The quest for a united front
On Friday, Congress president Sonia Gandhi convened a meeting of Opposition parties with a single message — it was time to mount a united offensive against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government. The meeting built on the coordination that was visible among non-National Democratic Alliance forces in Parliament during the monsoon session. It also saw the participation of a range of other leaders, from Mamata Banerjee whose success in Bengal has emboldened the Opposition and whose national ambitions are now quite apparent to Sharad Pawar, considered the grand old man of the Opposition with the resources, networks and skills to reach across party lines. The meeting ended with a statement critiquing the Centre’s governance — with a focus on Covid-19 and the vaccine policy, economic management, Pegasus, farm laws, the planned privatisation of public sector units, and erosion of fundamental rights, among other issues.
It is clear that the most serious attempt at Opposition unity since 2014 is underway. To be sure, there have been attempts to bring disparate parties together — the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress alliance in Karnataka was motivated by a desire to keep the BJP out but lasted just over a year; in Uttar Pradesh, both the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the SP and the Congress, have allied against the BJP with little success. But there appears to be a deeper recognition of the scale of challenge posed by the BJP’s dominance. It is organisationally and financially way ahead of the rest; in Narendra Modi, it has the most popular leader in the country; it has shown a remarkable ability to weave welfare, religion, nationalism and caste together; and it has the ability to cripple the Opposition.
All of this has made Opposition leaders realise that preparations to mount a challenge in 2024 must begin now. Last-minute alliances and rushed campaigns aren’t enough to defeat the BJP. But three problems persist. Leadership will remain a point of acrimony — leaving the question till after elections will give the BJP an advantage; resolving it and narrowing down on a leader is difficult and can divide the Opposition even before any formal unity is achieved. Issues are hard to identify — attacking the government primarily on the economy and ignoring the politics of culture leaves the BJP in a position to appropriate nationalism while attacking Hindutva may not be electorally appealing anymore. And the Congress remains the weak link, especially in bipolar states. Until these challenges are navigated, shows of unity won’t suffice.