On July 18, in a meeting chaired by United Progress Alliance (UPA) chair Sonia Gandhi, 26 political parties formally accepted a proposal to form an alliance to contest the 2024 parliamentary elections together. The alliance formation had been in the pipeline for a while, as 16 parties had come together to discuss the possibility in a meeting held in Patna late in June chaired by Janata Dal (United) patron Nitish Kumar. It was at the second meeting in Bengaluru that the grouping was given a name: the Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance (INDIA).
This name, which has stirred a lot of debate since, seems to lay a claim to the nation while making a promise for “development.” Another crucial element of the name is the word “inclusive” which counters as well as underlines the divisive politics that the opposition accuses the government of practicing.
All things considered, the name as well as the idea of the alliance promise to be significant developments in Indian politics, which has for the past decade been all about the seemingly unstoppable growth and consolidation of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and its affiliate groups.
All predictions and political analysis suggest that no political party for now has enough strength to take on the BJP government on its own. Necessity is what makes this alliance workable. To reduce the contest in each constituency to a one-versus-one contest, with all opposition parties supporting the candidate with the highest chance of victory, is the only way of posing any sort of a challenge to the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
With the BJP’s growing presence in states that are traditionally dominated by local parties, the regional political parties are on the defensive and feel the need to protect their traditional turf. The Congress also stares at the possibility of being made virtually irrelevant in national politics with another defeat in elections to the lower house, where they currently hold their lowest-ever numbers.
This joining of forces against a gigantic common rival is thus a battle of survival for many political parties in India. These parties, despite their differences, have come together on a platform of secular nationalism that opposes the Hindu nationalism of the BJP. Such a coalition also promises a return to federalism of the kind that has been diluted under the centralizing tendencies of the presently ruling government.
On the other hand, the INDIA alliance faces a plethora of potential problems – not the least of which is working out seat-sharing arrangements that are agreeable to the different partners. Many of these new allies at the national level are principal rivals in the states. The Congress and the Left Front in Kerala, and the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab are perfect examples.
An associated problem is navigating the pressure from the party cadres, who may not always support seat-sharing as worked out by the top leadership. The opposition grouping also must deal with the insecurity of some members defecting. Moreover, Congress does not have enough MPs to take up the leadership role within the alliance uncontested. Thus, there is bound to be a clash of egos in a grouping that has so many powerful or formerly powerful political leaders.
The claim of these regional stalwarts to the leadership of the coalition can also only be countered if Congress puts on an impressive show in the upcoming state elections. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram go to polls in the run-up to the national elections next year in 2024. In three of these five states, there is expected to be a two-way contest, with the Congress and the BJP taking each other head-on. An electoral victory will strengthen Congress’ role as the leader of the opposition and make the other aspirational leaders fall in line. Losses for Congress in these state elections will embolden the leadership claims of regional members of the opposition alliance.
There are also many other potential partners of INDIA that at the moment seem apprehensive to commit fully to the alliance. Bharata Rashtra Samiti (BRS) of Telangana and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha are important players who are fence-sitting and waiting for the situation to develop further before they make a move. For now, they have not been convinced that they have more to gain from joining INDIA than they have to lose.
One reason for this apprehension can be the dismal performance of previous opposition alliances. The alliance of the Samajwadi Party and Congress in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections took a proper beating, while the Maha Vikas Aghadi of Maharashtra failed to maintain their unity after coming to power.
It would not be an overstatement to say that the opposition alliance was made possible by Congress’ triumphant victory in the Karnataka state elections. The Karnataka results not only did Congress’ confidence a world of good, but it also placed them in a better position to attract other political parties to forge an alliance. Victories in the upcoming elections would not only cement Congress’ position as the party that drives the opposition coalition’s agenda but also attract other parties that have till now not decided to support either of the two sides.
Regional parties have their strengths in terms of loyal and dependable followings, but they also have their limits in terms of their geographical spread and appeal in areas outside their regions of influence. Some of the partners, like those from Jammu and Kashmir, are too small when it comes to the impact they can have on the numbers in Parliament. Thus, it is important to get allies like the BRS and BJD, who have a significant presence in the Lok Sabha. To get these significant partners and to attain the position of the nucleus around which the opposition unity revolves, Congress needs to strengthen its image as well as its finances in the build-up to the 2024 election.
Congress’ omnipresence across states in India, although it is weak, allows them candidacy for leadership of the opposition alliance. A victory in Madhya Pradesh and a return to power in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will improve Congress’ standing and place them in a leader’s position in a coalition that mostly comprises single-state parties. Even then, the math would be difficult to work out, and so would the production of a common minimum program where the promises made to the public by the opposition collectively do not erode any party’s individual potential.
Irrespective of these challenges, a united front against the BJP of all opposition parties seems to be the most expedient option for them. Unity will be exceedingly difficult to maintain and even then, it would be a giant task to test the electoral supremacy of the BJP, especially in view of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.
But one thing is for sure. It is for the first time in the last 10 years that there seems to be a real political challenge for the government, and that in itself is a welcome development for India’s democracy.