United Opposition, joint Opposition, et cetera are the buzzwords in Delhi political circles these days. The hopes of an anti-BJP, united Opposition have brightened with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s visit to the national capital where she met the Gandhis and Arvind Kejriwal. She is expected to meet Sharad Pawar as well.
After the Bharatiya Janata Party failed to win the West Bengal elections, and propelled by a series of events, including the deadly second wave of the pandemic, fuel price hike, farmers’ protests and the Pegasus snooping issue, exit of long-term BJP allies like Akali Dal and Shiv Sena, the Opposition has got wings.
Many Opposition leaders feel that public sentiment has turned against the Modi government and in 2024 it could lose due to the weight of 10 years of anti-incumbency.
Strategies like ‘half of half’, single Opposition candidates against the BJP are being floated, however most of these have a weak arithmetic foundation.
The Congress and the BJP are the two truly national parties in India. Then there are a host of regional parties, some aligned with BJP (NDA), like Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), and some with Congress (UPA), like Stalin’s DMK.
Some parties are anti-BJP, but not part of UPA, like the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress, the CPM, etc. Some parties maintain equal distance from, both, the BJP and the Congress, like Naveen’s BJD (Odisha), KCR’s TRS (Telangana) and Jagan’s YSRCP (Andhra).
In many states and seats, the BJP is neither the principal nor the main Opposition, with contests between the Congress and regional parties or amongst few regional parties themselves.
If we look at the 2019 general elections, in terms of main contest, defined in terms of winner versus runner-up, we get the following:
1. Category I: BJP vs INC contest in 35% of Lok Sabha seats, meaning BJP winner and Congress runner-up or vice-a-versa in 190 seats
2. Category II: BJP vs regional party contest in 34% of seats in 185 seats
3. Category III: INC vs regional party in 13% of seats in 71 seats
4. Category IV: Regional party vs regional party in 18% of seats in 97 seats.
BJP versus INC contest
There were 190 such seats in 2019 mainly in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Assam, Goa, Haryana, North Eastern states and some seats of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh/Bihar.
In all these seats, anti-BJP regional parties have almost nil votes, except for NCP in Maharashtra and RJD in Bihar.
So even if Congress contests these seats and puts up a joint opposition candidate, it doesn’t benefit as regional parties who may be backing it like Trinamool Congress or NCP or CPM have negligible/nil votes in these states.
BJP versus Regional parties contest
There were 185 such seats in 2019 mainly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, some seats of Maharashtra and Telangana.
In most of these seats, Congress has a minimum 5% vote share and will be able to mostly transfer these votes, thus benefiting the regional parties. Regional parties benefit, Congress doesn’t unless it is able to extract a few seats in alliance to contest.
INC versus regional parties contest
There were 71 such seats in 2019 mainly in Kerala, Telangana, some seats of Maharashtra (with Shiv Sena now part of government in Maharashtra), West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and North Eastern States.
Most of these seats are tricky for putting up a joint opposition candidate. In Kerala the main contest is between INC and CPM. Both would not give up their claim on these seats. These could go for friendly fights.
Regional parties versus regional parties contest
There were 97 such seats in 2019 mainly in Andhra, Tamil Nadu, some seats of Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, and North Eastern States.
In these seats, a joint Opposition candidate is possible if the Congress leaves its claim, mainly in Andhra Pradesh. The NCP versus Sena contest in Maharashtra might turn into a regional party versus BJP contest in 2024.
So, Congress doesn’t gain much from its reciprocity. It has to mostly fend for itself in its direct contests with BJP (190 seats). And herein lies the biggest challenge of this so-called ‘grand alliance’. The Congress won only 15 such seats in 2019. It will need to win at least 100 of such seats to defeat the BJP in 2024.
Only if Congress bags 100 seats, the regional parties take away another 100 seats versus the BJP, and the anti-BJP group wins half of the Category III and IV seats, can this formula be successful.
But that’s a huge task with a low probability as of now.