“NDA, BJP can you challenge INDIA?” Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal asked at a press conference after, a new opposition alliance that named itself INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) at a joint meeting in Bengaluru on July 18.
Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) is a key constituent of the 26-party INDIA alliance, which was formed at the Bengaluru meeting to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in general elections that are due to take place in 2024. The Narendra Modi-led NDA government has been in power since May 2014 and the opposition alliance is keen to deny the ruling alliance a third stint at the helm.
INDIA includes among others the Indian National Congress, the TMC, Nationalist Congress Party, Aam Aadmi Party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist, Shiv Sena, Dravida Munetra Kazhagam, National Conference and People’s Democratic Party.
The name of the opposition alliance is widely regarded as a political masterstroke as it pits the BJP against INDIA/India.
“And you know what happens to those who fight against the idea of India… the fight is between India and the BJP, India and Mr. Narendra Modi,” former Congress President Rahul Gandhi said at the Bengaluru press conference.
“It is going to be NDA vs INDIA in 2024. BJP – hear the death knell?” Mahua Moitra, a TMC parliamentarian tweeted.
Caught off-guard by the major development in the opposition ranks, the BJP, which has since 2014 been winning the game of effective political communication strategies, has sought to trash the alliance as opportunistic.
Writing The Diplomat about the first opposition alliance meeting at Patna in June, I drew attention to Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge’s statement that diverse political parties had come together to “save the [Indian] Constitution and democracy from Hindu supremacist BJP’s assault.”
Despite the robust beginning at Patna where 17 parties attended, there was much discussion over whether the emerging alliance would hold together or disintegrate. However, the alliance is growing in strength. The Bengaluru meeting drew 26 parties. The Karnataka capital proved to be a favorable venue for the opposition meeting with the recently elected Congress government in the state playing an eager host to the non-BJP coalition.
Incidentally, the new name garnered enough traction on social media and Twitter to rattle the BJP. #I.N.D.I.A. was soon trending on Twitter much to the BJP’s discomfiture.
The BJP’s voluble Chief Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma attacked the opposition’s use of “India” in its name arguing that this was the name given by the British colonial rulers to what was earlier called Bharat. The “BJP is for Bharat,” he said and went on to change his Twitter bio from India to Bharat.
With BJP attempting to rake up frivolous issues of “civilizational conflict” between India and Bharat, the opposition was quick to announce a tagline – “Jeetega Bharat” or India will win.
Opposition efforts to come together against the BJP received a boost with Gandhi leading the Bharat Jodo Yatra, a successful 4,080-kilometer-long march across the country to unite Indians against the divisive hate politics of the BJP. The overwhelming response to the march put the wind in the sails of the beleaguered Congress party.
Now, possibly for the first time since 2014 when Modi came to power, the opposition is setting the agenda and the BJP is in reaction mode.
Within days of the opposition parties announcing their Bengaluru meeting, the BJP called a meeting of its NDA partners for the first time in nine years. Many of these lesser-known 38 parties are single-member parties.
What the name INDIA has done for the opposition is to strategically appropriate the nationalism plank of the BJP. Over the past nine years, the BJP and its allied Hindu right-wing organizations have skewed the electoral pitch by appealing to jingoistic nationalism in voters.
Now with Congress and the other non-BJP parties consistently exposing the BJP’s anti-people policies that have resulted in soaring prices and unemployment, they are able to point out that “INDIA is fighting for India.”
In fact, it is with the intent of exposing the hollowness of BJP’s promise to usher in “acche din” (good days) and the reality of growing income inequalities, that the opposition parties decided to include the words “Developmental” and “Inclusive” in the name of their alliance.
The coming together of opposition parties to form INDIA has rattled the usually unruffled Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Soon after the Patna meet, the BJP retaliated by breaking up the NCP in Maharashtra, shattering the attempts of NCP chief Sharad Pawar to stitch up a non-BJP alliance in the state. Despite the setback, opposition parties pressed on with their efforts at forging unity. All told, the new opposition is a far cry from the rag-tag opposition of the past nine years.
Even the Congress, which led the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and dominated over regional parties in the past, is now more willing to heed their demands. This was evident as AAP’s Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal joined the Bengaluru meeting, only after the Congress gave in to his demand and publicly expressed its support for AAP in its battle against the Central government’s ordinance on taking over control of the administrative services in Delhi.
Coalition politics, as I argued in my article, is not an easy task, especially when constituent parties have many veteran leaders with considerable clout like Banerjee, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Sharad Pawar et al., all of whom have prime ministerial ambitions and are reluctant to cede space to younger leaders. Therefore, the bonhomie on display at the Bengaluru meeting between Banerjee and the younger Gandhi was refreshing. Banerjee’s TMC and the Congress are at loggerheads in Bengal and reaching an electoral seat sharing pact for the 2024 polls will be a challenging task in the state.
Kharge has publicly acknowledged differences among alliance constituents at the state level. However, the differences are not ideological and could be set aside for the sake of opposition unity, he said.
The 26 parties that constitute INDIA account for 142 seats of the 545 seats in India’s lower house of parliament. To dent the BJP’s grip, INDIA will have to amicably work out the issue of seat sharing in the states.
The next meeting of the opposition will be held in Mumbai in August. An 11-member coordination committee, including all the major parties, will be set up, and issues such as the alliance’s leadership will be taken up. In order to present a credible alternative to the voter, the coalition intends to have a common campaign management for which a ‘Secretariat’ would be set up soon in Delhi.
With nine months to go for general elections, the big question is whether this coalition will hold together. Will constituent members be able to set aside their differences and work unitedly to unseat the well-entrenched BJP? It is still early days.