How 'Opposition unity' can easily backfire on Congress and strengthen BJP
The party is only focused on defeating Modi, even at the cost of bolstering regional players.
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Ever since the Congress threw its weight behind the HD Kumaraswamy-led government in Karnataka, theories that only "Opposition unity" could run rings round the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are gaining traction.
Anti-BJP parties are delighted over the electoral arithmetic of Opposition unity. And the recent onslaught by the combined Opposition on the BJP in the by-polls has given hope to the Opposition that the only way to stop the Narendra Modi juggernaut is united Opposition.
However, the upshot of the unity is a vicious cycle that can be damaging for the Congress party. Congress, though, fails to see it coming.
It seems like the Opposition has almost forgotten that by-poll results are not always indicative of the trends in national elections. I am amazed to see Congress celebrating BJP's by-poll losses first in Gorakhpur and Phulpur and now in Kairana and Noorpur.
Although the results from four Lok Sabha and 11 Assembly by-polls reflect a change in country's mood towards the BJP and its allies, what remains to be a matter of concern for the Congress is that it was an RLD candidate who wrested Kairana, not a Congress nominee. Similarly, in Noorpur, it was an SP candidate who defeated the BJP. Similar to the Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-poll results, the BJP's latest by-poll jinx hints at troubles for the ruling party, but more worrying is the lack of Congress party's vision to revive itself, especially in the Hindi heartland.
This nonchalance points to the Congress' lack of goal clarity. Perhaps, the Congress is so focused on the short-term goal of defeating Narendra Modi that everything else has taken a backseat.
While it has become an article of faith that "Modi vs All" is the only narrative that the Opposition needs right now, the grand old party must take some time off to dwell on where is it heading. When veteran Congress leaders like Jairam Ramesh say that there will be only one issue for 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and that issue would be Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it reflects how the Congress is failing to build its own narrative pinning its hope on nothing else but anti-Modism, which may lead to negative campaigning.
While many are advising the Congress to play second fiddle to regional parties in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, here's what I think could be the possible out-turns of Opposition unity for the Congress:
1) Sympathy votes for Narendra Modi like that for Indira Gandhi
When sworn enemies like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party will join hands to stop the Modi juggernaut in UP, they will carry with them the risk of garnering sympathy votes for Narendra Modi. The master of oratory that he is, Modi will sway the public with a narrative that all political parties have come together to stop him from doing good for the people.
Reminiscent of Indira Gandhi's famous slogan raised in 1971 in which she criticised the coalition of disparate forces against her with "Woh kehte hain Indira hatao; main kehti hoon garibi hatao (They say remove Indira, I say remove poverty)", Modi may also set the sentiment as "Woh kehte hain Modi hatao, mein kehta hoon desh bachao (They say remove Modi, I say save the country)".
Modi pretty much knows when to follow Indira Gandhi's political playbook and how. Perhaps, this is what he may fall back on just to sweep to power in 2019. And he might even succeed in doing so.
2) Prospects of reverse polarisation
A national alliance against BJP may seem propitious, but one cannot ignore the fact that a majority of Hindu votes are consolidated around the BJP. Narendra Modi may play the card of divisive rhetoric, urging people to vote for the right-wing BJP - discrediting the viability of an alliance that rests on left-leaning parties. The BJP has already subtly set a narrative of discrediting the Opposition unity for consolidating the Hindu votes.
Also, there can be a serious backlash from the urban voters because nobody wants a "khichdi sarkar".
For Congress to emerge as a strong national political alternative, the party will have to fight shy of being a part of the Opposition unity that has higher chances of resulting into reverse polarisation. Instead, Congress must convince the Hindu majority of a development agenda - both the socio as well as economic.
3) Unstable rainbow coalition
The "Third Fronts" that ruled India in the past are known for their instability. The 1989 National Front government led by the Janata Dal couldn't last for more than 16 months. Then again, between 1996 and 1998, United Front formed governments twice — once under the prime ministership of HD Deve Gowda and subsequently under the prime ministership of IK Gujral — leading the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA to remain in office for six years.
In a scenario where the public once again ends up reposing faith in Opposition unity and a fractured mandate becomes a reality, the chances of a stable government running at the Centre for five good years are negligible. And, what most likely will follow this coalition will be a snap mid-term election, increasing the odds of Narendra Modi returning to power with a clear mandate.
Congress must not forget that when it comes to national elections, the public usually sticks with national parties, not regional players. So, rather than losing itself among regional parties, Congress must start building an agenda and represent itself as a viable national political alternative to the public. Because the truth is that the BJP has failed to deliver on its promises — and Congress must capitalise on this truth.
4) Ideological clashes
There is an evident lack of a common vision among the leaders of the coalition partners. And with ideological differences, Opposition unity may smash to smithereens in the next 10 months itself.
When in Bangalore Mamata Banerjee clearly stated that she was present to support Kumaraswamy and not Congress, her displeasure with the grand old party was apparent. In fact, the Karnataka coalition itself has raised quite a few eyebrows with JD(S) bagging key portfolios, including finance, in the deal. There is no guarantee that JD(S)-Congress alliance will last till 2019. It is yet to be seen how long the Karnataka coalition lasts when it has started to give mixed signals with the infighting that has broken out among Congress leaders.
