On August 9, Rajya Sabha elected its deputy chairman. Many who believe in revival of the opposition parties in India thought it would be a closely-fought contest. The reality, however, was far from that.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government won the election without breaking a sweat. This was the most recent sign that the Congress must abandon its attempts to forge a united opposition against the NDA. Talks about a united opposition is a mirage that periodically appears over India’s shifting political sands. It is a political chimera that the Congress must stop chasing.
Instead of wasting its efforts and precious resources trying to gather anti-BJP parties at a national level, the Congress must focus on states in which it already has a strong presence. The national party must transform itself into a cluster of regional parties — and it is the momentum it generates at the state-level that will give it importance at the national level.
There are many reasons why the Mahagathbandhan must be abandoned. Some of them are as follows.
The Mahagathbandhan has an image problem. It is not that India is alien to coalitions. Since 1998, India has successively seen NDA and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition governments at the Centre. However, the NDA and the UPA have been anchored by the BJP and Congress respectively. Today, while the BJP-led NDA is strong, the Congress does not enjoy the command over its UPA allies the way it used to. In the past, coalition governments at the Centre, without a national party or with a weak national party, have never lasted their full term.
Such a potpourri of political parties which are forced to join hands because of electoral compulsions has a negative association with the electorate — and this works to the BJP’s advantage. In a recent interview to a newspaper, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the efforts of the opposition to form a coalition to fight the BJP as “a non-ideological alliance of desperate and disparate groups; it is not a ‘mahagathbandhan’ but political adventurism. It is a failed idea which never succeeded in past”.
Thus, the more there is a talk about the Mahagathbandhan, the more it will help Modi and the BJP.
If opposition parties were to unite and fight the elections, it will force the coalition’s hand to announce its PM candidate. With the names of different regional leaders being suggested, the ensuing confusion will further discredit the Mahagathbandhan. Moreover, any PM candidate proposed by the united opposition will have to square up with Modi at the national level. At the moment, there is no leader who can challenge Modi’s pan-India appeal.
To take on the popularity of Modi and the Amit Shah-run BJP election machinery, the Congress should have built an anti-government, anti-BJP momentum by now. While it has been able to highlight issues and initiate debates, it has been inconsistent.
Focusing on states, rather than the Centre, will strengthen the Congress. Recent history has shown that the grand old party has done well whenever strong regional leaders have delivered for it at the state level. Rather than stretching its resources thin across India, the Congress must focus on states where it is confident. For example, there’s no point in the Congress fielding candidates from Tamil Nadu. Instead, it should focus that energy in neighbouring Karnataka and Kerala. Similarly, rather than West Bengal or Uttar Pradesh, it should focus on Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.
A state-by-state focus on the national election will in turn weaken the BJP’s projection of Modi as the party's only face. This will also help strengthen the character of the general election and will pull it away from the presidential style it is increasingly turning out to be.
Also, if the Mahagathbandhan was to fail, the biggest loser will be the Congress. It will not necessarily affect the regional parties. Take the case of the KC Rao-led Telangana Rashtra Samiti which briefly flirted with the idea of a non-Congress, non-BJP front but now is increasingly moving into NDA’s orbit. This shift has not affected TRS’ electoral fortunes.
Trying to form a united opposition at the national level this close to the election, based primarily on an anti-Modi plank, is likely to fail. The Mahagathbandhan is the quicksand the Congress is standing on, and the more it exerts the need for such a group the more it is pulled into it with little political benefits.