With assembly elections in five Indian states (Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand) less than six months away, campaigning from the ruling and opposition parties has started gaining momentum. After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ascended strongly on the national scene in the 2014 general elections, the opposition parties have found it hard to counter this challenge. In fact, the BJP improved its performance in 2019.
Since 2014, the opposition’s narrative in both national and state level politics has come down to a single point agenda of defeating the BJP. But their actions hardly reflect that goal.
First, there is a lack of unity among the opposition parties. Dislodging the BJP remains their common aim, but there is no consensus on either a plan of action or even the leadership to take on the BJP. In the past, various opposition parties have tried to form alliances but that has not worked. In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, Congress and the Samajwadi Party had an alliance, which broke after the elections. In the 2019 parliamentary elections Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party formed an alliance, which too broke after the elections.
Also since most of the opposition parties are regional outfits, they have limited presence outside of their home state. The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh; Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra; Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu; Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar; and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal are some of the examples of regional parties that oppose the BJP but have limited outreach outside of their states.
Considering the BJP’s strength at the national level, these regional parties cannot pose a challenge individually. However, at present there appears no possibility of all these opposition parties coming together and projecting themselves as an alternative to the BJP in a united manner.
Parties like the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Musalmeen (AIMIM) are making attempts to expand their bases beyond their respective bastions of West Bengal, New Delhi, and Hyderabad. But in doing so, these parties are not making a dent in the BJP. Instead, they are cannibalizing the support of other opposition parties. There is an intense shuttling of leaders between the Congress, TMC, and AAP.
With a view to prepare for a national role in 2024 general elections, the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC is on an expansion spree beyond West Bengal. Banerjee got Luizinho Faleiro, a senior Congress leader from Goa, and his supporters to join the TMC. But at the same time Rahul Gandhi wooed the Vijay Sardesai-led Goa Forward Party (GPF) to ally with Congress. GPF had earlier pledged its support to TMC. Similarly in Meghalaya, 12 members of legislative assembly (MLAs) of the Congress, including former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, joined the TMC. Congress has contested this move.
This exchange of leaders is taking place between Congress and the AAP as well. In a bid to expand its outreach, the Delhi-centered AAP welcomed a senior Punjab Congress leader, Raman Bahl, into its fold. On the other hand, Rupinder Kaur Ruby, an AAP MLA from Punjab, joined Congress ahead of the assembly elections. Recently, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal claimed that about 25 Congress MLAs from Punjab are ready to join the AAP.
As for the AIMIM, it contests elections only in Muslim-majority constituencies. The Hyderabad-based party’s expansion in other states is only aiming to attract the Muslim vote. This is evident in Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, and now in Uttar Pradesh. However, AIMIM’s presence creates a division in Muslim votes, which the opposition parties, including the Congress, have long attracted under the secular narrative. The direct benefit of this division goes to the BJP.
With the Hindu vote consolidating in favor of the BJP, the opposition is left to either scramble for non-Hindu votes (prominently Muslim votes) or to try and divide the Hindu vote along caste lines. Most of the opposition parties, many of them regional outfits, depend on caste equations to garner votes. Castes such as Yadavs, Jats, Thakurs, Kurmis, Bhumihars, Marathas, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes etc. play a dominant role in the politics of different states. Many parties, such as Samajwadi Part, Bahujan Samaj Party, and Rashtriya Janata Dal, are built around a voter base from a particular caste or a community. These regional parties usually bank on the combination of these castes and Muslim votes. However, with the Hindu consolidation of votes in favor of the BJP, caste considerations are becoming irrelevant in the political sphere. The Muslim votes are also getting divided due to the entry of AIMIM. As a result these regional parties would further find it difficult to counter the BJP.
Finally, the Congress is not helping its own cause or that of the opposition’s. The party has serious issues at two levels. First is at the organizational level. Many Congress leaders complain about their grievances not being heard and redressed by the top leadership. As a result, a number of Congress leaders – including high-profile names like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jitin Prasada – have left the party to join the BJP. Senior leaders such as Ghulam Nabi Azad and Kapil Sibal who raise questions on the functioning of Congress are sidelined.
The second problem is one of political ideology. A series of anti-Hindu statements from Congress leaders recently is likely to antagonize Hindu voters and push them toward the BJP. Senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid, in his recently published book “Sunrise over Ayodhya: Nationhood in Our Times,” compared Hindutva with terror groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram. Another Congress leader, Rashid Alvi, insinuated that those chanting “Jai Shri Ram” (Hail Lord Ram) are demons. Continuing with the offensive statements, Rahul Gandhi called Hindutva a violent ideology.
These problems would further weaken Congress. Having already ceded considerable space to other parties, a weak Congress would lose relevance even as an opposition party.
All these factors highlight the difficulty that the opposition faces in order to pose a challenge to the BJP. The traditional strategy of appeasing to a select section of the society would not work against a dominant BJP. All the efforts to date have only strengthened the BJP, and the opposition’s target of winning the 2024 general elections appears difficult.