It took nine years for India’s divided opposition to come together on a common platform to challenge the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s electoral juggernaut in the 2024 general elections.
Last week, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar played host to 17 opposition parties in Patna, where participating leaders decided to set aside ideological differences and jointly fight the upcoming elections. Congress Party President Mallikarjun Kharge said that parties had to come together to “save the [Indian] Constitution and democracy” from the Hindu supremacist BJP’s assault. Detailed discussions over seat sharing and the plan of action will be worked out at the next meeting in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, next month.
While a start has been made in forging a united opposition front to take on the might of the ruling BJP, amicably thrashing out a common program for all stakeholders will be challenging. Allaying apprehensions over when this will be possible, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee stressed that the opposition is “united and will fight together.”
“If BJP wins in the next election, India will exist no more and there will be no more elections,” she warned.
The Patna meeting was attended by several state chief ministers, including Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal and Punjab’s Bhagwant Mann, both of the Aam Aadmi Party, as well as Tamil Nadu’s M.K. Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. However, the call for opposition unity was led and championed by a galaxy of opposition leaders who have been hounded by the BJP, including Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Yadav, Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav. Left leaders Sitaram Yechury, D. Raja and Dipankar Bhattacharya were also present at the meeting.
Since 2014, the BJP has been strategically using central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation to harass and pressure opposition leaders. The successful intimidation of Dalit leader Mayawati has resulted in the near neutering of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The party is not part of the rainbow coalition of opposition parties.
The Patna meeting was initially under a cloud, with Kejriwal setting terms for joining the opposition flanks. The AAP has demanded that the Congress (its arch-rival in Delhi) publicly extend support to its opposition to a central government ordinance limiting the Delhi government’s administrative powers in the capital. Describing it as a direct assault on the “federal structure” of the country, Kejriwal has already secured the support of other opposition parties to prevent the ordinance from being passed in Parliament.
Kharge said that a decision on supporting the ordinance will be taken ahead of Parliament’s monsoon session. The AAP has accused Congress of not standing with the people of Delhi and supporting the BJP instead.
The Congress is not new to coalition politics. It led the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and was in power for two terms, 2004-09 and 2009-14. Based on its bench strength in Parliament of over 200 seats back then, it called the shots over regional state parties.
Today, the Congress is a depleted force with only 52 MPs in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. Consequently, regional parties like the ambitious AAP refuse to accept its leadership. Incidentally, the AAP came to power both in Delhi and Punjab after a bitter electoral fight with the Congress.
However, Congress’ prospects have improved of late after its decisive victory in the Karnataka state assembly elections, which followed Rahul Gandhi’s successful cross-country long march, the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Ostensibly, the Congress leadership is open to joining hands with the AAP to thwart the BJP. But its state units in Delhi and Punjab are opposed to it. The party leadership would need to discuss and convince party members to compromise for the sake of greater opposition unity.
Against the backdrop of these competing power tussles, the choice of Patna as the venue was no coincidence. It was in Patna in 1977 that the opposition parties buried their differences, got together under the leadership of the socialist Jayaprakash Narayan and formed the Janata Party. They successfully went on to defeat late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was already unpopular in the aftermath of the excesses of the Emergency (1975-77).
“The history [of opposition unity] started from here, BJP wants that history should be changed. And we want history to be saved from Bihar. Our objective is to speak against this fascist government,” Banerjee said at a joint press conference.
She called on Gandhi and Kejriwal to meet for tea or lunch later to resolve their differences.
Banerjee’s attempt to forge a united opposition front in Kolkata in 2019 fizzled out. It was restricted to a single show of unity event, four months before the general elections in May of that year. This time, things could be different, although seat sharing and national leadership issues pose a challenge.
In the UPA coalition government, UPA Chairperson and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and veteran Left leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet played a vital role in ironing out differences with miffed coalition partners. Sonia Gandhi has stepped away from an active political role now due to ill health. There is a vacuum in the opposition leadership at the top, one that can take on the authoritarian and immensely popular Narendra Modi.
Predictably, BJP leaders have ridiculed the opposition unity effort. Home Minister Amit Shah dismissed the Patna meeting as a “photo session.” “Wolves hunt in packs but they do not know they can’t hunt a lion,” Smriti Irani, minister for women and child development, said.
The success of this attempt at opposition unity hinges on the power play between national and regional parties. Much will depend on the Congress, the main national party, agreeing to not contest alone in critical states like Uttar Pradesh, for example, which accounts for 80 seats in the lower house. In Bengal, the local Congress unit shares a frosty relationship with the TMC and refuses to ally with it. In Delhi, Congress’ Ajay Maken refuses to join forces with the AAP.
It must be mentioned, however, that the combined strength of the 17 opposition parties that came together at Patna accounts for less than 200 of the 543 seats in parliament, where the BJP enjoys a formidable majority of 303 seats on its own and 353 seats with its alliance partners.
For the opposition to have a fighting chance in defeating the BJP’s “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” slogan, it must counter it with an equally emotive appeal. The voter base of these non-BJP parties rests majorly with those identifying themselves as Dalits, backward castes, and minorities.
The opposition must consolidate the mass base forged on the shared consciousness and feeling of those who are “pichre” (meaning backward), Dalit and “alpasankhyak” (meaning minority) or PDA, against the upper-caste Hindutva appeal of the BJP, Akhilesh Yadav said.
Despite its seemingly insurmountable hurdles, former Congress leader and parliamentarian Kapil Sibal believes “UPA 3 is very much possible in 2024” if the opposition parties have a commonality of purpose, an agenda reflecting it, and are ready for “give and take” when fielding candidates to take on the BJP. Whether this will fructify in the run-up to the polls next year remains to be seen.