By Nitya Chakraborty
There are lot of discussions in the media about the recent meeting of the Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with the Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav in which both of them said that they would explore the possibility of bringing together the political parties opposed to both the Congress and the BJP. Both the leaders opined against giving the leadership of the opposition to the Congress. Some commentators are saying as if this position of the two leading opposition parties will lead to big cracks in opposition unity efforts facilitating the process of bringing the BJP to power for the third time after 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
All these speculations are exaggerated. In fact India is such a vast country with so many political parties, both national and regional that a total unity of the opposition parties in a normal functioning of the parliamentary democracy is rarely possible. Such unity can take place only in an emergency situation just as it happened when Indira Gandhi declared emergency in 1975 and her government began arresting the leaders of the opposition parties. The present Narendra Modi government which is completing ten years in two consecutive terms in May 2024, has not reached that position, where the Congress or the regional parties will ignore their respective party interests and opt for a total unity of non-BJP opposition.
So the best course for the opposition parties who want to unseat the BJP in 2024 Lok Sabha elections is to work for finding out the maximum common ground of collaboration among them to ensure that the non-BJP votes are least divided in the Lok Sabha elections. The stress should be not on total pre poll alliance but post poll alliance, if there is a hung Lok Sabha after 2024 elections. This was the situation after 2004 Lok Sabha elections when the non-Congress opposition parties agreed to the Congress led non-BJP government at the centre. The Left support of 61 MPs to the Manmohan Singh Government at that time was crucial in the formation of that government.
There was no total pre poll alliance at that time. The UPA led by the Congress was the main formation but the party got support from the other opposition parties outside the UPA. The situation approaching the 2024 Lok Sabha elections indicates similar possibilities. No opposition party including the Trinamool Congress, SP or AAP disagrees with the premier position of the Congress Party in the opposition camp in the fight against the BJP but feel that the Congress cannot be the automatic leader of any opposition front and the Congress has no permanent right to nominate their leader as the PM face of the opposition to fight the present PM Narendra Modi. Though the Congress leadership officially did not announce the name of Rahul Gandhi as the PM face of the opposition, many senior leaders have given enough hint that Rahul Gandhi is their candidate and he will be projected as the PM face in the election campaign.
The opposition parties who are friendly with Congress have to make two things clear to the Congress leadership. First, the Congress should not officially declare Rahul Gandhi as the PM face of the opposition before the Lok Sabha elections. Second, the Congress has to prove its mettle in the assembly elections in the four states in the coming months in which the Congress is the main party taking on the BJP – Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The regional parties have shown their strength in defeating the BJP in their respective strongholds. The Congress will legitimise its right to be considered as the leader of the opposition if the party can defeat the BJP in at least three of the four states in the coming assembly polls.
The political ground reality in early 2023 is that the Congress has to go solo in the coming assembly elections in six states. In Karnataka, there can be negotiations with the JD(S), and if some understanding is reached between the two parties, that will ensure a big defeat for the BJP in the state. It’s looking favourable for the Congress with the saffrons in backfoot electorally due to infighting within the party and rampant corruption of the BJP government. Even if an understanding between the Congress and the JD(S) is not possible before the polls, steps can be taken to form a post-poll alliance in the event of a hung assembly.
Right now, although Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has talked of a total opposition alliance, with the leading role for the Congress party, that may not be practically possible, and that should not be attempted also. The Congress has firm supporters in the opposition camp and with them, the Congress may form a pre Lok Sabha poll alliance. The Congress leadership, it seems has a list of sixteen such parties who are agreeable to the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.
This front, if it takes shape, is well and good; but it should have complementary relationship with the other non-Congress, non-BJP parties like TMC, BRS and AAP, which will not join the Congress-led front. In fact, except Telangana, there will be no contest between the Congress and any of these parties till the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress strategy should be to have only post-poll alliance with these parties on the basis of an alternative programme, like what happened after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
Right now, the opposition parties which are not with the Congress in its bid for leadership are TMC, SP, AAP and BRS. TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee is meeting Odisha CM and BJD chief Naveen Patnaik on March 23. She will try to bring in Naveen in her new front. Naveen is very much peeved with the BJP and the BJD is expecting a bitter fight from the BJP in the coming assembly elections in 2024. Naveen may be persuaded to support a non-BJP government after 2024 elections. Similarly, Mamata plans to talk to the Andhra Pradesh CM Jagan Mohan Reddy who is remaining equidistant from the Congress and the BJP but still friendly with the PM Narendra Modi. If Mamata succeeds in persuading him also in post 2024 elections to support a non- BJP govt, that will be advantage opposition.
A close analysis of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections results and the political developments in the last four years since then show that the BJP can lose a minimum of 100 seats due to its losses in the Hindi heartland, which it swept in the last Lok Sabha elections. This will bring down the BJP seats from the present strength of 303 in Lok Sabha to around 200 seats. If it happens, this means there will be scope for an alternative non-BJP government at the centre.
Who will lead that government will depend on the respective strength of each non-BJP party after the 2024 elections. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar mentioned 100 seats for BJP in the next Lok Sabha polls, but that is too optimistic a figure. Kumar’s predictions are on the basis of a very cozy pre-poll alliance of the opposition parties, which may not fructify taking into account the uncomfortable ground reality. Any persistent effort to form a total alliance will only jeopardise the prospects of throwing out the Narendra Modi government in 2024 polls.
Rather, the non-BJP opposition should be reconciled to the practical option of one main Congress-led alliance, and a second group of anti-BJP parties like TMC, BRS and AAP, which may not be a part of this Congress-led alliance, but will be available for post-poll arrangement in the event of a hung Lok Sabha. Then, there is the third group, comprising the YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh and the BJD in Odisha. These two parties are now staying away from the non-BJP opposition. However, both parties are alert to the attacks from the BJP to their home-turf in the coming assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Accordingly, they will decide their post-2024 poll strategy based on the post-poll situation.
The Congress and the other opposition parties should approach the alliance issue based on the present political ground reality. For Congress, the coming Karnataka assembly elections pose the biggest test of its political power in fighting BJP. If the Congress can win Karnataka, there will be a big momentum in its favour in the national politics and it will be possible for the Congress to perform better in other states. That will restore the credibility of the Congress as a dependable electoral fighter against the BJP. Only by defeating the BJP in the coming assembly polls, the Congress can make itself acceptable as a trusted leader of the opposition camp. Once the wins come, the rest will follow. (IPA Service)