The decision of the Congress Party to announce its candidates for the March 11 parliamentary byelection to two constituencies in Uttar Pradesh — Gorakhpur and Phulpur — has led to the speculation that the idea of Opposition unity is dead on arrival.
This is a misguided view which takes its cue from the idea that there should be a single Opposition candidate to challenge the ruling party in every constituency in the country, and is typically encouraged by the interpretation of the ruling party itself which is bound to be self-serving.
In practice, however, coordination amongst the Opposition parties and groups has taken many forms over time, and has accommodated the idea of a degree of competition among them, which may well benefit the hegemonic party in specific circumstances.
In any case, a view cannot be formed on the strength of the line-up in a clutch of byelections. A better idea of the situation will make itself clear as the national polls approach. That said, it needs to be taken on board that steps are afoot to hold up the idea of a “third front” by a clutch of regional parties which will have to compete against the ruling BJP as well as the Congress, depending on the situation in a specific state.
In the recent past too, third front aficionados have done much advertising for their idea, but in practical terms all that it has meant is that the dominant regional party in a state should keep its turf free of other regional parties. For example, all parties may be wary of a party like Bahujan Samaj Party setting up candidates in several states.
Such a move may end up hurting not just the BJP and the Congress but the principal regional party in a state as well. But a look at the overall political situation in which national elections take place suggests that if the principal challenger to the BJP seems credible to voters, then the regional elements find it difficult to push ahead.
In any case, contradictions among regional parties are also for real — think Telugu Desam Party and YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh, or the Trinamul Congress and the CPI(M) in West Bengal.
In the specific case of UP, it is perhaps likely that the ruling BJP remains strong, although in recent municipal and civic bodies elections, the saffron party fared poorly in constituencies where EVMs were not used. The main cause for this is that when the voters’ considerations are no longer strictly local, the splitting of votes normally works for the ruling party. In any case, UP has two strong regional parties in the BSP and the SP. In all likelihood they will cancel each other out and the Congress organisation is not strong enough to pose a strong challenge to the BJP.