Besides, the odds of a power-hungry DMK uniting with Narendra Modi after 2019 are pretty high — something along the lines of what Nitish Kumar did in Bihar in 2017 by dumping the RJD and Congress to stitch a new alliance with the BJP.
Congress is clearly undermining itself by feeding regional parties that aren't ideologically aligned with it. The more the Congress will be seen in the company of the left parties, the more damage this unholy alliance will do to the Congress — as the latter will be judged for the misdeeds of its coalition partners in the future.
Indeed, Congress has put all its eggs in one basket, but the unity of the Opposition is the biggest question mark hanging over the party's future. All the coalition partners of the party are aspiring for the PM's post.
Also, it's a no brainer that the road to Delhi goes through Uttar Pradesh. So, when Congress decides to enter into an Opposition alliance with SP, BSP and RLD in the state, chances are high that Congress will be left behind the eight ball. After all, Mayawati is famous for cutting deals behind the scenes. When in 1995, she sought BJP's support to form her government in UP, it won't be a surprise if she once again joins forces with the BJP or has a tacit understanding with them.
Mayawati is already eyeing 40 seats out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP. And, if an alliance emerges, SP will also lay its claim to a similar number, leaving Congress' seat-sharing status hanging in the air.
The Congress must reassess who it is fighting with and who is it fighting against
The party needs to understand that a coalition may look nice on paper, but it is not the route that a party with 132 years of legacy should adopt to make a comeback on the national stage.
A well-crafted long-term vision and public engagement are the way forward. The party needs to expand itself with a goal for at least next 20 years.
In retrospect, the Congress' dismal performance in the last general elections should have forced its leaders to adjust its outlook as necessary and insist on fighting the ruling government with a meaningful agenda, not just with a coalition.
Regional parties are eating Congress' vote share, and the party is focused solely on defeating Modi, even at the cost of strengthening the regional players.
Until Congress, as a national political party with a compelling motive, drives change in the country, it has to accept its erosion — not only from the national stage but from state-level politics as well.
It is the result of the party's complacency alone that it has been out of power in West Bengal since 1977, in Uttar Pradesh since 1989, in Bihar since 1990, and in Odisha since 2000. Likewise, in the BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress has been out of power for 15 years, and in Gujarat since 1995.
Coming to Tamil Nadu, it has been more than 50 years that the Congress played a decisive role. Any visionary party or politician would have tried to make a comeback in the state when AIADMK supremo J Jayalalitha went to her glory in late 2016.
Even when DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi and his family members have failed to change the narrative of Tamil Nadu's politics and a huge vacuum persists in the state, the Congress hasn't emerged as a significant force.
Maybe because it has stopped taking risks. Maybe with Indira Gandhi, the party also lost the willingness to take risks.
Governed by Indira Gandhi, the Congress secured an impressive vote share of 42.69 per cent in the 1980 elections, which rose to 49.10 per cent in 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi won the election riding on a massive sympathy wave after his mother's assassination.
Thenceforth, the party's vote share has declining. From 39.53 per cent in 1989 to 35.66 per cent in 1991, and 28.80 per cent in 1996, it reached 26.14 per cent in 1998.
In 1999 elections, though the Congress' vote share improved a bit to 28.30 per cent, it again declined to 26.70 per cent in 2004 elections. Then in 2009, the party resumed power for another term with a slightly better vote share of 28.55 per cent. But it reached its all-time low vote share of 19.52 per cent in 2014.
On the one hand, the Congress is slowly collapsing from the north to the south. On the other hand, the BJP is strengthening its reach.
Congress must learn from the BJP, which is expanding to regions which were difficult for the party to tap a few years back. Quite brilliantly, the BJP swept votes in Tripura by defeating the Left Front and is emerging as a strong Opposition in West Bengal and Kerala. It is important to note that the BJP gained strength over the last 15 years alone.
It would be in everyone's interests if the Congress recognised who its real enemies are. The BJP is just an ideological opponent. Alas, the strongest one at that. But, the real enemies of the Congress are the regional parties who are eroding its vote share. In UP, BSP and SP are not letting the Congress to come up, and in Bihar it is Lalu Prasad Yadav and his clan. Likewise, in West Bengal, the Congress is facing tough competition from Mamata Banerjee and the Left, not from Narendra Modi.
There is also a lesson for the Congress from Mamata Banerjee's political journey. Congress' tactical understanding with the left, led to a political fallout with the party and Mamata Banerjee. And in 1997, she founded the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) after separating from the INC.
Congress underestimated Mamata and in 14 years she dislodged the left from power. Today, AITC is known for its political dominance in the state, sweeping almost every panchayat, Assembly and Lok Sabha election. What happened in the past is repeating again with Congress' failure to oppose Mamata in West Bengal. Now, when the BJP is slowly filling the vacuum of a strong Opposition in the state, it won't be a shock to see the BJP repeating Tripura in West Bengal in just a couple of years.
Congress, thus, must buckle up and strengthen itself.
Last of all, if I have to give one advice to Congress president Rahul Gandhi, it will be to aim high like his late grandmother. Focus on emerging stronger in 2019, while setting up the sole mission of 300-plus majority in 2024. In the meantime, Congress, as a team, should take nothing for granted and fight for every vote.