Nearly six weeks after the opposition’s 26-party INDIA bloc was , the process to fine-tune its intricacies has been set in motion. The allies are meeting in Mumbai this week, hosted by the Maha Vikas Aghadi, which has the NCP, Shiv Sena (UBT) and the Congress and represents the alliance in Maharashtra.
Since the June meet in Patna, which formally floated the idea of the alliance, the bloc has been trying to come to terms with the task of smoothening some of the rough edges. Expectedly, this is going to be a long-drawn exercise, marked by not only formal meets like the one in Mumbai but also the informal parleys among and across parties.
As the alliance can’t prolong its teething troubles, it is now at a point where it needs to address the vexed issues which finally shape any electoral bloc: seat-sharing, the outlining of the common candidate formula, the pooling of resources and the coordinated campaign strategy.
The wider consultations and the negotiations that this would entail has meant that the meet will aim at working out some modalities. The two-day meet, like the July meet in Benguluru, will see party leaders holding informal talks before gathering for the all-party formal meet.
More significantly, the 11-member coordination committee, as proposed by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, is likely to be constituted with the appointment of a convener.
During the heyday of coalition politics at the centre, mostly between the last three decades of the last century and the first decade of this one, such mechanisms and the role of a convener were seen as key to the stylebook of managing the diverse interests of allies. Along with this, specific committees, like the one on campaign and communication, are also to be given formal shape. To add to that, a common secretariat for the alliance may also come into being.
The coordinating structures aside, the alliance will have to wrestle with some key elements that will define the nature and scale of its daunting task in the six-month run-up to the polls.
One aspect of the coalition arrangements at the centre over the past decades was the device of the common minimum programme. Even if the pragmatism of alliances meant that such common codes meant little, they offered an ideological veneer to the expedient moves of power politics. In the nineties, they had different variants in pre-poll pacts as well as post-poll arrangements of coalition governments.
The alliance leaders have indicated that they will come up with a pre-poll programme. In a strategic sense , this is expected to be pitched for offsetting the rival NDA’s charge that the alliance lacks ideological cohesion. It is also likely to streamline the alliance’s campaign style.
However, crafting a converging code still awaits the nod of party heads.
Another dilemma, if not a compulsion, for the coalition is the one centred around its leadership. For both intra-alliance factors and for avoiding the juxtaposition with the popular appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the alliance leaders have brushed aside the need for any pre-poll prime ministerial face to project. But, in recent weeks, there have been suggestions that the Congress, as the pivot of the alliance, might explore the scope of projecting its as the prime ministerial candidate. Such possibilities, largely speculative at the moment, are more premised on Kharge’s Dalit identity as an electoral asset and also his acceptability in the Gandhi family-driven power centres within the party.
Exploring such possibilities, however, are fraught with risks too.
The idea to brush aside the leadership puzzle was primarily a strategy too. The catchment area for the bloc to rope in more allies might have been restricted if it went with a prime ministerial face. So keeping the leadership question aside was also a strategy to not repel any potential ally by claiming the larger share in power equations if the alliance manages to win the poll.
The other factor could be tactical, and comes across as defensive, even though it has its use in electoral combat. The alliance is duly wary of the BJP-led campaign juxtaposing Modi’s appeal against any leader that the opposition combine might project. The coalition may reckon that such a match-up will play into the hands of the BJP campaign.
The dilemma is that not taking such risks exposes the alliance to a different set of challenges. The indecision on leadership is prone to being attacked as early signs of instability, lack of cohesion and the signs of a future power struggle in the new alliance. Even in the emerging modes of campaign , and more so in personality-driven digital outreach, the certitude of a face to pitch can be leveraged against the speculation of a power wrestling among the allies.
The committees will also be confronting the challenge of transferability of votes from the core voter group of one ally to another. This will be particularly daunting in states where some of the allies are arch rivals in state politics. In some states like West Bengal, Punjab and Kerala, to name a few, this will take more than merely a formal alliance to get votes transferred to a common candidate. Such problems are less serious in states like Tamil Nadu where a party like the DMK has no serious competition from the Congress or the Left parties. But in many of the 11 states that the alliance partners govern, vote transferability will take far more effort to sway core voters.
Moreover, such transferability also relies on the coordination among local units of the parties, even at the level of booth cadres of the parties. In the absence of such cadre synergy within the coalition, the electoral strategies falter on the ground. In the last Lok Sabha polls, for instance, this disconnect among the cadre of allying parties was seen in how the alliance between the SP and BSP in UP was not manifested in the local organisational push of either of the two parties.
The opposition alliance will grapple with such puzzles in Mumbai next week as it makes another attempt at firming up an alliance, rooted in nebulously defined anti-BJPism, like the anti-Congressism of the seventies and eighties. Coming at a stage where the allies will start serious quid pro quo negotiations within the bloc, the trajectory of the alliance will largely be shaped by the spheres of convergence of political interests vis-à-vis divergence of paths.
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