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Can INDIA Win in India?

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Can INDIA Win in India?

While much has been said about the name of a new opposition alliance in India, what matters are its growing ranks.

Can INDIA Win in India?

India’s opposition leaders, from left, T.R.Baalu, M.K Stalin, Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Sonia Gandhi and Mallikarajun Kharge, attend a meeting of opposition parties where they announced their alliance named INDIA in Bengaluru, India, July 18, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo, File

Since July 2023, India has a “new-old” alliance of opposition parties. It is both old and new in the sense that it is mostly a rebranding and enhancement of an already-existing alliance: the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Its new name is the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), but, more importantly, it includes a handful of new members.

The fact that the new opposition coalition chose a name for itself that forms the acronym INDIA has caused waves. Indeed, it is rather uncommon for a party alliance to be so clearly named after the country where it exists. Moreover, the INDIA alliance may be easily confused with its rival: the coalition that is currently ruling the country, NDA (National Democratic Alliance). Yet, perhaps too much attention has been directed at the name itself. Conflating the name with the country, and confusion between the names of two major party alliances, may both help the opposition as well as work against it. 

But altogether, the name factor in itself is also simply not as significant as it appears. Rather than alliances, what represents the more recognizable brands in Indian politics are party leaders, the best-known party politicians, and the parties themselves. It is the names of candidates, the names of the parties, and the symbols that are printed and displayed on voting machines that attract voters. 

Thus, who is a part of the INDIA alliance is much more important than how it is named.

According to press reports, INDIA now has 26 parties in it ranks. However, listing and comparing all the parties in both alliances – the old incarnation and the new one – would be of little informative value, as many of the parties are very small ones, sometimes incapable of winning elections even in the single state they are active in. The same conclusion, by the way, applies to the coalition ruling the country: the NDA. What really matters is whether the new alliance, INDIA, has been joined by large parties that have a track record of winning elections in the most populous states. The short answer to this is “yes,” though probably not enough to allow the opposition win the nearest national vote (due in 2024). 

Party Royals From Bengal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh Join the Fray

The most important addition appears to be the All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC). The party is based in West Bengal, the country’s fourth-most populous state. In the past, the TMC had a period of being part of the BJP-led NDA, and then a part of the Congress-led UPA. Later, however, it charted an independent path, with its leader, Mamata Banerjee, playing the part of a sovereign princess more than a vassal of one of the nation’s political kings. This was partially due to the party’s ruthless style of intimidating its rivals, but it does not change the fact that the TMC still holds a dominant position in its state and has the potential to win few dozen seats for the alliance in the upcoming national elections.

Another important ally is the Janata Dal (United) – JD(U) – from Bihar. Having been on the side of the BJP, the party abandoned the ruling coalition last year and now has declared for the opposition alliance. Bihar is the country’s third most-populous state. This, however, means that the list of INDIA’s members now includes two large parties from Bihar – the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and JD(U) – and they will have to demarcate their respective electoral territories (more on this later).

This conclusion extends to Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous, and thus electorally most important, state. A party from that region, the Samajwadi Party (SP), is now reported to be a part of the opposition alliance. The SP was once a part of the older alliance, the UPA, but fell out. Its return to the alliance will thus not spark any ideological tensions, and the number of seats that can be won in this party’s home state is decisive for Indian politics. But the SP’s current political clout seems questionable. The SP has been weakened by internal tussles, and while the regional party recently tried to cooperate and coordinate with the leading party of the opposition, the Congress, during the state-level elections in Uttar Pradesh, this approach yielded few gains. 

The AAP Wild Card

Another interesting entrant, and a wild card of sorts, is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Its value to the alliance is difficult to measure, however, as it consists of a small party and a large leader. One of the younger parties in India, the AAP has sought to carve out a political space between the two dominant parties: the BJP and the Indian National Congress. Thus, the AAP took a position outside, and against, the two leading alliances: the BJP-led NDA and Congress-led UPA (now INDIA).

In its early years, the AAP took a center-left position and thus it seems that its final objective was to oust Congress from its position as the country’s dominant center-left party. The AAP later began to shift right, toward the BJP’s position, but the party is still unlikely to ally with the BJP, and may well now be turning back to its original views. This wavering proves that becoming a third pole of power between two major alliances is a daunting task. It would seem that by joining INDIA, the AAP has for now abandoned its ambition of becoming the new Congress, and is ready to accept junior partner status. This may change in the future, and friction between the AAP and Congress in the new alliance is likely to occur.

It is hard to tell to how much the AAP can raise the chances of this old-new alliance. The party is in fact a very small, regional one. It only rules in the National Capital Territory of Delhi and one state next to it: Punjab. Delhi is, of course, the seat of the government and one of the most populous cities in the country, but when it comes to national elections its population is still small. Similarly, Punjab is economically a very important state but not a very populous one by Indian standards. When it comes to national elections, Delhi sends seven lawmakers to the lower house of Parliament (Lok Sabha), while Punjab elects 13, in a house of 545.

But while the AAP does not have a national standing, its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, certainly does. It is hard to tell how much Kerjiwal’s charisma can translate into votes for other members of the alliance, but his popularity and energetic style of campaigning may certainly be of electoral value.

INDIA’s Feeble Coherence

There are challenges galore for INDIA. First, the more an alliance expands, the more its members risk fighting over the same electoral grounds. As India is a country with a first-past-the-post system, alliances usually avoid internal competition by “seat-sharing.” This is a tactic of picking only one candidate to run in a given constituency. But when more than one party of an alliance is active in a given region, or a state, and feels its candidate has the greatest chance to win a given constituency, the tedious process of seat-sharing leads to tension (and could become a reason for a party to leave its alliance).

This may be a problem in some of the most important states that the opposition alliance will contest, and in which it has two regionally strong parties in its ranks. This is the case of Maharashtra, where INDIA’s current members are the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray – UBT); Bihar, where the alliance members are JD(U) and RJD; and Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress and SP are both active. Among smaller states, the same applies to Punjab where alliance members include both the AAP and Congress.

Second, the more the alliance expands, the more votes it may garner, but the less coherent it may become. In its earlier avatar, the opposition alliance was clearly led by the Congress. The weaker Congress became, the more other parties could consider joining the alliance, sensing that they would not be so easily dwarfed by the leader. The situation is the opposite for the ruling BJP: The party undeniably dominates its alliance, but has recently lost certain allies who felt overshadowed by the BJP. At the same time, the lack of a clear leader in INDIA makes it tougher to reach compromises between the alliance’s leading parties, for instance when it comes to seat-sharing.

Third and perhaps most importantly, the leading party of the alliance, the Congress, has been in a perennial crisis of sorts. Its national standing, as counted in the number of lawmakers, has been reduced close to the level of a regional party. This is in stark contrast to the leading party in the government coalition – the BJP – which is by far the most important component of its coalition.  

The situation of the two leading parties in India is thus reverse. The BJP, as of the last election results (2019), hardly needs any allies to win the national vote. The Congress, in turn, stands no chance to win on its own and badly needs allies. Even with allies around it, if the Congress as such does not win much more seats than last time, the INDIA alliance will fall short of a majority.

Thus, while I am not good at guessing election results, if I had to declare the most likely winner of India’s 2024 national elections at this early date, the safest best would still be the BJP-led NDA.