Can a united Opposition defeat BJP and the Modi wave?

Trinamool boss and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee camped in Delhi for four days last week to lobby for an anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) front for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Next week, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) boss and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu will land in the capital on a similar mission.

With just a little over a year to go for the big battle, the BJP’s worst fears are being realised.

Opposition parties are coming together with a single-minded determination to stop the Modi juggernaut from rolling its way to a second parliamentary victory for the saffron forces.

The probability of a Modi versus the Rest battle has thrown the 2019 battleground wide open. While chemistry remains Modi’s best asset, arithmetic is the Opposition’s strong suit, particularly if plans for a one-on-one contest in most Lok Sabha constituencies materialise.

How Will the Opposition Shape Up?

The contours of the Opposition’s strategy are slowly emerging. First, the idea of a Third Front or a Federal Front, mooted by Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) chief K Chandrasekhar Rao and seconded by Mamata, has been jettisoned. Prodded by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) strongman Sharad Pawar, Mamata has come around to the idea of a united Opposition front that includes the Congress.

Pawar is believed to have told Mamata at their meeting last week (he was the first Opposition leader she met when she landed in Delhi) that his party has no option but to ally with the Congress to fight the BJP and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. It’s a state compulsion, he explained, and added that there were similar compulsions for some regional parties in other states.

Mamata Rallies Non-NDA Parties, Meets Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut Too

Mamata was quick to catch on to his logic. After the meeting, she came out with her widely reported comment that although she doesn’t care much for the Congress, she is ready to make “any sacrifice’’ to keep the BJP out of power.

By the time she left Delhi, she had changed her tune from demanding a federal front to acknowledging a role for the Congress in a larger anti-BJP front.

BJP’s Trojan Horse vs Opposition’s Statewise Strategy

According to those familiar with the backroom discussions that have been going on between Opposition leaders, there is a growing suspicion that the TRS is the BJP’s Trojan horse in the Opposition camp. They feel that KCR had floated the idea of a Federal Front to isolate the Congress and pave the way for a three-cornered contest in 2019.

This would have, most certainly, suited the BJP which benefits from multi-polar fights rather than a one-on-one clash in which all parties gang up to pool their numbers. In 2014, the BJP won with an overall national average of just 31 percent of the votes.

If it finds itself locked in a direct fight everywhere, it will need to bump up this vote share to somewhere in the region of 50 percent to win. This is a difficult task indeed.

It is also evident, going by the statements of the Opposition leaders, that they are likely to go in for a loose understanding between parties with statewise alliances rather than float a grand alliance. A senior Congress leader pointed out that the BJP had adopted a similar tactic in 1998 and so had the Congress in 2004. Both times, there were specific state focused alliances. The BJP-led NDA was formed only after the parties that eventually constituted the formation won the 1998 election. Similarly, the Congress-led UPA too was created only after the parties that joined that alliance won the 2004 Lok Sabha poll.

A loose understanding with statewise alliances would help the Opposition to turn the 2019 polls into an aggregate of state elections rather than the national presidential contest that the BJP wants.

The BJP hopes to recreate the Modi wave of 2014 and ride to victory with a US style presidential poll. If the Opposition manages to box the party into state-specific battles, it would blunt the Modi effect.

Who Will be the Opposition’s PM Candidate?

The third prong of the Opposition’s strategy is to avoid projecting a single leader as its PM face. The decision to reject the idea of a grand alliance springs from this reluctance.

Opposition parties realise that they do not have a leader who can match Modi’s charisma, popularity, and communication skills.

There is another fear among chieftains of regional parties. A grand alliance will probably encourage the Congress to claim leadership and push the Opposition to fall headlong into the BJP’s trap of turning the 2019 polls into a Modi versus Rahul Gandhi personality contest. No prizes for guessing the winner of this battle.

It is increasingly clear that regional parties are in the driver’s seat in crafting the Opposition’s strategy to take on Modi in 2019. It’s a bitter pill for the Congress to swallow, but if it wants to retain a toehold in the national politics and regain some political muscle after its humiliating crash in 2014, it really has no option.

The challenge for the Congress will be to fashion a low profile for Rahul so that the 2019 election doesn’t pitch him into a direct fight with Modi, and at the same time, ensure that Rahul’s position as Congress president is not diminished.

The compulsion for the Opposition to sink old differences and past rivalries (like the SP and BSP in UP) springs from the bleak realisation that the 2019 polls have become a question of survival. Most Opposition leaders fear that a second term in office for Modi and the BJP could mark the end of their politics. The BJP’s rapidly expanding national footprint has given it an aura of invincibility and strength. Added to this is the determined hounding of Opposition leaders like Lalu Yadav and his family, Trinamool MPs, Biju Janata Dal MPs, etc by the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax authorities. Lalu is staring at spending the rest of his life in jail, while others have already done prison time and are out on bail.

It is ironic that the BJP’s strength is now proving to be its weakness. It has frightened the Opposition into uniting them by being too muscular.

This article has been published in collaboration with Bloomberg|Quint.

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