Can Indian opposition parties unite against Modi’s BJP?
India’s opposition parties – a motley crew of national and regional outfits that are in power in at least 14 of the country’s 28 states – have sounded a clarion call ahead of next year’s key general election.
Leaders from 20-odd parties are set to assemble in the eastern Indian state of Bihar’s capital, Patna, on Friday, in a bid to chalk out a joint electoral strategy to take on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is seeking a third consecutive term in power next year under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The meeting is being convened by Bihar Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar, the leader of the Janata Dal (United) party. Kumar, who has been an ally and rival to the BJP in a series of flip-flops over the past two decades to continue his stranglehold on power in one of the country’s most impoverished states,
is trying to forge an opposition unity like his mentor and socialist leader, Jayaprakash Narayan, did in 1974 to dislodge the autocratic rule of then-Indian PM Indira Gandhi.
Kumar has a fight on his hands as the BJP has emerged as the largest party in the world in the four decades since its inception. Can he be the glue to the fractured opposition unity that has been plagued by constant squabbling, ego tussle, and one-upmanship?
The BJP is sitting pretty at the moment, as earlier bids for opposition unity have come unstuck, and as the ruling party secured 303 seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian Parliament) in 2019, compared to 282 in 2014.
Social justice, the alleged misuse of investigating agencies by the Modi government, ethnic violence in Manipur, and the wrestlers’ protest are some of the issues topping the agenda in the meeting, where the ‘one seat, one candidate’ formula in the 543-member Lok Sabha could prove to be the biggest stumbling block to counter the BJP.
India’s main opposition party and oldest party overall (founded in 1885), the Indian National Congress (INC, or simply the Congress), which was in power until the BJP took over in the 2014 election, will share a platform with parties that are traditionally seen to be hostile to it, such as the Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Contrary to popular expectations, the meeting will have no common minimum program – a document outlining the minimum goals of a coalition government. A common statement is likely to be released at the end of the meeting.
The biggest challenge for the opposition will be to project a face for the candidate who will take on Modi as prime minister, as India’s general elections have increasingly become presidential in nature since the BJP leader took office in 2014.
In northern India, known as the Hindi heartland, the BJP’s electoral performance was stellar, which ensured its second consecutive term in 2019. The party won 71% of the seats it had contested and bagged more than 50% of the popular vote shares. In the end, its tally of 141 seats helped it to go beyond the magic figure of 272 (50% seats plus one), despite its poor showing in the southern Indian states.
The opposition parties are at odds with each other over a raft of issues due to their own ideological misgivings, as many of them are wary of losing the Hindi-majority vote. However, all of these parties are willing to pay lip service to issues of national import such as defending secularism, federalism, and protection of constitutional values. Besides, many of these parties have contested against each other in state elections as seat-sharing is expected to be a thorn in the flesh of opposition unity.
But the elephant in the room is the Congress, which has often been accused of perpetuating Nehru-Gandhi dynasty politics, as members of the family have traditionally been among the party’s leadership. Many see the party as a bully, punching above its weight, but at the same time content to sit on its laurels, having ruled the country for over six decades since India gained independence from the colonial British in 1947. The Congress’ political footprint at the federal level is diminishing, despite being buoyed by a recent big win in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, but it remains India’s most prominent opposition party, and its smaller brethren will have to deal with it if they want to present a united front against the BJP.
The cracks in the perceived opposition unity were evident on Thursday ahead of the meeting. The AAP has threatened to skip the pivotal gathering if the Congress does not back its campaign against a contentious federal government ordinance that aims to reshape Delhi’s administrative services. The AAP has been in power in Delhi since 2015.
The splintered opposition unity received another rude jolt on Thursday, when Bahujan Samaj Party leader Kumari Mayawati, who ruled India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, multiple times, announced that she would give the meeting a miss – even though she was not invited – while targeting both the BJP and the Congress. She also took a dig at Kumar, saying the meeting he called for “was more like joining hands, not hearts,” using a popular Hindi proverb that implies fake praise and hidden intentions.
Despite Mayawati’s discordant note, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee on Thursday expressed confidence that the opposition can unite to take on Modi’s party. “I cannot say what will happen at tomorrow’s meeting. But I am certain we are all here to fight the BJP together, like a family, one to one,” she said. Earlier last month, such opposition unity was on show when several parties boycotted the inauguration of the new parliament building.
Prominent politicians expected to take part in Friday’s highly-anticipated meeting include Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and its president, Mallikarjun Kharge; West Bengal CM and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee; Tamil Nadu CM and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader MK Stalin; Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar; Delhi CM and Aam Aadmi Party supremo Arvind Kejriwal; Punjab CM and AAP leader Bhagwant Mann, Jharkhand Chief Minister and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Hemant Soren; and Jammu and Kashmir’s Peoples Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti.
Besides Mayawati, Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal of Odisha and K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi in Telangana have not been invited to Friday’s mega opposition show.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.