Beyond Optics, Opposition Unity Project Yet to Cross Multiple Hurdles
Opposition leaders addressing a press conference in Bihar's Patna after holding a four-hour-long meeting. Image Courtesy: PTI
New Delhi: The Patna conclave of 15 Opposition parties consciously displayed a camaraderie and a resolve to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a formidable force in the 2024 general elections. Except for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal, who left the June 23 meeting held in the Bihar capital midway, there seemed to be a consensus among almost all leaders that the sitting garnered positive results.
But political observers believe that different stakeholders of the anti-BJP bloc — which is likely to be named as ‘Patriotic Democratic Alliance’ (PDA) — are yet to pass the litmus test of their ego and sacrifices. The next round of deliberations on the likely alliance is scheduled to be held in mid-July in Bengaluru.
To be hosted by the Congress, top Opposition leaders would negotiate seat-sharing and formulate a common strategy to unitedly dethrone the BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls and state-specific plans.
The AAP Question
Even before the second meeting, the Opposition parties are faced with the challenge to bring AAP to the negotiation table again. The Kejriwal-led party is at loggerheads with Congress, with the former accusing the latter of not openly supporting it on the Delhi ordinance issue. It has gone to the extent of threatening that it would not be a part of an alliance where Congress is present.
The rivalry between AAP and Congress is upsetting the Opposition unity plans, said Patna-based senior columnist Chandan, who, however, ruled out any possibility of its impact on the formation of the front.
All the political observers NewsClick spoke to agreed that if the Opposition parties manage to reach the crucial seat-sharing deal, the 2024 Lok Sabha elections would not be a cakewalk for BJP — irrespective of who wins and who loses. But they also pointed out a host of challenges the united front needs to deal with.
“Arvind Kejriwal is the weakest link in this chain. Even if AAP stays away from the alliance, it won’t make any difference as the party itself is not sure it would perform well in Delhi and Punjab, as it did in the Assembly elections in the two states. His vote bank in both states is largely an aspiring middle class, which has different loyalties for state and national elections,” Chandan told NewsClick, adding that the party would not be able to add even 10 seats in the Opposition’s kitty.
While Delhi has seven parliamentary seats, Punjab sends 13 MPs.
He said it’s the Congress that holds the key to enable the proposed PDA to take shape.
Seat-Sharing Formula: A Tricky Manoeuvre
“The Congress has strengthened its position with the emphatic victories in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections. Rahul Gandhi too has grown in stature with the successful conclusion of the Bharat Jodo Yatra (a marathon walk by the Congress scion from Kanyakumari to Kashmir) and his party’s decision to put up a united fight in 2024 instead of going solo. But all this will be put to test when seat-sharing comes up for discussion in the next meeting,” he said.
According to Chandan, there are various questions that only the next or further rounds of talks would answer and that would decide the prospects of the possible mega ties — will Congress agree to contest less than 300 seats across the country?
The Congress, he claimed, is seeking 25% seats in the states it does not govern and where it’s not a principal Opposition. Will the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal-United or JD(U) agree to leave 10 seats in Bihar? Will the JD(U) be able to bring down its numbers from 16 in the Lok Sabha if Nitish Kumar has prime ministerial ambitions?
Will the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) agree to respectfully accommodate its arch-rival (Congress) in West Bengal — which has 42 Lok Sabha seats? The Congress contests here in alliance with the Left against TMC. “The Left (the principal Opposition in West Bengal) is unlikely to partner with TMC even if the latter agrees to accommodate Congress,” he pointed out.
Of the total 80 (the highest in the country), how many seats would Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP) agree to leave for the Congress and other alliance partners in Uttar Pradesh? The Bahujan Samaj Party also has a big stake here.
Will Congress give a level playing field to other parties in Assam, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Karnataka?
However, the Congress may not have much of a problem in these states as it is in a direct fight with BJP and the claims of other parties are not so strong.
These states together have 152 seats. With 140 seats, BJP had swept the states — leaving just seven to Congress. The rest three went to others.
