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How to Make an Alliance That Can Beat the BJP

If opposition parties are to have any hope of defeating the BJP in India’s vast and multifaceted federal democracy, they will need to work together strategically and with solidarity.
By
Congress

Indian National Congress supporter wave Congress flag during a protest rally against state government on December 12, 2019 in Calcutta, India. © Saikat Paul / shutterstock.com

August 05, 2023 00:38 EDT
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Over the past decade, India has been wracked by a prolonged crisis, combining economic stagnation with social upheaval.

The rate of growth of India’s economy has slowed and inequality has risen along with poverty and unemployment. India faced an unprecedented public health setback during the Covid-19 pandemic, with up to 5 million deaths, although the national government has only officially acknowledged a tenth of that figure. Meanwhile, two well known business conglomerates are said to be the principal beneficiaries of the post-2014 trajectory of economic growth, which, if true, would result in the majority of Indian businesses and millions of people effectively being left behind.

India’s political landscape has been reshaped by the coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Religious prejudice, casteism, patriarchy and other signs of social inequity have been unleashed to an unprecedented degree. It is scarcely deniable that these trends have taken hold of the public sphere in the country.

BJP takeover of Indian institutions and the opposition response

There has been a wide-ranging crackdown on the democratic rights of the people that has principally taken two forms. Firstly, the state has subjected dissenters to arbitrary arrest, employing extended pre-trial incarceration in (deliberately engineered) harsh conditions as a means of deterring public “disaffection” towards the current order. Convictions in almost all such cases are never attained. Vigilante groups affiliated in varying extents with political leaders have used violence to silence opposition as well.

Secondly, the administration has employed political re-engineering whereby other political parties are often either coerced into compliance or re-carved up as acolytes of the BJP.  The most recent episode of political re-engineering was the recent splitting of the Nationalist Congress Party into two segments headed respectively by the party president Sharad Pawar and the other headed by his nephew Ajit Pawar. Ajit Pawar’s segment of the Nationalist Congress Party has joined the BJP-dominated Ekanath Shinde government in Maharashtra state with ministerial portfolios.

However, unlike in the case of the political re-engineering of the Shiv Sena (another large party in Maharashtra) where there has been an acrimonious split, there have been some (seemingly inconclusive) meetings between the leaders of both segments of the Nationalist Congress Party. The implications of these meetings between the two segments of the Nationalist Congress Party are possibly difficult to discern at present. We argue that these meetings are vitally connected to the functioning of the current political system in India.

As the Lok Sabha (parliament) elections loom in 2024, there has been a move towards a fledgling alliance of opposition parties. Many opposition parties in India—including the Aam Aadmi Party, All India Trinamul Congress, Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist Liberation), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Indian National Congress, Janata Dal (United). Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, National Conference, Nationalist Congress Party, People’s Democratic Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray)—met in the city of Patna on June 23, 2023. This was followed by another meeting of 26 opposition parties in Bengaluru on July 18, 2023 where they constituted themselves into the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.

However, some other parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party, Telugu Desam Party, Biju Janata Dal, Janata Dal (Secular) and Bharat Rashtra Samithi absent from both of these meetings. The non-attendance or non-invitation of these parties are at least partly the result of the political re-engineering process.

Those parties who did attend the meetings on June 23, 2023 and July 18, 2023 have decided to meet again to try and take this process of opposition unity forward. Seemingly in response to this process of consolidation of opposition unity, the BJP organized a meeting of its acolyte parties, but this is unlikely to have the same political impact as the coming together of opposition parties.

Feasability of an opposition alliance

Lok Sabha elections in India are based on the first-past-the-post voting system, with 543 available seats. Since India is possibly the most diverse among the large countries of the world, the Lok Sabha elections tend to be influenced decisively (but not exclusively) by state-specific factors, especially outside the Hindi belt. 

In terms of electoral dynamics, the various states of India may be classified into these four types:

1. States involving, more or less, a straight contest between the BJP
and the Indian National Congress (Congress). These states
include: Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan,
Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The total number of Lok
Sabha seats involved in these states is 100.

2. States involving a contest between two coalitions involving,
namely the BJP and Congress. These states include: Assam,
Tripura, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Karnataka, Maharashtra,
Bihar and Jharkhand. The total number of Lok Sabha seats
involved in these states is 186.

3. States involving a contest between the BJP and a non-Congress
opposition party (or coalition). These states include Odisha,
Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The total number of Lok
Sabha seats involved in these states is 143.

4. States where the BJP is not a significant contender (either by itself
or in a coalition) and therefore the principal contest is between
two (or more) other parties (or coalitions). These states
include Punjab, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The
total number of Lok Sabha seats involved in these states is 75.

Each of these four types of states require a different strategy if the objective of the opposition parties is to minimize the seat tally of the BJP.

In type 1 states, the BJP made a virtually clean sweep in both the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The near total capitulation of Congress in these 100 seats is the foundation of the BJP’s recent electoral strength. In order to make a dent in the dominance of the BJP in these type 1 states, Congress would firstly need to mount a political challenge to the BJP. This has utterly failed to happen in these states, especially in Gujarat. Secondly, Congress would need to advance an alternative policy platform, but in most respects the economic policies of Congress and the BJP tend to converge; thirdly, it would need to achieve a working unity of the party organization on the basis of the first two points; fourthly, it would need to work towards an accommodation with other (usually electorally smaller) non-BJP parties in these states. 

