The I.N.D.I.A alliance remains a notional coalition. Voters who had hoped to see the much-hyped alliance in action in the ongoing assembly polls have been disappointed. No blueprint was drawn up from which a working model could be created. Realising this, Opposition parties are planning a renewed push towards crafting a more concrete, functional entity.
The failure to actualise the alliance is sought to be explained by implying that it was always intended to be a national level one, meant only for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. But National Conference leader Omar Abdullah has clarified that “the topic of whether the alliance is for assemblies or not, came up again and again, but there was no decision. And now the result is in front of everyone.”
What went wrong? Quite simply, a spirit of accommodation was missing. No member of I.N.D.I.A was willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of the alliance. If, for example, the Congress had accommodated the Samajwadi Party in Madhya Pradesh, the latter may have been inclined to do the same for the former in Uttar Pradesh. But seat-sharing arrangements could not be arrived at, as is often the case when an election promises to be close-fought.
Seat-sharing is based on the principle of transferability of votes. The purpose of an electoral alliance is to aggregate votes, and this means being reasonably sure that the alliance partners’ votes are transferable between parties. This is possible if the alliance is acceptable to voters. Where voters (and grassroots party workers) do not approve of the alliance and its candidate, vote transfer will not take place and the rival party benefits.
Where voters are in favour of the alliance, the parties apportion seats depending on respective regional strengths and/or social base. This calls for a practical approach by all the alliance partners. If a partner demands seats in excess of its actual strength, the alliance stands to lose – as was the case in Bihar in 2020, when the Congress won only a quarter of the seats it was allocated, in contrast to a strike rate of better than 50% for its alliance partners.
Voters do not expect an Opposition alliance to be based on moral or ideological considerations. They know full well that it will be based on realpolitik. What they do expect from a pre-poll alliance is coherence, so that the candidates can claim to represent something larger than the party to which they belong. That is impossible to achieve if the partners attack each other.
A national-level pre-poll coalition is presented to voters as a viable alternative to the incumbent. In the general elections, they are not voting for a particular regional outfit or a party that has no shot at forming a government, but for one that is potentially a significant player at the centre. One would imagine that the positive impact on voters is worth the sacrifice of a few winnable seats.
But in Madhya Pradesh, voters recently heard Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav declare that the BJP and Congress have the same set of “principles and programmes”. This raises the question of why, if the Congress cannot be differentiated from the BJP, the SP should have aligned with the former?
After all, none of the SP’s I.N.D.I.A partners have a significant presence in Uttar Pradesh, other than the Rashtriya Lok Dal, which has nine seats in the assembly and is in any case an ally of the SP. So, what’s in I.N.D.I.A for Akhilesh Yadav? The same applies to the other regional parties. It might make more sense for them to win on their own, and enter into a post-poll coalition at the centre with a larger seatshare than they might otherwise have had.
I.N.D.I.A had declared that seat-sharing would be decided by the end of September, starting with the difficult states of West Bengal, Kerala, UP, Delhi and Punjab. One month on, the spirit of accommodation seems to be diminishing by the day. The SP has announced it will contest 65 of the 80 seats in UP and leave 15 for allies (including the RLD and Apna Dal), while the Congress has said it is preparing to fight all 80 seats. To add insult to injury, the Congress inducted three-term MP Ravi Prakash Verma after he defected from the SP. Small wonder Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has criticised the Congress for failing to keep up I.N.D.I.A’s momentum.
It is also incumbent on any hybrid formation to cater to voters’ self-interest. Parties generally assume that voters think short-term, and can be won over by promises of freebies, or ‘revdis’. But voters who are sceptical of such promises and more concerned about their long-term well-being will look for a clear-cut agenda. What changes can be expected, in terms of policies and programmes?
Therein lies the rub. I.N.D.I.A has yet to come up with a common minimum programme. Will the Old Pension Scheme be reintroduced? If so, what does Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar have to say about it, given that he had rejected the demand that OPS be restored in his state? Will a caste census be conducted countrywide? If so, will Mamata Banerjee – who has opposed it – come on board?
With constituent members pulling in different directions, the prospect of INDIA at the helm hardly inspires confidence. Voters are not averse to having a national-level player other than the BJP – the more the merrier – but no one would want a coalition at war with itself.
All is not lost. But for INDIA to work, the Congress must be more accommodative, even if it wins big in the assembly elections. As the oldest, largest party, with a wealth of talent as its disposal, it is for the Congress to show the way. Otherwise, I.N.D.I.A remains a chimera, an imaginary hybrid creature that exists only in media narratives.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author