The Congress and the CPI(M) have been co-opted in February as part of the coalition of regional parties against the BJP.
The no interruptions-no pauses campaign by the Bharatiya Janata Party as the only political choice on the ballot for the 2019 general election exposes its nervousness on the one hand and its obsession, on the other, over winning another term in office with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. Like in chemistry, the negative reaction is effectively a confirmation of just how dangerous the Sangh Parivar perceives the Mahagathbandhan to be as a challenger of its cherished dreams of power.
The nervousness is natural; because the Mahagathbandhan is positioned to reflect the dust, dirt and grime of India as it is understood from down below, whereas the BJP has positioned itself to represent the Sangh Parivar’s version of the soul of a homogenised India. The Mahagathbandhan has also demonstrated an unexpected capacity to add more and more parties to the anti-BJP platform, irrespective of historical and ideological differences between the parties on the one hand, and the competition and rivalry that remains over seats, on the other.
The Congress and the CPI(M) have been co-opted in February as part of the coalition of regional parties against the BJP. These additions indicate that powerful state leaders like Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee have chosen to swallow the unpalatable in order to fulfil a larger purpose.
Before Pulwama and Balakot, the reinvention of protection of cows from slaughter as a device to leverage sentiment and then convert it into a beef story, with lynch mobs, was the sort of politics that the alliance of the Opposition parties had been formed to defeat. In the wake of Pulwama and Balakot, the alliance of the Opposition has a near-impossible mission — to contain the surge in the BJP’s popularity without damaging its own. The exercise is not easy; for every question raised against the Modi government’s management and politicisation of the crisis, there is the danger that it could backfire politically.
The 2019 general election is turning into a contest between the idea of a multi-party democracy as more representative of the people’s will versus a single party that has appropriated to itself the role of representing the nation; it is a fight between the narrow idea of nationalism as constructed by the Sangh Parivar and the BJP and the majesty of a diverse but united country, replete with contradictions, contestations and complexities. Sceptics had every reason to speculate, as did leaders within the constituent parties of the Mahagathbandhan, on whether the unwieldy coalition could survive the strains of seat adjustments and sharing, whether the rivalries will be contained long enough to fight the elections collectively and whether the rivalries would not spawn the sort of betrayals that could destroy the essence of alliance formation.
Before the crisis precipitated by the Pulwama bomb attack, the precision-bombing in Pakistan’s Balakot and the prisoner of war return from Pakistan, the Modi government was being challenged by the united Opposition over its deliberate deployment of divisiveness to deflect attention from its failures and to leverage sentiment, particularly religious sentiment, to mobilise support. After the crisis, the Opposition alliance has the infinitely difficult job of challenging a frenetic nationalism and a narrative controlled by the BJP.
Direct and tactless as former Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa may have been in revealing how the BJP hoped the crisis with Pakistan would add to the number of seats it could hope to win this summer, the Opposition alliance too has been working overtime to calculate the impact on the number of seats that it can win and how much more difficult the contest against the BJP has become. There is a scaling down of expectations. From winning big against a diminished BJP, the Opposition alliance is now considering the possibility that it needs to work very hard to prevent the BJP from winning a clear majority of the 543 elected seats in the Lok Sabha.
The Congress has become pivotal to the exercise of keeping the BJP in check, and as the principal challenger. There is a realisation that the tactics of one candidate/party-one seat, which seemed to be a winner before Pulwama, is not nearly as strong as it needs to be in the changed circumstances. Quite apart from strategising on fighting against the BJP in every constituency, the alliance is also facing the need to fight off the perception of being unstable. In that fight too, the presence of the Congress as a linchpin has become far more attractive than it was just a month ago. A single-party majority government at the Centre in these troubled times with Pakistan would have greater appeal for the voter than a shaky, squabbling coalition, even if the collective experience and past track record of such alliances is better than that of the BJP for certain parties, and perhaps even the Congress.
The Opposition alliance against the BJP therefore needs to reassess how it will work towards the aggregation of votes in every constituency where the BJP is the key challenge. In West Bengal, as in Uttar Pradesh, this means working out an effective vote management plan with sworn enemies. Both Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee will need to decide on how they prepare to face the challenge of a revived BJP. It will mean making adjustments with the Congress and then enabling the CPI(M)-led Left Front in West Bengal to make further adjustments with the Congress to contain the BJP.
The Opposition alliance is also a work in progress. It will probably remain a work in progress for as long as it lasts. And its strength and its value lies in the fact that it is an alliance composed of well over 25 political parties with different histories, enemies and friends — that reflects the choice that the people have made and will continue to make on who best represents their concerns and aspirations at the national level. A mandate for an MP from a regional party is a mandate against either another regional party or one of the two big national parties. It is a complex decision by the voter, and reflects the layers and layers of complexities that is political reality in India.