Many type 2 states have seen political realignments since the last Lok Sabha election in 2019. The scope for a unity of opposition parties is possibly unmatched here compared to elsewhere. For instance, in both Bihar and Maharashtra parties that were previously aligned with the BJP—namely the Shiv Sena and Janata Dal (United)—have gone on to join the ranks of the opposition, resulting in formidable alliances in both states. It may be noted here that the fraction of Shiv Sena that is allied with the BJP may currently have the majority of the legislators of the undivided Shiv Sena, but it may not have the support of the majority of the party’s base. Opposition parties need to be alert regarding the political consequences of recent moves by the BJP to “reconnect” with previously estranged acolyte parties in states such as Bihar

In Assam, Tripura, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Jharkhand, there are already alliances of opposition parties of varying degrees of cohesion and significance. In the state of Karnataka, Congress won the recent assembly elections in a triangular contest. However, the opposition should be alert to the possibility of a tie-up between the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular) before the Lok Sabha elections in 2024. In fact, in Karnataka and all type 2 states, Congress would further opposition unity if it did not try to irrationally maximize the number of seats it could contest. Rather, adopting an accommodative stance towards other parties in these type 2 states could maximize the number of seats Congress could win. For instance, Congress would gain from adopting an accommodative stance towards actual allies, such as the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray), and the Sharad Pawar segment of the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand), or potential allies such as the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka.

It is self-evident that no matter how rationally accommodating the posture of Congress is towards seat adjustments, no other opposition party is capable of singly exceeding the number of seats that Congress is likely to obtain in the next Lok Sabha elections. Unless the seat tally of Congress exceeds 100 (with possibly a third being from type 1 states), the BJP (alone or as part of a coalition) will end up forming government in 2024.  

Type 3 states are those where Congress has a limited role. In Uttar Pradesh, the principal rival of the BJP is the Samajwadi Party, while in Odisha, the Biju Janata Dal plays the same role. In West Bengal, the BJP is pitted against the All India Trinamool Congress and the Left Front. In these states, the principal task confronting the opposition is twofold: firstly, articulation of an alternative policy platform to the BJP; secondly, rationally broad-basing the opposition coalition to the BJP. The parties of the opposition need to be alert regarding efforts by the BJP to consolidate newer acolyte parties in states such as Uttar Pradesh.

In type 4 states, there are other types of challenges to the opposition. In Andhra Pradesh, the possibility of the BJP entering into an electoral adjustment with the Telugu Desam Party cannot be ruled out. Likewise, in Kerala, sections of the state leadership of Congress are not above conniving with the BJP and the broader phalanx of related organizations in order to try and politically counter the Left Democratic Front. These moves may lay the foundations of future growth of the BJP in these states and are evidently detrimental to opposition unity.

Lessons from past experiences and the example of Tamil Nadu.

In its quest for unity, the opposition could draw some lessons from the experience of the opposition alliance in Tamil Nadu. Though the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is the leading component of this alliance, it has made an effort on its part to accommodate other parties in the coalition. This accommodation spans both political-organizational and electoral domains. It is noteworthy that the electoral domain spans elections to the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, Legislative Assembly and local bodies. 

However, it remains undeniable that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam drives a “hard bargain” in accommodation measures (possibly due to apprehensions about possible political re-engineering) and also at least partially reneges on its pre-election acquiescence in the concession of leadership positions in particular local bodies. The state government of Tamil Nadu that is led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has not hesitated to institute policies adopted from the neoliberal playbook, but it is also known to have pulled back some of these measures when faced with opposition from its own coalition partner parties. 

An important reason why the alliance has held together in Tamil Nadu until now is the convergence among all its constituents, by and large, in adopting a posture which puts their mutual opposition to the politics of the BJP at the forefront. This posture is both a cause and effect of their joint efforts to combat the BJP, both in terms of popular movements as well as the quotidian battle of ideas. 

Any unity among the opposition parties can turn out to be politically significant only if the parties act accommodatingly with respect to each other in terms of political-organizational and electoral considerations. Instead of trying to maximize the number of contested seats per party, it would be more rational to maximize the number of seats won by all of the parties through the widest possible span of the opposition alliance within each Indian state and therefore across the country.

The emphasis on state-focused electoral strategies does not imply that political policy issues are in any way less significant than political-organizational matters. The opposition parties in their meeting on July 18, 2023 have decided to set up a coordination committee of 11 members in their next meeting in Mumbai. Along with this, a central secretariat will also be set up for handling tasks such as campaign management, joint rallies et cetera.

The opposition parties have put out a declaration that they will fight against attacks on “foundational pillars of the Indian Constitution—secular democracy, economic sovereignty, social justice and federalism.” But the crystallization of such principles in a common minimum program will be politically relevant only if there are participative mass movements presently instituted for their eventual political realization after the displacement of the BJP-led union government in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

[Christian Hadjipateras and Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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