Why pushing out Modi in 2019 is no pushover for a ‘grand opposition’ front
Myriad leaders have united to form an anti-BJP front. But how far will this go, given its own contradictions?
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As HD Kumaraswamy took oath as the 24th chief minister of Karnataka on May 23, one thing that stood out was the grand show of Opposition unity. Gracing the Vidhan Soudha in Bangalore were UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, chief ministers Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and Chandrababu Naidu, along with former arch rivals – leader of the Samajwadi Party, Akhilesh Yadav, and the BSP's Mayawati.
Hum sath sath hain, but for how long? Photo: PTI
Also seen were the NCP’s Sharad Pawar and RLD chief Ajit Singh. Mayawati and Akhilesh were seen greeting each other warmly. Sonia Gandhi hugged Mayawati. There were victory signs and hugs all around. The united Opposition was sending a clear message to the BJP and to PM Modi – the poll bugle has been sounded and the road to 2019 will not be a cakewalk, like 2014 was.
The BJP, led by Prime Minister Modi, has had a dream run since the last Lok Sabha election, winning one Assembly poll after another. The party now governs 21 states either directly or in alliance. Fighting for its political survival and left governing only four states, the Karnataka victory came as a massive shot in the arm for the Congress. Fearing losing the state to the BJP after failing to reach the majority mark on its own, it had no option but to tie up with the JD (S) and offer it the CM seat to save one of its last remaining bastions.
While the results broke the perception that the Modi-Amit Shah duo was invincible, the election outcome also made it quite evident that Rahul Gandhi, the newly anointed Congress president, was still no match for the formidable election machinery of the BJP, and the party would have to tie up with regional players if it wanted to effectively take on the ruling behemoth.
After brickbats, bouquets: The Karnataka victory has come as a major boost for a Congress pushed to the brink. Photo: Twitter
The Opposition strategy to form a grand alliance against a formidable ruling party is not new. It has been tried out in 1971, 1977 and 1989. What was Opposition unity against a formidable Congress then has now turned into a grand unity against Modi's BJP.
Indira Gandhi survived the 1971 elections but subsequently lost out to the combined Opposition in 1977, paving the way for Janata Party's Morarji Desai.
In 1989, 73 Opposition MPs resigned in protest against the Rajiv Gandhi government's refusal to quit, following its embarrassing indictment over Bofors by the CAG, signalling the start of the 1989 Lok Sabha electoral campaign.
Strength not always in numbers: Indira Gandhi had managed to use a united Opposition to her advantage in 1971. Photo: India Today
“For many months the Congress (I) had seemed ahead in pre-election buildup as the Opposition went through the usual ungainly motions to arrive at some kind of a unity. Now the Opposition’s manoeuvre quickly turned the tables,” wrote Shekhar Gupta in the Aug 15, 1989 India Today cover story. Rajiv lost the elections in 1989 to Janata Dal's Vishwanath Pratap Singh.
But most of these alliances did not have a long shelf life, given their leaders’ personal ambitions, insecurities and the lack of common political agendas.
Battle lost and won: VP Singh did manage to unseat Rajiv Gandhi in 1989.
Here are the probable pitfalls that the grand Opposition alliance will have to face now while taking on the Modi-Amit Shah duo.
The number advantage
The coming together of rivals SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh has sent alarm bells ringing in the BJP camp. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party won 71 out of 80 seats in the state, catapulting them to power. This was more than their previous highest state tally of 57 won in the 1998 elections.
The 2018 by-poll results of Gorakhpur and Phulpur proved that arch rivals SP and BSP could come together and defeat the BJP. Both prestigious seats, held earlier by Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya, were won by the Opposition SP candidate – Praveen Nishad in Gorakhpur and Nagendra Pratap Singh Patel in Phulpur.
While Mayawati's BSP did not fight the election, it gave tacit support by ensuring its party cadres campaigned for the SP candidate. The results showed that the BSP was able to transfer its votes to the winning SP candidate. The same modus operandi is being tried for the forthcoming May 28 UP by-polls to Kairana and Noorpur, where united Opposition candidates are being fielded against the BJP.
While this may hold true on paper, the coming together of Opposition parties may not necessarily result in the transfer of votes to each other. This can only work if the Opposition parties enjoy a distinct and complementary voter base.
Opposition unity may turn counterproductive
While taking on the might of the united Opposition in 1971, Indira Gandhi decided to use it to her advantage. She coined the slogan, “Ye kahte hain Indira hatao, main kahati hoon garibi hatao”, which helped her retain the PM's chair.
Besides helping in polarising votes in Modi’s favour, the coming together of a grand alliance may also help him play the victim card. This strategy has already worked well for him in Gujarat. The continuous and combined onslaught against him post-the 2002 Godhra riots made him into the Hindu ‘hriday samrat’ he is today.
Nothing much in common – besides fear of Modi
The only common thread uniting the Opposition is the fear of losing their political base to Modi. Four years into his tenure, the prime minister’s popularity is hardly waning. Perceived lately as an arrogant party providing no elbow room for allies, apparently using the principle of “our way or the highway”, even current allies like the Shiv Sena are not too happy with the BJP and fear losing their support base to Modi’s popularity.
Pushed to the background and fighting for its base after the death of patriarch Bal Thackeray, the party, for the first time, has decided to field a candidate against the BJP in the Palghar Lok Sabha by-poll scheduled for May 28.
Too many Davids for one Goliath: The glue to the Opposition unity is fear of total eclipse by Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI
A one-time ally like the TDP has decided to part ways with the BJP, keeping the 2019 elections in mind – but there is no saying it will not walk back into the NDA’s fold post-2019’s elections.
Leaders like BSP chief Mayawati are coming together with arch rivals SP just in the fear of being decimated in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee sharing the stage with CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury and Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan does not inspire much confidence either, given the history of their bitter acrimony and differing political agendas.
Who will lead the united Opposition?
With Congress at its weakest, regional satraps sense an opportunity to lead the united Opposition – with several octogenarians also nursing prime ministerial ambitions. Senior leaders like Sharad Pawar and former defence minister Mulayam Singh Yadav are waiting to push their case, depending on their parties’ performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Even regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu and Mayawati would love to throw in their hats if the numbers work to their advantage.
The only problem with this is the limited area of influence they have.
While Mamata may be a force to reckon with in West Bengal and some areas in Bihar and Jharkhand, she may not have much political influence in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. The same goes for other regional leaders, who may be able to take on the BJP juggernaut in their own states, but find their political base waning as they move to other areas.
With regional leaders trying to punch above their weight, and Congress as the only party with a pan-India base to take on the BJP, this is sure to cause a lot of friction in the future.
The “grand alliance” may work well in the short term – but what still remains to be seen is how long these different political outfits can work together and make way for the other to achieve their common goal – of keeping Modi’s BJP out of power in 2019.