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Shrinking the saffron fields: The Opposition road map for 2024?
The Congress victory in Karnataka has certainly put a spring in the step of the Opposition, but it will take more than a winning ambition to take on the adversary in the Lok Sabha election
The victory in Karnataka means that the Indian National Congress is now in power in four states, two more than Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). No other party in the Opposition has governments in more than one state. The issue of the chief minister too has been settled by the party in four days (the BJP took a week to decide in Uttar Pradesh) following a secret ballot among elected MLAs and discussions—many of them in the open, unlike most other parties. This should give the party added confidence in the state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh later this year and provide a boost for the general elections in 2024.
While state elections are certainly not pointers to what might happen nationally in a general election, the result in Karnataka has come as a major morale booster for not just the Congress but the entire Opposition. It has breached a psychological barrier and reinforced the belief that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi can be defeated in an election, that they are not invincible.
The BJP’s electoral defeats in Karnataka and earlier in Himachal Pradesh also demonstrated that it is vulnerable in bipolar contests. In triangular or quadrangular contests, the BJP gains from the division of votes in a first-past-the-post system. It lost in Karnataka this time despite polling 36 per cent of the votes—practically unchanged from 2018—partly because of the decline of the third party, Janata Dal (Secular). This has strengthened the perception that in (practically) one-on-one contests, the BJP will find it harder to win.
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But can the opposition parties, united in their antipathy for the BJP but riven by realpolitik considerations and the personal ambitions of their leaders, put on a united front? Can they make the sacrifices it will take to not split the Opposition vote? The BJP and its allies, fewer though they are today, have reason to diss talks of ‘Opposition unity’. Upendra Kushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Janshakti Party in Bihar scoffs at the initiative of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to ‘unite the Opposition’. “You will find Opposition leaders holding meetings but they will return to their respective states and contest elections against each other,” Kushwaha said earlier this month. Union minister Giriraj Singh was equally scornful: “There is no vacancy for PM in 2024. Nitish Kumar Mungerilal ke haseen sapne dekh rahe hain (Nitish Kumar is fantasising)”, the minister said.
The perception that the Opposition can never unite is partly fuelled by mainstream media, which has effectively become the government’s mouthpiece and general rabble-rouser. Turn on your television sets at 9 p.m. tonight or any other night, and chances are you’ll find our prime-time anchors pumping their panel with questions like: ‘Will Rahul Gandhi be acceptable as Prime Minister?’ When Maratha stalwart Sharad Pawar said Rahul Gandhi should not speak disparagingly of Savarkar, or when Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) said his party would go it alone in 2024—which is not exactly a change in his non-aligned posture—or every time Ajit Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) starts champing at the bit in Maharashtra, the media starts rewriting the obituary of Opposition unity.
The disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Parliament has, somewhat ironically, damped down speculation about whether Rahul Gandhi was going to be ‘the face of the Opposition’. While the BJP would like a presidential-style poll between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi or any other Opposition leader, a wiser Opposition has learnt to evade that trap. Even Rahul Gandhi has kept his distance. He did not even campaign in Gujarat or Himachal Pradesh, though partly because these polls coincided with the Bharat Jodo Yatra. He did campaign vigorously in Karnataka, though, riding pillion on a delivery boy’s motorcycle and taking rides in public buses, but he still avoided the spotlight so that the regional leaders and Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge were in focus.
A pre-poll alliance, Opposition leaders insist, is not necessary to take on the BJP in 2024. In 2004, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was forged after the elections, which the BJP was predicted to win. What is important is that the Opposition parties agree on a common minimum programme, that they talk of the threats to the Constitution, to Parliament and to the federal structure; that they raise issues related to poor governance and the people’s concerns.
With such a multiplicity of regional parties, it is easy to see why a pre-poll alliance at the national level is impractical and difficult. Political parties that are ideologically opposed to the BJP are often also political rivals in different states and do find it difficult to reconcile regional realities with national imperatives. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) is a case in point. The mercurial West Bengal chief minister pointedly congratulated the people of Karnataka for defeating the BJP in the assembly election, and told the media the next day that she had no problem with the Congress as long as the national party left her alone in the state.
“Wherever the Congress is strong, let them fight. We will give them support, there is nothing wrong [with that]. But they too have to support other political parties… Strong regional parties must be given priority… I am supporting Congress in Karnataka but it should not fight against me in Bengal,” she said, perhaps missing the irony of the fact that her party was cheerfully admitting Congress turncoats in Goa and Tripura when TMC was contesting elections in these states to chase its own ambition of becoming a national party—and all that comes with the elevation in status.
Her compulsions, however, are easily understood. Her party’s strength in the Lok Sabha had come down to 22 in 2019, when the BJP polled a spectacular 40 per cent of the votes and won 18 of the 42 seats in the state. The BJP made a determined bid in 2021 to dislodge Mamata Banerjee in the state elections, but came a cropper. In 2024, her goal would be to win 30–35 seats from the state, for which she would have to put up candidates for all or most of the 42 seats. The Left Front, striving to recover lost ground, is her principal opponent in the state, with the state BJP in disarray after the 2021 drubbing.
The Congress, supported by the Left Front, pulled off an unexpected victory in the Sagardighi by-election in March this year by defeating the official TMC candidate. That would have rankled. With the Left Front aggressively taking on Mamata and emerging as her principal opponent in the panchayat elections ahead of 2024, the idea of all three coming together looks difficult. The BJP would obviously like a three-way split in votes, especially minority votes, which make up 30 per cent of the electorate in the state.
