This week, two forms of non-attendance spotlighted the opposition’s challenge in forming alliances in the run-up to the Lok Sabha poll next year.
A day before Aam Aadmi Party convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal launched his party’s “oust Modi” campaign in Delhi, he had to he’d postponed a meeting of seven chief ministers – all non-Congress and non-Bharatiya Janata Party – scheduled to take place on March 18. Kejriwal might have pitched this “G8” meet as aimed at lessons on governance, but he would have liked for it to set the tone before the AAP sounded its Lok Sabha poll bugle a day later.
Meanwhile, the Trinamool Congress abstained from a meeting of opposition leaders, including the Congress, convened by Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar to discuss issues arising out of the Election Commission’s plans to allow remote voting for migrant voters.
There’s a year to go for the Lok Sabha poll and there’s time for alliance-making to be in flux before it’s finalised. But as the idea of “run-up year” to the big battle has gained new currency over the last decade or so, thanks in part to media hype, political parties tend to adopt an advanced timeframe for battle-readiness, strategically as well as logistically.
In the absence of other clear markers of political or ideological affinity, anti-BJPism is obviously an ideological rallying point for possible opposition alliances. To an extent, this reminds one of the heyday of the Congress’s dominance in Indian politics, when anti-Congressism itself became an ideological meeting point for parties with very different ideological streams and regional heft. That’s how the Janata Party coalition of 1977, or even the National Front coalition of 1989, found its way to power – though both turned out to be short-lived stints.
The following decade, the prime phase of coalition politics of the 1990s meant that power politics at the centre was seen through the bipolarity of unstable alliances. Alliances formed the core of national politics, such as the NDA and the United Front. The tables had turned – the UF experiment of 1996 was imbued with anti-BJPism as much as the Janata Party experiment of 1977 was moulded by the appeal of anti-Congressism. By 2004, the UF morphed into the UPA, with the Congress in the driver’s seat. It’s now a significantly depleted force after two stints at the centre.
While anti-BJPism may nudge parties to converge, alliance-making diverges on the lines of the ambitions of party leaders vying for primacy in the national challenger space. Until now, this has meant that such efforts have been directed in different ways, two of which are more obvious at this stage.
The first set is more keen on giving the Congress a key role in the alliance. This, for instance, includes regional forces like the Janata Dal (United), led by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Last year, only a few weeks after breaking ties with the NDA, Nitish organised by Om Prakash’s Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal. He expressed the need for the Congress to feature in a broader alliance.
In doing so, the Bihar CM batted for a need to build a “main front” instead of exploring the idea of forming a “third front” – the oft-talked about alliance of regional and smaller parties. It also indicated that he’s seeking bipolarity in the 2024 poll and the first step towards that is to persuade potential allies to look at the upcoming election in the same way.
Even in his reaction to Kejriwal’s latest invitation, Nitish talked about how his party had made it clear that an alliance without a place for the Congress was not acceptable to his party. The Rashtriya Janata Dal’s response, while not as explicit, is likely to be on similar lines, drawing on the current governing coalition in Bihar that includes the Congress.
Other regional forces – Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, Shiv Sena (UT) in Maharashtra, Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka – have given mixed signals. The NCP, National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, and Left parties like the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are likely to tilt towards the Congress in future poll pacts. At the same time, parties like the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha and YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh may prefer to keep themselves out of alliance-making moves from either side.
The second set of parties seeking allies are mostly vying for a first-mover role in usurping the national challenger space. That implies denying the Congress any role in their combine. These mostly include regional forces with fledgling ambitions in national politics like the AAP, TMC and Bharat Rashtra Samithi. Even if their political sway is limited to a state or two, they would sniff at a chance to sneak into a national oppositional space that is now devoid of a dominant presence. In doing so, these parties aim to deny the default primacy to the Congress as the nucleus of the challenge to the BJP-led regime at the centre.
The TMC, for instance, showed signs of this line in diverging from the calls for opposition unity in the vice president elections and, more recently, in abstaining from the meet on EVMs and remote voting. Both had the Congress as a key presence. The AAP’s exclusions of Congress CMs in its “G8” outreach can be taken as a clue for its plan to seek a non-Congress formation. That, however, implies that the TMC and AAP are left with space for either strategic convergence or as rivals eyeing the same non-Congress route to opposition mobilisation.
These two distinct ways in which parties are trying to stitch an alliance send mixed signals to the Congress. While some parties accept the Congress’s significance in building an alliance to counter the BJP-led regime at the centre, some regional forces see themselves as having a national footprint only if the Congress vacates its leadership of the opposition. Since last year, the party seems eager to send the message that it’s serious about trying all means to be the national challenger to the BJP in the next general election. This has meant the assertion of its primacy as a national alternative – or at least the pivot of such an alternative – at a time when it’s being written off as a national force of consequence.
The Congress is obviously keen to wrestle back that mantle, even while giving more elbow-room to its potential allies. In unintended ways, Rahul Gandhi being disqualified as an MP after his conviction in a defamation case may be pitched by the party and its allies as a galvanising figure for the opposition in targeting the consolidation of anti-incumbency.
All these possibilities may unfold in different ways in what will be a long and eventful run-up to the electoral summer next year.
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