The show of unity displayed by a section of the Opposition parties at a rally called by the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Fatehabad, Haryana, on Sunday and the subsequent meeting of JD(U) leader and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar and RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the realistic comments they made about the Congress being an essential part of an Opposition alliance together mark a realistic first attempt to create a platform to take on the National Democratic Alliance in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. But the absence of some of the tallest figures in the Opposition ranks like West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav reflects the distance the Opposition must cover should they take their assignment seriously.
The Opposition leaders have reasons to think of a real fight at the hustings and they have listed some. The BJP is now left with practically no heavyweight partners in the NDA. Three of them which added substantially to the NDA kitty last time — Shiv Sena, JD(U) and Siromani Akali Dal — have all left the NDA in the last three years, and they were all present at the INLD meet. The BJP’s position is not all that safe in several states: the party installed its chief ministers in some via horse-trading, euphemistically called Operation Lotus. Despite the tall claims, the economy does not present a rosy picture and the NDA has never shown the skills to handle it deftly.
The Opposition leaders who met Sunday sounded clear that the Congress should be part of the united front. Electoral arithmetic backs the proposition. The Congress is the major political force in several states — Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh — which the BJP had swept in the last Lok Sabha elections, and an alliance without the party will make no sense in these states. At the same time, there are big states in which the Congress matters less, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, where the non-Congress parties occupy the major political space. A joint platform and a single candidate against the NDA in each of the 542 constituencies is the necessary condition to put up a decent fight against the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls.
Opposition unity alone does not matter in elections. It’s the ability to offer the voter an alternative that counts, too. The BJP romped home comfortably in the 2019 elections though it had faced a series of losses in byelections to the Lok Sabha a year before; there were reverses even in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP never regrets playing the communal card for electoral purposes — from raising allegations against someone like former PM Manmohan Singh to referring to those behind arson attacks as people who “can be identified by their clothes”, the party has fired every arm in its arsenal to win elections. The Opposition must realise it cannot defeat the NDA by peddling soft Hindutva as people have no incentive to opt for a “B” team in national elections. A wider secular liberal platform, that can offer an alternative governance plan, is the first step towards 2024; and the Opposition looks like having taken it.