But while the Left Front and the Congress, which has a marginal presence in the state, may have no difficulty in aligning in Bengal, it would be virtually impossible for them to align in Kerala. These complexities underscore the difficulties in coordinating a common action plan.
Yet people are talking. Leaders from the Congress and other parties that oppose the BJP— including the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), TMC, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Samajwadi Party (SP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), AAP, Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) and Communist Party of India (Marxist– Leninist) Liberation or CPIML Liberation—are likely to attend a meeting in Patna later this month.
Also Read: Karnataka was about the survival of India
Eight states hold the key to 2024. A lion’s share of the BJP’s seats, 223 out of 316, in the Lok Sabha of 2019 came from these eight states:
Of the 316 Lok Sabha seats from these eight states, the BJP had won 223 seats. Even if it loses 50 seats in these states in 2024 and retains all winning seats elsewhere, its tally will still go down from 303 to 253 in the Lok Sabha, 19 below the majority mark.
Can the Opposition get its act together and put up a credible challenge? The BJP’s illusions of a ‘divided Opposition’ will be shattered in the next general election, says Shiv Sena (UBT) leader and MP Sanjay Raut. Along similar lines, SP leader Akhilesh Yadav says, “Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, [K. Chandrashekar Rao] and various political parties are trying to find a way. Wherever a party is strong, the election will be fought under their leadership.”
Rajya Sabha member from the RJD Manoj Kumar Jha recalls how Bihar, in 2015, was the first to bust the myth of brand Modi and the BJP’s invincibility. While the National Democractic Alliance (NDA), with BJP and JD(U) together then, did secure a wafer-thin majority in the state in 2020 by securing 0.3 per cent more votes than the RJD– Left–Congress alliance, the BJP remains vulnerable in the state. With the JD(U) having returned to an alliance with the RJD–Left–Congress, it will be a different proposition in 2024, Jha believes.
Also Read: Karnataka polls: Who are BJP's big losers?
The political landscape has undergone changes after the 2019 general election. Shoaib Daniyal, the political editor of Scroll.in, pointed out after the Karnataka results that while the BJP manages to win big in national elections, its presence in the states has been shrinking. Of the 30 assemblies (28 states and two Union Territories), the BJP is now in power in 15, of which seven are big states.
Three of these states— Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Goa—have BJP governments because of defections during ‘Operation Lotus’. After losing in Karnataka, BJP governments have control over approximately 45 per cent of the country’s population. If Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh were excluded, it would drop to 30 per cent, Daniyal points out.
Besides, neither the Opposition nor its marauding adversary are unchanging beasts. The disparate elements of the Opposition of 2019 have learnt some lessons—or so we should hope—in the four years since. They have seen not just how our democratic institutions have been emasculated by the ruling party but also its repeated assaults on India’s federal structure, its systematic attempts to weaken the states both politically and economically, to choke their sources of revenue—by tweaking the formula for devolution of finances or through attempts to corner most of the taxes raised from citizens—and the manner in which it has used the central investigative agencies to harass and intimidate political opponents. They do see the threat, and it does inform and animate the ongoing negotiations among these parties.
The Opposition also realises that it is not a level playing field any longer, with even the conduct of the Election Commission appearing partisan, to put it mildly, and electoral bonds making election funding completely opaque to all but the ruling party and its corporate cronies. All the bridge-builders in the Opposition ranks, labouring away to find a winning formula for 2024, know that the moment to sink their differences has arrived. But that still doesn’t mean they can.
The general elections of 2024 will be like no other, they say. It will not simply be an exercise to elect a government, but a referendum to determine the course of the nation in the next several decades. It will determine whether India will become a theocratic state or remain a liberal democracy. Opposition leaders are aware, says Jha, that they are in the same boat, that they are fellow travellers.
That is why the two successive defeats of the BJP in Himachal Pradesh and now in Karnataka hold out hope, they say. The electorates in the two states have demonstrated that governance, bread-and-butter issues, corruption in public life and welfare measures matter more than religion. The voters have begun to realise that an incessant high-decibel communal rhetoric is not going to ensure their wellbeing.
The Opposition is also buoyed by growing evidence that Narendra Modi, on his own, cannot ensure the BJP’s victory. In Karnataka, the BJP sought votes for the Prime Minister. BJP president J.P. Nadda even declared that if people do not vote for the BJP, they would be deprived of the Prime Minister’s blessings. Fawning opinion pieces spoke of massive crowds at the Prime Minister’s rallies and the magic of ‘brand Modi’. The energetic campaign by the Prime Minister, they said, had led to a perceptible shift in momentum—which was why BJP strategists were confident that the party would cross 110 seats in the election. This was four days before the election. The Prime Minister himself played the victim card and said he had been abused 91 times by Congress leaders. Amused Opposition leaders wondered aloud if the Prime Minister could be reminded of the number of abuses he had directed at them. Anyway, these stunts did not work this time. Of the 16 constituencies where the Prime Minister addressed rallies in Karnataka, the BJP won only two. And this too has not gone unnoticed by the Opposition—they have seen the chink in the armour.
With inputs from Ashlin Mathew, Ram Shiromani Shukla, Sujata Anandan and Syed Khurram