Congress is weak but not dead, and; c) BJP is weak and Congress or regional parties are pitted against one another.

The third grouping comprises states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh where seats generally tend to change hands between non-BJP parties. Whosoever wins, BJP is not a net gainer.

For example, in Kerala, the Left wins at the cost of Congress and vice versa. In Andhra Pradesh, the spoils of the electoral contest are divided between the YSR Congress Party and the Telugu Desam Party. In Tamil Nadu, both BJP and Congress are vassal outfits having appended their fortunes to the two Dravidian parties- DMK and AIADMK. Lok Sabha arithmetic decides who goes where.

However, the contradictions within the Opposition rank get distinctly pronounced in regions where Congress is considerably weakened and has not yet reconciled to its position as a junior partner to the dominant regional force in the state.

For instance, the rise of Congress in UP impinges on Samajwadi Party’s political space as the two vie for the minority votes. In Bengal, TMC’s electoral prospects are contingent on the consolidation of the 33% Muslim population. In Delhi, AAP and Congress are competing for the same votebank.

In Odisha, Congress’ survival as a separate but enfeebled entity suits Naveen Patnaik. Otherwise, BJP becomes the sole repository of the anti-Biju Janata Dal votes.

A similar situation prevails in Telangana where BJP and Congress are competing to emerge as the dominant pole against Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao. A split in Opposition votes right down the middle bolsters Bharat Rashtra Samithi’s prospects.

In all these states, Congress remains a potential threat to regional forces.

This is precisely the reason Mamata Banerjee and others are seemingly disinclined to hand over the reins of the Opposition alliance to Congress. A strong Congress is a potential risk. Satraps would rather prefer an arrangement where the dominant anti-BJP political force in each state is allowed to dominate the discourse while all others fall in line or relinquish their posts.

And that is an arrangement that is ostensibly unacceptable to Congress local units.

“TMC has been trying to destroy Opposition parties in West Bengal,” alleges Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, a staunch critic of Mamata Banerjee in state politics and now the lone Congress MP in the Lok Sabha from West Bengal.

“As for a national alliance for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, our party leadership will take a decision on that,” he adds.

Congress’ claims

Despite a pan-India presence, Congress’ poor track record against the BJP in a one-on-one fight has severely undermined the party’s claim to be the natural leader of the Opposition front.

Sample this.

In the 2019 General Elections, in 155 Lok Sabha constituencies spread across 10 states and some union territories where BJP and Congress were pitted against each other, BJP won more than 140 seats with a whopping 95% strike rate. In absolute terms, this constitutes almost 45% of the BJP’s current tally in the Lok Sabha.

However, the same electorate in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh has also voted for BJP in Assembly elections.

These statistics have often been quoted by regional parties to push their case for ‘collective leadership’ rather than making the 2024 elections a Rahul vs Modi contest.

In March this year, in an internal meeting, Mamata Banerjee reportedly called Rahul Gandhi PM Modi’s “biggest TRP”.

But back-to-back victories in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka this year have emboldened Congress to seek its dues.

The leadership issue

BJP has settled its leadership issues long back. Prime Minister Narendra Modi would lead the party once again in 2024.

In the Opposition benches, there is a difference of opinion on projecting a PM candidate.

Some parties want to contest the elections under the collective leadership and make the 2024 contest a sum total of multiple state elections.

The second argument, though, has a downside.

Just as the BJP has failed to secure victories in many states by projecting Modi as the face of the party campaign, success in provincial polls does not necessarily translate to Lok Sabha

“We got 104 seats in the Karnataka Assembly elections in 2018. A year later in Lok Sabha elections, our alliance won 26 and led in 173 assembly segments,” says a ruling party MP from the state who feels a leadership vacuum in the Opposition ranks gives BJP a distinct advantage.

Heartland headache

BJP’s decision to field Modi from Varanasi was a turning point in the 2014 elections. His entry into UP and subtle projection as a backward caste leader helped BJP sweep both UP and Bihar. The two states together send 120 MPs to the Lok Sabha.

In the current Opposition line-up, Nitish Kumar is the tallest leader from the Hindi-speaking belt.

In the leadership column, he ticks many other boxes — a heartland politician with a clean image who belongs to a backward community.

But coalition politics is an entirely different ball game, where at times, the mightiest perish and the meekest prevail.

Published 03 June 2023, 17:32 IST

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