After Kumaraswamy’s oath-taking ceremony in Karnataka last year, the stage was set again to showcase the opposition unity ahead of 2019 elections. This time it was Mamata Banerjee’s rally at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground that resulted in the assembly of a galaxy of leaders from 20 opposition parties, with one united voice to oust BJP from power in the upcoming general elections. An estimated half-a-million people were in attendance at the rally. Political leaders from 14 states shared the stage at the event, an initiative of West Bengal CM – Mamata Banerjee, kick-starting the opposition’s election campaign.
“This gathbandhan (alliance) has been formed to save the people of the nation and give them justice. Everyone has to come together for the sake of the nation. Whichever party is powerful in a certain state should be allowed and strongly supported to fight the BJP there. One city or state is not important but the country is very important. That’s why collective leadership is vital. We will decide on the prime minister after the Lok Sabha polls… The BJP government has crossed its expiry date. We all have to fight together to ensure that they are defeated,” declared Mamata Banerjee in her statement at the rally.
All the key issues were figured in the speeches of opposition leaders at the rally, where former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal (Secular) also made some very important and pertinent points.
“A small group of leaders must immediately be formed to draft an election manifesto and policy document. Leaders must work on seat sharing in every state. This is a Herculean task and there is little time left. BJP is saying that this alliance has no leader or agenda… we must come up with a clear-cut programme to instil confidence among the people,” said Deve Gowda.
The basic idea behind ‘Mahagathbandhan’ is that BJP got only 31% vote in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but still managed to get a thumping majority with 282 seats nationally. The rest 69% votes were distributed among the opposition parties, which, if opposition parties fight collectively, may stop BJP from coming to power.
The probability of a ‘Modi V/s Rest’ has thrown the 2019 battleground wide open. While charisma remains Modi’s best asset, arithmetic is the Opposition’s strong point, especially if the plan of ‘One-On-One’ contest in most Lok Sabha constituencies becomes successful.
Given the difficulties in carving out a national coalition, the non-BJP parties want to focus on a state-specific strategy and ensure that pre-poll alliances happen at a state level and everyone rallies together to give tough challenge to BJP.
The Opposition parties trying to float a united front still lack an alternative agenda or a counter-narrative. The BJP has a reasonably clear ideology. On the other hand, Opposition parties have diverse ideological backgrounds and some of them are fierce rivals on the ground in some states.
Actual hard work lies in mobilising the people locally (like the Kisan Mukti March did at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi), then arriving at mutually agreeable seat-sharing (like SP-BSP did in UP) and finally convincing the core voters to transfer their votes to alliance partners.
Can an opposition front without a leader take on formidable BJP with a clear and popular face? This is the question for which opposition has to find a counter-narrative and a befitting answer, which can appeal to the masses.
And finally, the opposition has not yet been able to relay a common narrative and assure that they can provide a stable government. The 1977 Janata Party and 1989 National Front experiments against the Congress and the 1996 United Front experiment against the BJP failed miserably.
The electorate does not like frequent disruptions and yearns for stability. If the sense is that the opposition cannot provide a stable five years of coherent government, then it stands as a big disadvantage.
The recasting of Congress — with the Congress President now more vocal, having a smarter social media presence, speaking aggressively in parliament and interacting with the media — is all part of Congress coming out of dormancy and reinventing itself.
The latest win in three assembly states has given a new boost to the morale of the Congress cadre. Rahul Gandhi too has become more sharp, crisp and pointed in his attack on BJP laced with a witty sense of humour.
A 5-0 defeat in assembly elections for the ruling BJP government has delivered a momentum to the challenger – Congress and a reality check to the ruling BJP.
Now with the entry of Priyanka Gandhi in active politics, one has to see how this factor is going to play in the upcoming months. With Priyanka given the responsibility of Eastern UP before 2019 elections, everyone is eager to see how she delivers in her first political assignment.
However, in the present circumstances, by focusing too much on ‘personality-centric’ narratives, the Congress will be losing the gained momentum. Hence, it should keep its focus on ‘people-centric’ issues.
The BJP very well knows the personal popularity of Narendra Modi which gives him the natural advantage in any clash of individuals on the national stage. It has cleverly made both the Congress and the regional parties defensive about not having a national leader with a mass appeal who can lead the nation decisively.
The BJP is highlighting the opposition’s weaknesses that the voters may not respond well to a ‘Khichdi – Sarkaar’. The entire narrative of ‘Mazboot’ V/S ‘Mazboor’ Sarkaar is being created by BJP, to take a dig at the Mahagathbandhan.
The opposition parties need to understand that the only way for them to have a chance in 2019 is by fighting the BJP locally in 543 constituencies.
The federal front needs to focus on its natural strengths: strong regional leaders, strengthening state leadership, loyal caste arithmetic, highlighting relevant public issues and establishing strong roots in the home-grown language, culture and ethnic identity.
Each party has to ensure its own support base and then build local state-level coalitions.
Opposition unity could actually make a difference in UP, Maharashtra, Bihar, and Jharkhand — states that account for 182 seats out of all. If unity takes shape here, the BJP could lose a substantial no. of seats.
Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have already declared their alliance seats in UP and Ajit Singh’s RLD is also joining them. Bihar already has an RJD-Congress alliance. The Congress-NCP alliance is also taking shape in Maharashtra. All this is going to make things difficult for the BJP.
As 2019 election countdown starts, India’s political space has opened up. With the opposition parties coming together, a compelling battle can be expected.
But whether they can overcome real contradictions, fight collectively and assure the country that they can provide a better, stable and effective government, remains to be seen.