The Opposition meet in Patna on 23 June was a success for two big reasons. First, it was attended by 32 leaders from 15 political parties including 10 current and former CMs. Second and more important, the parties decided to meet again in July to talk about seat sharing and a common programme.
The only major pinprick was the Aam Aadmi Party's demand that the Congress take a stand on the Centre's ordinance curtailing its powers.
Though the 'AAP vs Congress' war of words occupied considerable space in the media and is likely to do so in future, that actually isn't the main challenge for the Opposition parties. The main challenge for the is actually Uttar Pradesh.
This is what this piece is going to argue.
1. AAP vs Congress Not a Big Issue
Congress and AAP compete with each other mainly in three states - Delhi, Punjab and Gujarat and one Union Territory - Chandigarh. AAP claims that it has some presence in Haryana as well but so far its presence has only been at the civic level.
Delhi has been voting as a wave for the past several Lok Sabha elections. It gave all seven seats to the Congress in 2009 and all seven to the BJP in 2014 and 2019.
In the last Lok Sabha election, BJP polled over 50 percent votes in each Lok Sabha seat in Delhi so even a complete consolidation of Congress and AAP votes wouldn't have been enough to defeat it.
The same goes for most seats in Gujarat as well. If the BJP remains as strong in Gujarat as it has been for the past 10 years, an Congress-AAP alliance is unlikely to harm it beyond a point.
Then we come to Punjab. Due to BJP's weak base among rural Sikh voters, the party isn't a serious player in 10 out of 13 seats in the state unless it allies with the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Even in the remaining three seats - Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Amritsar - BJP can't win without the support of rural Sikh voters.
Therefore it is quite likely that for most of the seats in Punjab, the competition will be between non-BJP parties, unless BJP and SAD come together.
If Congress and AAP fail to have a pre-poll alliance, the maximum impact would be only a handful of seats nationally.
2. Other Major States Have Alliances in Different Stages
The five biggest states in terms of Lok Sabha seats are:
Uttar Pradesh: 80 seats
Maharashtra: 48 seats
West Bengal: 42 seats
Bihar: 40 seats
Tamil Nadu: 39 seats
Except for UP, the Opposition parties have stable arrangements, in different degrees, in the other states.
Tamil Nadu has a stable coalition government led by the DMK. This pre-poll coalition swept the last Lok Sabha election and won the 2021 Assembly election. Therefore a pre-poll alliance for the next Lok Sabha election is almost a foregone conclusion.
Bihar: The JD-U, RJD, Congress, CPI-ML, CPI and CPI-M are running a post-poll coalition government in the state. RJD, JD-U and Congress had contested as allies in 2015 and RJD, Congress and the Left parties had a pre-poll alliance in 2020. Given that all the parties in the alliance need each other, it may not be difficult to crack seat sharing for the Lok Sabha polls.
Maharashtra: This is a bit trickier than Bihar where despite Nitish Kumar's changing allegiances, there is still a great deal of ideological compatibility between the alliance partners.
Still, since all the parties are prioritising the Assembly polls later in 2024, they may just manage to arrive on a common ground for the Lok Sabha polls.
West Bengal: Here the lack of a pre-poll alliance may actually be beneficial for the Opposition. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and 2021 Assembly polls, it was clear that many Left Front voters tactically shifted to the BJP just to try and defeat the TMC.
If the Left revives and contests separately, it is more likely to harm the BJP and help the TMC.
The only problem in Bengal are the Congress' areas of influence in North and Central Bengal. These also happen to be seats with a sizable Muslim population. Last time, a few seats were lost due to a vote split between the TMC and the Congress.
3. Why Uttar Pradesh is the Key
Uttar Pradesh is one of the states where the BJP is hoping to pick up some seats compared to 2019. It had won 64 out 80 seats along with its ally the Apna Dal. The BSP-SP-RLD Mahagathbandhan won 15 and Sonia Gandhi won Rae Bareli for the Congress.
Since the BSP and SP are not together any more, the BJP is hoping to gain from that. The BSP has so far been critical of the Opposition unity efforts that are underway.
If the BSP refuses to play ball, the only other alternative for the Opposition becomes an alliance between the Samajwadi Party, Congress and Rashtriya Lok Dal.
Such an alliance obviously won't have the same arithmetic might as the SP-BSP alliance, which also led to 80 percent consolidation of Muslim voters and about 70 percent consolidation of Jatav and Yadav votes.
The Congress doesn't have a caste base, unlike the SP and BSP.
But it also remains true that SP is the main Opposition party in Uttar Pradesh and Congress does tend to do marginally better in the state at the Lok Sabha level compared to the Assembly level. The last Lok Sabha election was an exception because the Congress got squeezed out due to the SP-BSP-RLD Mahagathbandhan.
An SP-Congress-RLD alliance would help achieve two things.
First, it would help create the perception that this is a viable national alternative. On its own, SP won't inspire confidence as a national alternative. Congress is seen as a national alternative but lacks the ground strength in UP.
Second, it can help consolidate anti-BJP voters. Even the much smaller SP-led alliance did manage a vote share of about 35 percent in the Assembly polls.
The main challenge would be seat-sharing. The SP would have to give Congress a respectable number of seats for such an alliance to be viable. In the 2017 Assembly elections, the Congress contested about one-fourth of the seats when the two parties were in an alliance.