There was an unmistakable sense of determination in the Opposition’s second unity meeting in Bengaluru that the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) intimidatory tactics failed to shake.
Between Patna (where the first Opposition conclave was held) and Bengaluru, the BJP struck twice. It broke the Opposition’s strongest link by splitting the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra and leaving Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar’s creation, Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), in tatters.
Then, just days before the gathering of 26 opposition parties, the BJP summoned a mega meet of an expanded National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and flaunted 38 partners, some old, many new.
If the BJP hoped to spook the Opposition and leave it fumbling for a strategy, it failed. The Opposition hit back by firing two salvos which steadied its boat.
One, it resurrected Sonia Gandhi as the matronly figurehead of opposition unity. Two, it sprung a surprise by announcing a name for the new alliance: INDIA, or Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance. It’s quite a mouthful and there will be many debates on its suitability.
Opposition Unity Gets a Fresh Spin
However, the Opposition scored two immediate points with the announcement. One, if the alliance spins it cleverly, the name could well put the BJP on the defensive with its play on nationalism. Snatching the BJP’s plank away, so to speak.
Two, it gave a catchy headline (I.N.D.I.A versus NDA, screamed television and newspapers) and kept the Opposition in the news in the face of stiff competition from two lashing speeches by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he slammed the other side as "corrupt dynasts’’.
Before the battle of the ballot in 2024, there’s a perception battle to be fought and won. It’s raging in earnest now with the Opposition keeping itself in contest by displaying a resoluteness to unite that was missing in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
These are early days and the Opposition has many mountains to climb before it can hope to present a credible challenge to a formidable leader like Narendra Modi.
However, Bengaluru signalled that a lot of backroom discussions are happening and a skeleton framework for unity is in place. This is obvious from the fact that all 26 parties unanimously agreed on a name for their alliance.
Living Upto Its Name
However, the devil, as always, lies in the details. The Opposition has to work out a seat-sharing formula that all parties will sign on to. Given that there are states in which many of these parties are political rivals, this is not going to be easy.
For example, in Delhi and Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress are at loggerheads. In West Bengal, Congress, Left, and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) are daggers drawn. In UP, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) is not willing to make concessions for the Congress which got less than 2% of the votes in the 2021 assembly polls.
However, a senior leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity revealed that a broad understanding is in place. The Opposition seems to have also grasped the nuances of fighting a perception battle. Apparently, it has decided to unveil its future plans slowly so that every meeting produces a headline-grabbing announcement.
There is a second task at hand for the Opposition, one that may prove more difficult. The newly minted alliance needs an imaginative slogan and narrative to counter the power of Modi’s charisma.
The name I.N.D.I.A has to mean something to voters to draw them away from the BJP, especially in the Northern states where the Congress and the BJP clash head-on in one-to-one fights. In many constituencies in the North, the BJP won by more than 50 percent of the vote share.
In the absence of a face to challenge Modi, a catchy slogan and a powerful narrative become critical.
Senior Congress Leaders Taking Centre Stage
It is significant that Sonia Gandhi has come back into play. Her health is frail and she is unlikely to contest the election or campaign vigorously. However, by foregrounding her, not only is the Congress hoping to utilise her experience and skills at consensus building, but her presence also takes the spotlight away from Rahul Gandhi.
However, hard the BJP may try, it is going to be difficult to project the 2024 battle as a Modi versus Rahul contest. Not with Sonia as a titular head of the opposition alliance. That’s a big blow for the BJP because it loses its chief talking point.
While the BJP would seem to be in pole position to win the 2024 race with Modi as its spearhead, it is displaying unexpected signs of nervousness. For instance, so far, it has been reacting to Opposition moves rather than setting the agenda.
The move to wean Ajit Pawar away from the NCP and offer him deputy chief ministership and portfolios of his choice as well as the sudden convening of an extended NDA meet, probably the first of its kind in nine years, are signs that the BJP is monitoring developments on the other side very closely.
BJP Needs a Full-Proof Plan To Combat Dithering Sentiment
Traditionally, the BJP fares badly in a one-on-one contest, which is what the Opposition hopes to frame. A multi-cornered fight suits it better. It would be in the BJP’s interest, therefore, to prevent the Opposition from coming together.
At the same time, the BJP has added a multitude of headaches by scooping up a host of smaller, caste-based, and regional parties. It will accommodate them in ticket distribution at the cost of its aspirants.
It will also have to deal with rivalries between the partners. For instance, Ram Vilas Paswan’s son Chirag and his uncle Pashupati Kumar Paras have had a bitter falling out. Although they put up a show of unity at the NDA mega meet with Chirag touching his uncle’s feet, BJP circles are worried that the rivalry between the two is a ticking time bomb for its hopes of fighting Nitish Kumar’s mahagathbandhan in Bihar.
Similarly, while the BJP may have weakened the MVA by co-opting breakaway factions of the Shiv Sena and NCP, it has simultaneously created resentment in its own ranks among those who are being forced to cede space to the new entrants.
It is clear that there will be more drama and action in the weeks and months ahead as election fever mounts. The run-up to 2024 may throw up a fascinating battle of wits.
(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)