If AAP agrees to take part in the next meeting, Chandan said, seat-sharing in Haryana, Punjab, and Delhi is likely to lead to further troubles. This still can be worked out, he said, if the Congress “displays a big heart and gives some seats to AAP in Gujarat and Haryana” where the latter’s prospects are strong.
If the Mayawati-led BSP joins the possible coalition, Congress will have to accommodate it as well in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and some other states.
“If the parties, including Congress, put their ego aside and stick to the proposed formula that the parties which are strong in their respective states will fight for more seats there, then Opposition unity would emerge as a formidable front to give BJP and its leadership sleepless nights for sure,” he added.
The Congress, he said, will have to behave like a junior partner in states, such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, where successful alliances are already in place.
The Kerala story is a bit different as Congress leads an alliance against the Left in the state where the BJP is electorally no force.
With regard to the common agenda of the alliance, he said the parties have rightly picked up the planks of social justice and economic distress. These are the best counters for BJP’s Hindutva card as everyone — especially the poor and downtrodden sections of the society who seem to be high on communal polarisation — is facing the heat of price rise, unemployment, and income disparity.
The Congress is the only contestant from the alliance in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha where the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSR Congress and the Biju Janata Dal, headed by Naveen Patnaik, respectively, have so far maintained a distance from the Opposition.
In Telangana, where the election for the 119-member Legislative Assembly is to be held before or in December this year, only the post-poll scenario would dictate whether the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) of K Chandrashekar Rao would join the Opposition fold. Here, Congress is a bigger threat to the ruling BRS than BJP.
“On paper, the Opposition alliance has an upper hand. Let’s see what comes out after the second sitting,” said the veteran columnist.
The Caste Factor in Bihar
Asked about the looming challenges for the Opposition alliance in Bihar, an officer with the state government, who is considered to have a deep understanding of politics on the ground, also reiterated that if the alliance takes shape, it will emerge as a “formidable force for sure”.
“To make it happen, tactical seat sharing is key,” he pointed out.
Asked about the caste consolidation in favour of the existing alliance in the state following the exit of former Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi (who belongs to the mahadalit community), Nitish Kumar’s political rivalry with Chirag Paswan (president of the Ramvilas faction of the Lok Janshakti Party), and challenges posed by two tall Kushwaha community leaders [BJP’s Samrat Choudhary (leader of opposition in the Bihar Assembly) and Upendra Kushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party], he refused to perceive them as challenges. He argued that they had contested against the ‘Mahagathbandhan’ in the previous two consecutive Assembly elections but failed to make any difference.
“Dalits and mahadalits are not a homogenous community in Bihar, like it is in Uttar Pradesh where the social outcasts (especially Jatavs who are called Ravidas in Bihar) have largely rallied behind BSP. And it has a historical reason: the contemporary champions of dalits in Bihar failed to awaken Ambedkarite political consciousness in their community. Instead of emphasising the construction of a dalit identity and working to create a new leadership, they focussed on getting a good deal from mainstream parties to maintain their relevance in the electoral competition and play a central role in the state as well as in national politics. They, for vested interests, always sided with the coalition that may form the government,” he explained.
Babu Jagjivan Ram (late Congress dalit leader), he said, “to an extent” worked on it, but with a “modest” approach. The next generation of community leaders like Manjhi and Ramvilas Paswan too stayed away from “radical politics with confrontationist stance”. “In fact, Paswan publicly opposed BSP’s anti-upper caste stand. Therefore, dalits in the state failed to have their own ideology and identity,” he contended.
The second reason behind the absence of a distinct political identity of dalits in Bihar, according to him, is their division into sub-castes.
“With 56% share in the dalit population in Uttar Pradesh, the numerically significant jatavs along with a section of backward castes and Muslim voters helped BSP secure a vote share of over 20% in UP’s four-cornered politics. On the other hand, the Paswans (dusadhs) and jatavs account for around one-third each of the dalit population in Bihar. The community has several other sub-castes, which have confidence in RJD’s Lalu Prasad instead of their own leaders because of his image as an advocate of social justice and as someone who never courted upper castes, especially bhumihars. The BSP has managed to bag two-thirds of the jatav vote, neither Paswan nor Manjhi or any other dalit leader in Bihar ever commanded even 50% vote base of Paswans or any sub-castes of dalits,” he explained.
