The results of the by-elections in Karnataka, like the ones earlier in Phulpur, Gorakhpur and Kairana, have one unmistakeable underlying message. The best — and the only — way that the opposition can hope to defeat the BJP and prevent a second term for Narendra Modi is through strategic alliances.
Make no mistake, even at the end of its first term in office, there hasn't been a major reduction in the BJP's votes. However, wherever the opposition has managed to pool in its votes, it has managed to defeat the BJP and that, many believe, should be the mantra for the opposition parties ahead of the all-important 2019 general elections.
This was the start. Where will the 'united opposition' now go? (Photo: PTI)
Opposition unity so far remains more on paper and less on the ground. Despite all the public display of camaraderie at the swearing-in ceremony of the JD(S)-Congress government in Bangalore, the Congress and the BSP were unable to stitch together an alliance in either Chhattisgarh or MP.
The challenge for the opposition is to reconcile and accomodate its regional aspirations with their stated national objective of defeating the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The united opposition is up against the Prime Minister himself. (Photo: PTI)
At the heart of the problem is the reluctance on the part of the Congress and the regional parties to cede ground to each other in their areas of influence. The regional parties like the BSP and SP feel that the Congress is at its weakest and should be pressured into ceding seats to them in its traditional strongholds. The Congress wants to maximise and leverage its strength in these states to increase its seat share and retain its areas of influence, even as it looks to strike up an alliance with like-minded opposition parties.
Despite all the camaraderie, regional leaders like Mayawati feel the Congress must give more, demand less. (Photo: PTI)
The talk of a grand alliance or a 'mahagathbandhan' notwithstanding, seasoned leaders like Sharad Pawar and Yashwant Sinha believe the way forward should be state-based alliances, rather than an omnibus national alliance. "Every time all of us appear on stage together, it helps Modi play the martyr card, and it feeds into the BJP's narrative of all against one," says former J&K CM Omar Abdullah.
In Sharad Pawar's view, the opposition should ideally aim to have one opposition candidate against the BJP in over 80% of the seats in the Lok Sabha elections.
Veteran neta Sharad Pawar is one of the key forces shaping a united opposition. (Photo: PTI)
Both Pawar and Sinha have been trying to encourage the opposition leaders to agree to this formula, which allows the dominant party in each state to lead alliances with other players being accommodated based on the results of the last elections.
The reason why most opposition parties at the moment are pitching for a seat share way above their actual strengths is because their leaders fancy their chances of becoming the Prime Minister in the event of a coalition government, much like Deve Gowda and the late IK Gujral.
If he could be PM, why not me, ask regional leaders today. (Photo: PTI)
The real challenge for the opposition parties is to avoiding getting entangled on the leadership issue before the polls.
Leaders like Pawar, Chandrababu Naidu and Yashwant Sinha believe that the opposition parties should not fall into the BJP's trap of allowing the 2019 elections to become a binary between Narendra Modi and an opposition leader. "They should instead follow the same strategy that the UPA did in 2004, of not projecting anybody — let that question be decided after the results," feels Yashwant Sinha.
The results of the four states currently going to the polls will likely have a major bearing on deciding the line-up against the BJP at the time of the general elections. If the Congress can pull it off against the BJP, it will come as a major boost for the opposition and will help accelerate the process of the opposition putting up a united front against Modi. Senior opposition leaders are cautiously optimistic about a broad understanding amongst their parties when the nation goes to the polls next summer. They are predicting a substantial realignment of parties once the elections are announced, with several other parties likely to join the opposition ranks.
The opposition has its task cut out. Unlike 1977 and 1989, it does not have a strong personality like either Jayprakash Narayan or VP Singh around which it could rally together. What it has at the moment in its ranks is regional leaders, each hoping to be Prime Minister. The glue that is holding these disparate elements is their fear of a second term for Modi, and if they are to come within a fighting chance of defeating the BJP, India's fractitious opposition leaders will have to rein in their personal ambitions.
VP Singh emerged as the opposition hero against Rajiv Gandhi. Today, there is no such figure yet. (Photo: PTI)
The next few months will prove whether the opposition has it within itself to achieve what many believe is a tough — though not impossible — task.