The many perils of a coalition

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The many perils of a coalition

Wednesday, 23 January 2019 | Kalyani Shankar

The impressive show of unanimity among Opposition leaders at a rally in Kolkata for the first time presented a prospect of a pre-poll alternative to the BJP. But for that to fructify, challenges are many. Most important of all is to stay united

Can the Opposition unite to  pose a challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the coming months? There are so many ifs and buts although West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee organised a mammoth rally in Kolkata’s Brigade grounds last week.

The who’s who of the Opposition gathered to prepare a roadmap for a coalition against the ruling BJP. Addressing the ‘United India’ rally, Banerjee predicted that the BJP’s days were numbered and that the “expiry date” of the Modi-led Government had come. The rally was, perhaps, the beginning of Opposition efforts to oust the BJP Government ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Though the idea could not move forward earlier, when Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy took oath on May 23 last year. Several Opposition leaders had graced that occasion too. 

But this time, it is likely to be followed up with another rally in Amravati, Andhra Pradesh, by Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and another one in Delhi, organised by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal. An impressive list of leaders from 20-plus parties — including former Prime Minister Deve Gowda, former Union Ministers Sharad Pawar, Arun Shourie and Shatrughan Sinha, Chief Ministers Chandrababu Naidu, Arvind Kejriwal and HD Kumaraswamy, former Chief Ministers Akhilesh Yadav, Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Gegong Apang among others — were a part of the Kolkata rally.

From the podium, Banerjee appealed to the country, ‘Delhi mein sarkar badal do’ (change the Government at the Centre). Other Opposition leaders, too, echoed similar sentiments. This was the first big effort by the Opposition after the BJP lost badly in the three Hindi heartland States — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — last month.

The Opposition combine boasts a wealth of leaders but as Deve Gowda pointed out, it would be very difficult for different party leaders to forget their differences and come together. There are so many Opposition parties of various hues and ideologies that are pulling in different directions, the possibility of which is not a national coalition but state-specific alliances.

Most importantly, ego of regional chieftains comes in the way of unity. In fact, the Congress is working on this strategy and so are other parties. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have come together, keeping the Congress out. In West Bengal, will the Congress go with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) or the Left? Will the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) continue its ties with the Congress in Andhra Pradesh, where the party’s vote share is almost zero?

In the North-East, an alliance with regional parties is required. Left parties have remained outside as they do not want to share the platform with the TMC. Meanwhile, Telangana Chief Minister, K Chandrashekhar Rao, who was busy mobilising a federal front, was absent at the rally because he did not want to share the dais with Naidu and Congress leaders.

These are the challenges that will come in the way of Opposition unity. Once this issue is resolved, then comes the question of who would be the prime ministerial candidate? This topic has been pushed aside for now. Leaders have claimed that it will be a collective leadership and the candidate can be decided in a post-poll scenario.

“Throw the BJP out. We will figure out who can become the Prime Minister. Modiji need not worry,” said Banerjee. Even the Congress agreed that the decision should be taken only in a post-poll scenario. The Opposition, therefore, will go without a challenger to Modi despite its galaxy of leaders. The BJP will, taking advantage of this scenario, opt for a presidential style of campaign.

The third challenge is for the regional satraps to show an extraordinary determination to sweep the polls in their respective States. They did well in 2014 by winning an impressive number of seats. A repeat performance would go a long way in challenging Modi and his Government.

The fourth challenge is a ‘one-on-one fight’ against the BJP. This would avoid a division of Opposition votes but it appears difficult. The Prime Minster is counting on a divided Opposition to win the 2019 battle.

The fifth and the most important point is that the Opposition has no new narrative — just Modi-bashing will not fetch them votes. Unless they come up with a new vision, voters will not get enthused. Recently, Modi reacted in his characteristic style: “My stand on corruption has made some people angry as I prevented them from looting public money; they have formed the mahagathbandhan.” Modi is simply sticking to his corruption plank.

There is no doubt that Opposition unity is very difficult to achieve but there is no harm in trying. After all, the BJP came to power with just 31 per cent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll.

As one of the Opposition leaders said, “Manzil bahut door hai, Raasta bahut kathin hai; Dil mile na mile, Haath mila ke chalo” (our destination is far and the path is difficult; despite our differences, we have to tread the path holding hand together). The coming days and weeks will show whether the opposition means what it says.

(The writer is a senior political commentator and syndicated columnist)

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