Lalu Prasad is still seen as a “messiah of the poor”. Similarly, with promises of protection and social welfare, Nitish Kumar, too, mobilised the community by creating a separate category of mahadalits — excluding the dusadhs — and giving it special status.
Perhaps, therefore, political scientist Amit Ahuja argues in his book that while dalits in Uttar Pradesh saw Mayawati as their leader, they consider Lalu Prasad and then Nitish Kumar as their leaders in Bihar.
“So, dalits in Bihar have not traditionally voted for a particular party — it switched loyalties to the Left from Congress, then to RJD and other OBC (Other Backward Classes) parties and later the National Democratic Alliance (JD-U, BJP, andLJP combine),” the officer added.
Some regional parties, such as ones from Telangana, now feel more threatened by Congress than by BJP.
Chandan, too, is of the view that dalits and mahadalits in Bihar who account for around 16% of the total voters are by and large consolidated in favour of the Grand Alliance (JD-U, RJD and Left parties) not just because of their loyalties but also in view of growing economic disparities as a result of price rise and unemployment.
But, at the same time, he also argues that both factions of LJP, the entry of BSP and the exit of Manjhi from Nitish Kumar’s fold will harm the possible Opposition alliance, at least in Bihar.
In addition, he said, if RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav is appointed as chief minister – as Nitish Kumar wants so that the latter can travel across the country to turn winds in favour of the Opposition unity – it would be “disastrous” for the ruling alliance in the state and BJP would emerge as a clear beneficiary.
Asked about the kushwaha and kurmi communities, which consider yadavs as their rival, he said that despite having their own leaders (Upendra Kushwaha and Samrat Choudhary), Nitish Kumar still has the confidence of the two voting groups that form 9% and 3%-4%, respectively, of the total voters.
Patna-based political observer Mahendra Suman seconds the view that if the Opposition parties successfully come together as an anti-BJP force, it will certainly weaken BJP’s poll prospects in 2024 despite hate and bigotry ruling the roost.
“The coming together of different ideologies is still a challenge. But if a deal is done and the different parties come together, it would be tough for BJP to repeat its previous results in Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. And losing seats in these states will hit the prospects of the saffron party, which has no influence in South Indian states, except Karnataka,” he added.
Talking about Bihar, he said the alliance of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar has already narrowed down the space for any smaller parties. “It’s tried and tested. The coalition has worked in 1993 and 2015 Assembly elections in the state,” he said.
An Effective Counter to Hindutva Politics?
When asked how the anti-BJP alliance will take on the Hindutva hate-mongering, Suman said the Opposition has rightly picked the plank of social and economic justice as a counter. “At a time when the entire middle class has become a Hindu middle class, talks surrounding social justice, price rise, and unemployment will help the Opposition to bring the political narrative back to people’s issues from Hindutva rhetoric. After all, it is the middle class and economically backward class of the society that bear the brunt of skyrocketing prices and injustices meted out in the caste and religion,” he added.
Activist Jai Prakash said Bihar had a history of turning an initiative into a movement.
“The mission of Opposition unity has begun from Bihar. It’s significant that its first meeting was held in Patna, which was attended by heads of different political parties from across the country. Nitish succeeded in breaking the ice between Congress and key regional players. His efficacy would further be established if he succeeds in bringing KCR and Jagan into the larger Opposition fold for the 2024 elections. If agreed upon, the proposal that the Opposition parties should field one common candidate against BJP in as many seats as possible to avert vote division, will be useful without any doubt,” he argued.
Asked about a strong counter to the successful Hindutva card, he said the agenda to fight the election on people’s issues was never given any importance in the media discourse. “But it has an impact. It worked in the 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar and the 2023 Assembly elections in Karnataka. It will work again in the 2024 general elections, as people, irrespective of caste, creed, and religion are facing the heat of economic injustices,” he concluded.
Beyond the optics, observers said, the Opposition unity project needs to be elevated to another level to make it a reality.
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