The Opposition challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019 may have to cross several hurdles in terms of unification of an anti-BJP block, if developments in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh — India’s largest state accounting for a massive 80 Lok Sabha seats — is anything to go by.
With political parties reconciling to a situation where the Muslim vote would be inevitably split between the SP and BSP, came another jolt for Opposition unity. A resurgent Samajwadi Party, led by CM Akhilesh Yadav, decided to ignore the Jat-dominated Rashtriya Lok Dal, citing the lack of trust in its leadership when it came to firming up a pre-poll electoral alliance. Observers point out that regional satraps always look to protect their own turf first and often fail to surmount personal egos to face a common formidable opponent like PM Modi and his BJP. But even when Opposition unity fructified against formidable political leaders, such as the Janata Party taking on and defeating then PM Indira Gandhi’s Congress in 1977, the experiments did not last long due to internal bickering between Opposition stalwarts that saw the Janata Party disintegrating, paving way for the Congress to return to power at the Centre in 1980. It was virtually a repeat in 1989-90 when the Janata Dal disintegrated due to the squabbles between then PM V.P. Singh and his deputy PM Devi Lal. The transformation of a third front into the United Front in 1996-97 also did not last long. So any Opposition unity against PM Modi could remain sporadic and fragile, raising doubts about its longevity.
Curiously, before the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, UP had been reduced largely to a two-horse race between the ruling Samajwadi Party (that hinges on consolidation of the Muslims and Yadavs) and the Opposition BSP, which is anchored on the Dalit vote. The collapse of the BJP — which relied on the upper caste and non-Yadav OBC votes — in UP in the first decade of this century following the expulsion of OBC face Kalyan Singh from the party ensured the marginalisation of national parties from the scene. That is until PM Modi changed everything with his blitzkrieg in UP in 2014. The BJP swept the state, with its alliance winning 73 out of 80 seats. This triggered speculation in the months to come whether arch foes SP and BSP would ever ally again to defeat the BJP on the lines of the Bihar grand alliance. But the move did not materialise.
Question marks over opposition unity on a national scale were also raised recently when Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar came out in support of the Centre’s demonetisation exercise as against most Opposition parties, which decided to come together to oppose it. This led to West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee accusing Mr Kumar of betrayal on his home turf. Interestingly, both Mr Kumar and Ms Banerjee are trying to project themselves as the natural leaders of an Opposition alliance before the 2019 general elections. But nevertheless, hope persists. “We can say that the opposition is united, but it is also a fact that all parties will look after their own regional interest first,” senior TMC MP and Lok Sabha member Saugata Roy told this newspaper....