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How Durable Is India’s Opposition Unity?

If you type “opposition unity” in the Google search bar and click on images, the first photograph that pops up is also one that has become an overused cliché in India’s news media. It’s a group photograph shot on the day that H.D. Kumaraswamy from the Janata Dal-Secular (JDS) was sworn in as chief minister of Karnataka and it shows an array of major political leaders with their arms raised, some of them with their hands interlocked. It’s a formidable line-up. There’s Congress’s Sonia and Rahul Gandhi; Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) Mayawati; Rashtriya Lok Dal’s (RLD) Ajit Singh; Communist Party’s (CPM) Sitaram Yechury; Kumaraswamy himself; Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Tejashwi Yadav; and Samajwadi Party’s (SP) Akhilesh Yadav.

Kumaraswamy heads a government where the Congress agreed to be a minor partner in a coalition his own party leads and their victory over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in that state is what has kindled hopes among India’s opposition leaders that they could unite to fight against a common political foe in forthcoming elections—in other states but, more importantly, in the parliamentary election scheduled for 2019. Such hopes are not without basis. Former political enemies have begun burying the hatchet and forging tie-ups, albeit mainly informally. One of the more strident opposition leaders, Trinamool Congress’s (TMC) Mamata Banerjee was conspicuously absent in that previously mentioned photograph of upbeat leaders but she too paid a visit to the Congress’s Gandhis recently and both sides talked about working together.

In India, coalitions, particularly where there are many political parties involved, have had a chequered past, usually when they haven’t involved at least one party with a stronger hand than the others. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had more than a dozen parties but it could remain in power at the Centre for two full terms between 2004 and 2014 because even though the Congress didn’t have a majority in Lok Sabha, it had a relatively large share of seats that made it the clear leader of the coalition. The Congress is the only relevant national party in the opposition—the others are strong only in regions—so, much would depend on how many seats it gets and that could decide the fate of a coalition.

Yet there are several things going for a multi-hued coalition of the type that the leaders in that photograph and others are trying to forge together. Let’s see what these are. First, it is the surge of the BJP. Besides having won the 2014 general elections, the party, on its own or with partners, rules in 19 of India’s 29 states and this strongly motivates the opposition to try and stop that surge and push back. To make that possible they have realised that they have to come together. In recent by-elections, both for state assemblies as well as the Lok Sabha, such a strategy has worked. In Uttar Pradesh, arch foes, the SP and the BSP, came together and won two key seats against the BJP. In Karnataka, the Congress agreed to support the JDS, which was once its sworn enemy, and the government they have formed, at least thus far, seems to be stable.

The Karnataka example is important because the two partners wrested power from the BJP, which was the party with the largest number of seats but no majority in the state’s elections. That leads to the second factor that seems to be going in favour of the opposition’s attempt to unite. As the BJP spreads its domain and makes forays into states such as Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal, leaders of regional parties there feel threatened and believe that partnering with other parties could help resist the BJP’s surge.

Third, opposition leaders sense that the BJP-led NDA could be vulnerable in the next general elections because its government has failed to deliver. They point to lack of jobs, the state of the economy, and the crises that farmers face. They think the “non-performance” of the government offers an opportunity for a united opposition to challenge the BJP electorally.

The fourth reason in favour of a durable united opposition is the Congress’s apparent willingness to play the role of a minor partner even though it is the only national party in the opposition with heft. This was demonstrated in state elections—in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and, recently in Karnataka.

Yet there are equally compelling reasons why the opposition’s attempts to unite against the BJP could sputter and disintegrate. One reason could be the potential for squabbling and disputes over who would lead the coalition or even have a bigger say in strategies such as seat allocations during elections. Some of the parties who are trying to unite have been bitter enemies and have comparable strengths and that could get in the way of the compromises that constituents of any coalition have to inevitably make.

The SP and BSP have been always been arch enemies in UP and although they came together for by-polls for a couple of seats, joining hands to contest a full-fledged Lok Sabha election could be fraught with uncertainties. Expecting the CPM and TMC, who have always been daggers drawn in Bengal, to work together can seem unrealistic. Likewise, in the south, the Telugu Desam party (TDP) and the YRS Congress Party (YRSCP) can’t bury their differences and join hands. And in Jammu & Kashmir, where the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) alliance with the BJP broke up recently, it can’t work in an alliance where there’s also its rival, the National Conference (NC).

Also, for the general election, the Congress would want to project party president Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate. Fighting the NDA, which will seek a second term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without a PM candidate would be disastrous for the opposition. The problem is that many opposition leaders, including heavyweights such as the Nationalist Congress party’s (NCP) Sharad Pawar, Mayawati, and Mamata Banerjee, who will all want key portfolios as Union ministers in the event that the opposition gets to form a government, could bristle if they had to serve under Mr. Gandhi who, although 48 years old and active in politics for nearly 15 years, is still widely considered to be inexperienced.

An opposition alliance that could resemble a rag-tag gathering of bickering constituents would hardly help the cause of challenging the BJP’s election machinery, a carefully honed apparatus that the party’s president Amit Shah leads and where its star campaigner is Mr. Modi himself. Voters are unlikely put their faith in a coalition of parties that is rife with conflicting interests and a government that is likely to fall apart. No one would like to trust the country’s future and security to a weak coalition government that can fall at any time.  Also, despite the disappointment with his government’s performance, particularly on employment and the promises of “better days” that he made in his aggressive 2014 campaign, several opinion surveys show that Mr. Modi still remains the most popular leader.

Recently, at its working committee meeting, the Congress is said to have resolved that its campaigns (in state elections as well as the one for Lok Sabha) would focus on the alleged irregularities in the defence deal with France’s Dassault Rafale for buying fighter aircraft and on suspected bank frauds. That may be a mistake. Most people who vote in India are ones that are concerned about their own future: their security, financial, social, or otherwise; and prospects for the future of their children and families. Telling them about how the government may have screwed up a defence deal or how tycoons were allowed to defraud banks and flee may not help in getting their votes.

On the other hand, in a nation where hundreds of millions still vote on the basis of caste, Mr. Modi’s government is pushing through laws that will greater protect backward castes, scheduled tribes (ST) and scheduled castes (SC). The first is a bill that accords constitutional status to the National Commission on Other Backward Castes; and the second is one that strengthens the provisions for punitive action against any crimes against SCs or STs.

If the opposition is serious about challenging the BJP and its allies in forthcoming elections, it must focus on issues that matter to the average Indian voter. Otherwise the latter could be swayed to decide in favour of giving Mr. Modi another five years to deliver on his promise of ushering in “better days”.

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