Can a regional front put up a credible challenge to BJP?

Mar 25, 2023 07:22 PM IST

With a year to go for the 2024 general election, regional parties are trying to forge a common platform. But internal contradictions, the Congress’s weaknesses and the BJP’s formidable machinery remain hurdles

It is among the most enduring ideas in Indian politics, but if there was ever any hope for a proverbial Third Front to wield influence at the Centre, it must have been squelched under the footsteps of Inder Kumar Gujral as he walked up the red sandstone steps of Rashtrapati Bhavan one cold November evening in 1997, his resignation letter in his pocket. For the second time in 12 months, a government headed by a person not drawn from either of India’s two biggest national parties had collapsed – and in both cases, it was the Congress that pulled the rug from under the feet of the 14-party coalition that was the United Front government, its 170-odd members too few to survive a vote of confidence in the lower House without the support of the Grand Old Party. It marked the end of a two-year period that saw three prime ministers (PMs), frequently stalled Parliament sessions and intense political intrigue in the power corridors fuelling a national impression of a government in drift. It was the last time anyone outside the two major national parties headed the Union government. Since that evening when Gujral told President KR Narayanan that the Congress’s “unjustified” demands had forced him to resign, only three men have risen to the position of PM – first Atal Bihari Vajpayee for six years and then Manmohan Singh for 10, both as part of a coalition headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, respectively, and then Narendra Modi, after securing the first single-party majority in a generation.

For electoral success, it may be more prudent to look beyond the fog of Opposition unity to the head-to-head contests between the BJP and the Congress. Unless there is a perceptible shift in the dynamics of those seats, 2024 will be a tough battle for India’s Opposition. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
For electoral success, it may be more prudent to look beyond the fog of Opposition unity to the head-to-head contests between the BJP and the Congress. Unless there is a perceptible shift in the dynamics of those seats, 2024 will be a tough battle for India’s Opposition. (HT Photo)

Yet, the idea of a bouquet of Opposition parties coming together to take on the dominant party at the Centre has endured, and is periodically resuscitated before every general election, albeit unsuccessfully. Before the last Lok Sabha polls, too, a number of regional leaders – such as Telangana chief minister (CM) K Chandrashekar Rao, his then Andhra Pradesh counterpart Chandrababu Naidu or Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar –attempted to bring together regional parties under the umbrella of a federal front, only to find their efforts thwarted by the BJP’s better than expected show at the hustings, and the Congress’s near-collapse outside a handful of states in the country’s southern and northern extremities. Last week saw the first stirrings of another Opposition attempt to forge a common platform ahead of the 2024 elections; Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav went to Kolkata to meet West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and both leaders announced their plans to talk to other leaders while maintaining equal distance from the BJP and the Congress. Banerjee then travelled to Bhubaneswar to meet her Odisha counterpart, Naveen Patnaik -- both spoke of strengthening India’s federal structure -- and later met former Karnataka CM HD Kumaraswamy, whose Janata Dal (Secular) can again emerge as a key player in what appears to be a closely fought assembly election in Karnataka.

But just how workable is the idea of a regional front, and what do its prospects tell us about the Opposition putting up a credible challenge to the incumbent BJP in 2024? Three things are important here.

One, a number of these parties, especially outside the Hindi heartland, feel that they are close to honing a mix of regional pride, linguistic differences, governance and cultural traditions as a potential competitor to the BJP’s successful concoction of nationalism, Hindutva, welfare and governance. Increasingly, in state after state, satraps have sought to cast themselves as regional defenders of sovereignty and tasted some measure of success – though by ratcheting up the rhetoric, they may be undercutting the possibility of their appeal expanding beyond the borders of the state. But this doesn’t counter the BJP’s dominance in the 10 Hindi heartland states that comprise 225 Lok Sabha seats, and where the ruling party won roughly 85-90% of the seats in 2014 and 2019. It is here that the Opposition parties have struggled, their plans have come a cropper (the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar or the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh), and their platforms of bringing together marginalised castes and classes collapsed.

Two, in India today, non-Congress, non-BJP parties can broadly be divided into three categories – those comfortable with the idea of a Congress-led coalition (the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or Rashtriya Janata Dal), those who may not be comfortable with a Congress-led coalition but cannot get closer to the BJP for ideological or political reasons (Trinamool Congress or Aam Aadmi Party), and those who don’t have any problem doing business with either bloc (Biju Janata Dal or YSR Congress Party). This has added to the old problems of competing ambitions, lack of a unifying figure who could be projected as the leader of the party, and a coherent ideological and governance narrative that can take on the BJP’s formidable electoral machine and PM Narendra Modi’s enduring popularity. To be sure, this is an old problem with any Third Front arrangement, and has not stopped some regional parties from doing well in their states or crafting their own development narratives. But in 2024, this will be even more crucial because most regional parties have undergone a generational transformation, with the older, charismatic generation of leaders now well and truly out of the electoral arena.

Three, the idea of a regional front is attractive almost solely because of the Congress’s dismal record in taking the BJP on in head-to-head contests. In 2019, the BJP won 90% of these fights, as a result of which the Congress had no representative in the Lok Sabha from 17 states and Union Territories. Similarly, in head-to-head assembly election contests, the Congress has won just one (Himachal Pradesh) in the last four years. In contrast, regional parties have done much better, especially in assembly elections, where regional satraps such as MK Stalin or Banerjee have managed to hold off the BJP’s foray into their respective domains. As political scientist Neelanjan Sircar wrote in this newspaper, the BJP’s strike rate dropped from 92% against the Congress to 68% against regional parties in 2019.

But there is also a flip side. In the last two general elections, the seat share (number of seats won as a proportion of all seats in the Lok Sabha) of all parties other than the Congress and the BJP were among the two lowest figures since 1989, arguably the beginning of the coalition era, and dipping below the figure of 40% that was considered the average. This, and results from key battleground states for the Opposition – think West Bengal and Odisha – show that the presidential style of election that has come to characterise the Lok Sabha polls may hurt the prospects of a federal front, which is predicated on the idea that localised factors can influence the dynamic of the election. The starkest example of this was Odisha, which voted for the Lok Sabha and the assembly on the same day but gave the BJD a very narrow victory (12 out of 21 seats) in the former, and a near-sweep (112 out of 147 seats) in the latter.

As India hurtles towards the next general elections, the political space is opening up and alliances are being explored. Opposition parties are also attempting to find common ground on issues that appear to resonate – such as the perceived bias in the functioning of federal investigative agencies or the disqualification of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. It is anybody’s guess whether these efforts will succeed.

Yet, for electoral success, it may be more prudent to look beyond the fog of Opposition unity to the head-to-head contests between the BJP and the Congress. Unless there is a perceptible shift in the dynamics of those seats, 2024 will be a tough battle for India’s Opposition.

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    History has an uncanny way of intruding into contemporary life and shaping our public conversation. A new controversy emerged recently over the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose.

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