Supporters of senior Congress leader Siddaramaiah celebrate outside his residence in Bengaluru | PTI
The Congress party’s handsome victory in the election to the Karnataka Vidhan Sabha has proved the efficacy of a tactic that can be used against the Bharatiya Janata Party at provincial levels. Focus on issues directly affect the people while ignoring the Modi-regime’s ideology-based politics. The question is whether the same tactic or a developed form of it can be used in next year’s Lok Sabha election,
Almost all major opposition parties seem to have recognized the need for a degree of cooperation between them to contain the Bharatiya Janata Party in the next Lok Sabha election. Despite some bold talk they give the impression of being uncertain about the sustainability of coordinated endeavors as also the outcome. This seems to be a situation in which they have nothing to lose by entertaining suggestions from the outside.
To go by electoral performances since 2019 and sober assessments of the prospects for 2024, it is evident that no opposition party can single-handedly beat the BJP countrywide. While the Bharat Jodo Yatra might have re-introduced Rahul Gandhi to the masses as a well-meaning leader and re-enthused the faithful, there is hardly a chance that the Congress machinery can be brought up to scratch by election time. It can compete at best in States where it is in power or has the status of the main opposition.
On this calculus the Congress can be said to be competitive in Rajasthan (25), Himachal Pradesh (4), Chhattisgarh(11), Madhya Pradesh(29), Karnataka (28) and Kerala (20). Uttarakhand, Haryana and Punjab could be added to the list though reports from those States do not give the impression that the Congress is in as good health as it is in the earlier-named six. As with Gujarat, does anyone expect a good performance from it even if it is technically the second party. When Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu—where alliance partners are likely to be accommodative—are added on, the Congress will be in the fray in around 150-160 seats at best. If it wins close to half this number, it might still have a greater Lok Sabha presence than other non-BJP entities such as the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal-JD(U) combine, Trinamool and the DMK. With 272 almost certainly out of reach, the Congress will do everyone a favour by setting sights on a “first among equals” status.
Each of those regionally powerful formations probably knows that a spread beyond its current pocket is not going to happen within a year. Both the Aam Aadmi Party and the Trinamool Congress would have learnt that lesson from the last round of Assembly elections. It is probable that they knew as much before and entered the contest mainly with the aim of marking a lane for future races. Given their failure to attain their numerical objectives in 2022 and their assertions about the stakes involved in 2024, they too will need to moderate their ambitions.
Ideally, all the major non-BJP formations including the Congress should focus on identifying the seats they can realistically hope to win and on strengthening their machinery in those constituencies. There will be mismatches in assessments of relative strengths among parties. Compromises are more likely to be elusive than not. All these parties will be tested on their promise of being prepared for sacrifices in order to defeat the BJP. A measurement of their seriousness of purpose will sway at least a section of the voters. Conversely, sincerity is an asset that can help party building in future.
With so much to work through before the casting of votes, non-BJP parties would be better off not spending too much thought on post-election matters. Definition of the contours of the coalition government to be formed by any combination of them should be set aside for now. These matters can be taken up seriously only after they have secured the numbers to deprive the BJP of a majority and/or the capacity to manufacture one. In opting to go for a purely numbers game, the Opposition will lay itself open to the criticism that it has no alternative agenda or policy to offer the country. That it is a motley, power-hungry conglomeration, which is likely to repeat the performance of UPA-II.
Certain factors will add substance to this critique. If the above projections turn out right, the Congress could emerge as the only non-BJP party with a multi-State presence. It will feel entitled to leadership but will not get to its goal without negotiating with others. State-level leaders—of other parties as well as the Congress—will probably have the greater bargaining clout. Everyone will need to remember the lessons of 2009-2014. Lack of discipline and coherence within the UPA created the public yearning for stability of any kind that was on offer.
So long as that lesson is kept in mind, the supposed weakness suggested by disparity can actually be turned into a strength. While formulating and presenting the message, focus can be on a core argument. That there is a compelling need for diverse parties from all corners of the country to come together and combat the agenda of a BJP that is hell-bent on suppressing our myriad cultures and suffocating personal liberties. It is an agenda that seeks hegemony for one linguistic group, one culture, one section of the caste hierarchy and one corporate. As opposed to that, the other Front can present itself as standing for an India that draws unity and strength from a pooling of multiple vibrant influences and not the exclusion of one segment after another.
Such a message will resonate because it is credible. Its authenticity will not be doubted by voters in Bengal or Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra respectively because they know that a Mamata or a Stalin or a Thackeray are loyal to their own States as well as the country. Another weakness of the National Fronts of the 1980’s and ‘90’s—of having panels of leaders distrusted by people outside their own States—can also be bypassed. While an Akilesh and a Tejaswi can function as the main campaigners in UP and Bihar, no opposition supporter in the South will feel pressured to vote for an unknown Yadav.