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Opposition unity can do very little damage to the BJP

There are three ways in which central governments lose elections in India.

The first and most common is that voters turn against them. This is what happened to Indira Gandhi’s Congress in 1977 and to the Congress again in 2014.


The second way is if voters feel that an opposition alternative is far more attractive than the incumbent.  That is probably what helped the BJP sweep to power in 2014 on the basis of Narendra Modi’s popularity in North India. When two of these factors combine (as they did in 2014) the incumbent government goes down to a humiliating defeat.


   There is also a third way and that is arithmetic. An arithmetic calculation is the sole basis for all the hype about opposition unity over the last few weeks. The argument goes something like this: the BJP’s vote share is only around 35 to 37 per cent. But it won landslides because the opposition was divided. Suppose the 60 per cent of India that did not vote for the BJP came together? Wouldn’t a united opposition candidate be able to defeat BJP in each constituency?


   It is this argument that is at the root of all the stories we read every day in the papers. Is Sharad Pawar doing a side-deal with the BJP? Will Nitish lead a united opposition? Will the Congress agree to be part of an Opposition alliance when it is not regarded as the senior partner? And so on.


   These questions are hard enough to answer. But they are also based on a flawed argument. Yes the BJP’s national vote share may hover at around 37 per cent. But that’s not the important figure. There are large parts of India (much of the South, for instance) where the BJP is not a serious electoral player. Nor does it contest every seat.


   The important figure is the vote share for the areas in which the BJP wins its seats. And in such states as UP — which it sweeps — it has the same vote share (nearly 44 per cent at the last assembly election when people were not even being asked to vote for Narendra Modi) as any party that has ever won the state.


   The problem with all talk of opposition unity is that many if not most of the parties that want to unite are essentially regional in character. Assume for the purposes of argument that Sharad Pawar and Nitish Kumar do unite. Even then, an alliance with Pawar will not help Nitish win a single extra seat and vice-versa.


   Yes, a show of opposition unity may help in convincing voters that were Narendra Modi to be defeated the regional parties could come together to form a stable coalition but we are a long way from having to convince people of that and anyway judging by present performance, nobody is going to be very convinced about the stability of any future coalition.


   Besides, as veteran psephologist Yashwant Deshmukh points out, the various regional parties have been fighting the BJP quite effectively already in their own states and it hasn’t been enough to force a change at the national level. The key to defeating Narendra Modi depends on two factors.


  "If the Congress is able to revive itself and give a good fight to the BJP in such states as MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and others, it could severely reduce the number of BJP MPs in the next Lok Sabha."

   The first is UP where the BJP picks up such a high proportion of the seats that its rise to power is much easier. UP’s politicians don't need to be persuaded of the need to forge an alliance. Take Akhilesh Yadav. He linked up with the Congress and ran a joint campaign with Rahul Gandhi in the 2017 assembly election. That did not work. So at last year’s assembly election, the SP aligned with the BSP. That didn’t work either: the BJP won both times.


   The problem as Akhilesh Yadav and the SP have discovered is that politics is about more than arithmetic. Voters are not always willing to transfer their loyalties. Just because the BSP has aligned with the SP, it does not follow that all of the BSP’s voters will now vote for the SP.


   So, it is hard to see how opposition unity can do too much damage to the BJP in UP. The alliances have all been tried. And they have failed. For the BJP’s numbers to go down significantly in UP, voters would have to be attracted to a better electoral alternative — which is unlikely because it is going to be the same old faces in the fray. Or the BJP’s popularity has to come down. So far, at least, there is no sign of that happening.


   That leaves us with the elephant in the room: the Congress. The truth is that opposition unity can do only minimal damage to the BJP. The best way to dent the BJP’s chances of pulling off a third landslide is to electorally revive the Congress.


   As Yashwant Deshmukh points out, there are upto 200 seats where the battle is really between the BJP and the Congress. One reason why the BJP wins general elections is because the Congress offers no real resistance in those seats. In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, the BJP won 28 of the state’s 29 seats, (the Congress won just one).


   If the Congress is able to revive itself and give a good fight to the BJP in such states as MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and others, it could severely reduce the number of BJP MPs in the next Lok Sabha. It might not be enough to keep Modi from taking office but it would either reduce his majority or even make him dependent on allies.


   But can it? The rest of the opposition does not believe it can. It is now a hallmark of opposition behaviour to make fun of the Congress and to ridicule it for its temerity in believing that as the only national player it must be treated as the senior partner in any alliance. Even AAP, which was humiliated by the BJP at the last General Election, feels that it has the moral right to push the Congress around.


   Much of this is the Congress’s own fault. Over the last few years it has committed ritual hara kiri in state after state in full public view. Not only has it failed to effectively oppose the BJP it has also, out of sheer stupidity, taken such states as Punjab where it was strong, gift-wrapped them and ceremonially presented them to AAP. In such states as Gujarat where it was showing signs of revival, it lost interest halfway through the process and threw it all away.


   So yes, it is hard to be optimistic about the Congress. It is much easier to praise someone like Tejashwi Yadav who will at least reduce the BJP’s numbers in Bihar.


   The Congress’s leaders say, in its defence, that after the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the party is on the road to revival. Perhaps it is. And if that is indeed the truth it will hurt the BJP much more than any temporary peace between squabbling regional leaders and the chances of opposition unity.


   But as long as the Congress fails to put up an effective fight even a united opposition can do the BJP very little harm.


   Narendra Modi wins largely because the Congress does not know how to stop him.



Posted On: 27 Apr 2023 10:50 AM
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