It has taken nine years for the disparate Opposition parties to realise that if they do not hang together they will hang separately to fight the monolithic and powerful Bharatiya Janata Party. And the INDIA block they have formed offers perhaps the best opportunity to take on the mighty ruling party, they all seem to feel.
Last week, out of their first major conclave in Mumbai emerged the most extraordinary images seen in India for some time. Long-term rivals in the same room — CPI(M) and Trinamool Congress, AAP and the Congress — Mamata Banerjee tying a rakhi to Uddhav Thackeray, and the regional parties putting aside their innate hostility to the Congress. These are optics, for sure, but perceptions do matter and certainly the prime minister and his party colleagues take this grouping seriously enough to continuously mock them.
United Opposition fronts have been seen in the past. The Janata Party, formed within weeks of the Emergency being lifted in 1977, had trounced Indira Gandhi. It contained members of the old Congress, the socialists and the Jan Sangh. The National Front of 1989, which was spearheaded by V.P. Singh’s Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam Party, formed two governments in two years. The United Front of 13 parties which was formed after the 1996 elections also formed two governments. Every one of these experiments failed due to internal contradictions.
There is no saying that the INDIA alliance will also not dissolve. Nor can anyone guarantee that even before the elections, internal dissensions will not crop up on issues such as fighting state elections or seat sharing for 2024. Already, the Aam Aadmi Party has been making strong statements attacking the Congress government in Chhattisgarh, which the latter is not amused about.
Seat sharing and putting up joint candidates will pose an even bigger challenge. Will Mamata Banerjee agree to work for a CPI(M) candidate in West Bengal? Will Congress workers support an NCP candidate in Maharashtra? How will parties convince their cadre to campaign for rivals? The Congress has always regarded Sharad Pawar with suspicion. His nephew Ajit Pawar’s departure to the Shiv Sena-BJP government has only added to it. When the two met recently, the Congress demanded answers. Bihar is going to be another challenge. Tejashwi Yadav and his father Lalu Prasad Yadav are well disposed towards the Congress, but is Nitish Kumar? And where does Kumar stand, anyway? He was very much present at the Mumbai meeting, but he has ambitions of his own. He will not be amused if he sees another leader emerge.
These are not arbitrary, abstract questions. They will have to be tackled very soon.
The most-asked question today is, whether INDIA will be able to defeat the BJP. No one can give a firm answer. The BJP is not going to sit idle and will have plans of its own. While the conclave was going on, the government called a special five day session of parliament and speculation is on about what the government intends to announce in it. Simultaneously, a committee has been set up to discuss One Nation One Election ― simultaneous elections to the states and the Centre. The BJP has set the political agenda and the Opposition parties are busy attacking it.
As the elections get closer, will the BJP pull a stunt to galvanise its supporters and consolidate its vote? Already, questions are being asked about the Pulwama attack in 2019 in which 40 Indian soldiers died and which led to the so-called ‘surgical strike’ which then enthused voters, appealing to nationalist sentiments. What will be the enthusing move this time?
The INDIA alliance has just been set up. What if elections are called in the Parliament session — does it have the wherewithal to fight as a joint front? The BJP may be counting on surprise. Two voter surveys have suggested that if the elections were to be held now, the BJP and its allies will win. Of course, surveys often go wrong — the BJP was supposed to win in Karnataka recently and earlier in West Bengal, which was highlighted by television channels. Yet, the fundamental question of INDIA’s preparedness remains.
The bonhomie between various parties was heartwarming, but clearly, the INDIA alliance has its work cut out ahead of the elections, whenever they are held. Indeed, an earlier election will probably work in its favour because there will not be any time for differences to crop up. It may not win — and chances are, it won’t — but the front can give the BJP a tough fight. This time round, the BJP will not find the going so easy.
This article was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.