The need for a strong and cohesive Opposition at the national level is now being voiced even by the aam aadmi, as fears of a BJP hegemony grow. Judging by the tepid response to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s plea for a united front against the ruling party, it remains a pipe dream.
A lack of ideological cohesion and a surfeit of overweening ambition has consistently undermined Opposition unity. Banerjee’s appeal would have had more impact, had she thought of it before the West Bengal assembly elections, instead of adopting an ‘ekla chalo re’ or go-it-alone stance.
Five factors hinder a united Opposition in India. First, stitching together pre-poll alliances is tough. Deciding on a chief ministerial candidate, the number and nature of cabinet berths, seat-sharing and ticket distribution and so on, entail tricky negotiations.
Even if the respective party leaderships manage to strike a deal, selling it to the cadres on the ground, who are overnight tasked with campaigning for political rivals, is enormously difficult. As a result, defections and rebel candidates are par for the course and both sets of party workers lose steam.
At the end of the day, it is a gamble. Simple arithmetic does not work, because there’s no guarantee that the alliance partners will be able to transfer their votes to each other. For example, the caste arithmetic (Yadav plus Jatav plus minorities) of the SP-BSP tie-up in Uttar Pradesh in 2019 did not pan out. The BSP gained significantly more from the fifty-fifty alliance because it benefited from the SP’s Yadav vote bank, but was able to transfer its own only partially.
What’s more, the combined vote share of the two regional parties fell, while that of the BJP increased sharply, indicating that a substantial section of voters simply did not buy into the alliance. However committed to a party a voter might be, she might find the alliance against her own interests and go elsewhere.
This brings us to the second problem: the Opposition’s naked opportunism. Alliances among ideological opponents are little more than power-sharing arrangements, based on the sole premise of keeping the BJP out. Party cadres find it difficult to justify such alliances to voters, as the anti-BJP narrative is built on ideological lines.
Witness the Congress tie-ups with the Shiv Sena and the AIUDF. In Kerala, the party had a tough time explaining the Maharashtra alliance to its Muslim voters, even as the rival CPI(M) struggled to explain its own tie-up with the right-wing Indian Secular Front (ISF) in West Bengal to non-minority voters.
Nor are state-by-state alliances easily explained. Parties abuse each other in one state and partner in another. The CPM and Congress have tied up in West Bengal but are at daggers drawn in Kerala.
Clarity of stance
The Congress may get away with justifying alliances at the state level as a pragmatic means of defeating the BJP. But at the national level, where political stances must be clearly articulated, it is far more difficult to convince voters that these tie-ups do not constitute a deviation from its core ideology. Of late, with its secular credentials diluted, the Congress has fallen back on rants about the BJP’s authoritarianism and erosion of democratic values. Not the most impactful strategy, given its own track record – or indeed, that of any of the Opposition chief ministers.
Without an ideological glue to hold them together, pre- and post-poll alliances are hard to sustain, unless one of the partners happens to be in power at the Centre. In this scenario, the give-and-take necessary to keeping both sides happy is easier. Thus, the JD(U)-BJP alliance in Bihar endures, despite intense pulls and pressures.
Third, individual ambitions and mutual suspicion come in the way of tie-ups. At the national level, who will lead a grand alliance against the BJP? Rahul Gandhi, if he returns as Congress president, is unlikely to knuckle under to a regional leader. Nor are the likes of KCR and Banerjee likely to accept him.
Indeed, if Banerjee retains West Bengal, she would naturally see herself as the tallest leader of the Opposition, the only one capable of holding the BJP in check. But the fact that she did not, for all her commitment to a united front, see fit to accommodate the Congress and CPM (dismissing them as a negligible force), will go against her. Sharad Pawar, the one leader who might have been acceptable across the board, is getting on in years and not in the best of health.
The fourth factor is FOLO, or the fear of losing out on vote banks. There is always a conflict of interest on the ground, as centrist parties compete for the same votes and seek to grow at each other’s cost. By conceding a share of seats to an alliance partner, parties have to sacrifice their vote share as well. The very real probability of a permanent shift of vote banks is a major impediment to alliances. The Congress, for example, has historically lost ground to regional partners.
Finally, there are always outliers who have minimal interest in forging alliances. The AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi, for example, is not interested in a tie-up because other parties treated him “as an untouchable” before his success in Bihar. He squarely blames the Congress for the absence of opposition unity. Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik, Telangana’s KCR and Andhra Pradesh’s Jagan Mohan Reddy, too, have shown no interest in aligning with any front.
Opposition unity will remain merely a photo-op, because alliances demand the kind of sacrifices that party cadres and leaders are unwilling or unable to make.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.