The upcoming Lok Sabha polls, the Opposition never tires of telling us, is no ordinary election. According to them, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance's policies are undermining the secular consensus of the past seventy years. It is, so the opposition says, a momentous battle against the pernicious ideology of the Sangh Parivar, a fight to save the soul of the nation. That was why unity was so important, claimed Opposition leaders.
But curiously, nothing of that sort seems to be happening. The idea of a united fight was at best utopian and at worst a cynical attempt to woo the voter. In fact, even as the last date of filing nominations for the first phase of election is just a few days away, the Congress party is still in the process of finalising alliances in states such as Bihar and Jharkhand. The talks with the Left are said to have hit a roadblock in West Bengal. The party has been left out of a formidable alliance of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh (UP). In Andhra Pradesh, the Chandrababu Naidu led Telugu Desam Party (TDP) has parted ways with the Congress.
The making and breaking of alliances highlight at least three important things about the state of the Opposition.
First, the idea of a grand alliance or Mahagathbandhan is simply not feasible. If opposition parties are not able to come together in the present political environment, if they are unable to close ranks now at what they say is a crucial time, it is difficult to argue that it can happen in the future against a party like the BJP. One of the reasons for this could be that, while most of the Opposition want to see the Narendra Modi-led NDA defeated, they are not able to find sufficient common ground to work together. The fact that there is no strong leader who could bring most opposition parties on a common platform is also affecting the possibilities for the Mahagathbandhan.
Second, Opposition parties are more worried about their own short-term interest. For instance, the SP-BSP alliance in UP did not include the Congress party. It is likely that the alliance would have benefited if Congress was a part of it. However, the Congress party would have gained more and affected the post-poll possibilities for the SP and the BSP. In Andhra Pradesh, the TDP decided to go alone after the alliance with the Congress did not work in Telangana.
This is in sharp contrast to what the BJP did in Bihar, for instance. The party decided to leave seats that it had won in 2014 for its alliance partners. Though this is bound to affect the morale of local workers, the party has made a calculated move, despite being in a stronger bargaining position. Friction with Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) would have affected the narrative and, perhaps, led to a bigger overall loss. This kind of flexibility is missing in the Opposition camp. All the tall talk of a common ideological purpose is hokum.
Third, the road ahead for the Congress remains bumpy. One of the reasons why some of the parties are reluctant to work with Congress is that it has not been able to recover from the 2014 defeat. This is the main reason why it is not in a strong bargaining position. The party doesn’t seem to have made much progress in building the organisation in important states such as UP and Bihar.
Things would get more difficult for the Congress if it doesn't recover considerably in this Lok Sabha election. The party gained ground after the victory in the December 2018 assembly elections but has not been able to build on it. This election would also test the campaigning and vote-catching ability of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. So, there is a lot at stake for the party. To be sure, it could have done more to bring the Opposition together in a meaningful way. That it hasn't been able to do so underlines its weaknesses.
Overall, the kind of Mahagathbandhan rallies that the Opposition conducted and the noise that it made, especially over the last few months, doesn't seem to have translated into alliances on the ground as parties would have expected. The Opposition could have played its cards better.