The meeting of the Opposition parties in Bengaluru on July 17–18 saw the birth of a new front of 26 parties that will take on the BJP-led NDA in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. This group has been interestingly named I.N.D.I.A, an acronym for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.
In a way, this Opposition conclave is more important than the one held in New Delhi on the same day by the NDA (National Democratic Alliance), which was attended by 38 parties. That is because the two-day conclave gave the country a new opposition formation in place of the old UPA (United Progressive Front), which ruled the country from 2004 to 2014.
The next meeting of INDIA, to be held in Mumbai next month, will discuss two crucial issues: the choice of a leader and the seat-sharing formula for the 2024 elections. The anti-NDA team may discuss the leadership issue but it looks likely that it will not risk putting up a leader—obviously, the leader will be projected as the prime ministerial candidate. The moment the leader is elected, it will become a Modi versus this leader battle.
Whether one likes it or not, Modi’s larger-than-life personality is difficult for anyone to match in the opposition, and BJP will make a huge noise over it, which would be difficult for the anti-Modi group to counter. Hence, the anti-India team may feel it prudent not to announce a leader at the Mumbai meeting. It would instead announce that the prime minister would be chosen after the electoral victory.
The other issue will be seat-sharing. Here, the opposition will encounter more problems than the NDA, mainly because BJP is the dominant party in the ruling group while in the opposition camp, although Congress is the only party that has a pan-India presence, it cannot call the shots since it is weak, and therefore has to depend on the stronger regional parties.
While deciding on the seat-sharing, the following states may turn out to be tricky: Maharashtra (for both NDA and INDIA), and West Bengal and Punjab-Delhi (for INDIA).
Maharashtra because of the developments there ever since the 2019 Assembly elections (when the Shiv Sena severed its ties with the BJP and joined the Congress and NCP to form Maha Vikas Aghadi), followed later by the Sena split and the Shinde faction joining BJP, and finally, the latest event of the NCP split, with the Ajit Pawar faction joining hands with the BJP.
This has muddied the whole electoral arithmetic and no one is sure which way the electorate will vote come 2024. Maharashtra sends the second-highest number of LS MPs: 48 out of the LS strength of 543 (Uttar Pradesh has the biggest chunk with 80 seats).
The rise of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal saw the decline of the Left and Congress, and these two parties have been in an alliance in the eastern state, fighting the TMC and BJP. The emergence of the BJP as the rival to the TMC has obviously alarmed Mamata Banerjee, who has now agreed to come aboard the opposition ship. The BJP performed creditably in the 2019 LS polls, bagging 18 of the 42 seats. However, the recent panchayat polls saw its fortunes dip.
As pointed out earlier, Punjab and Delhi can prove to be problematic when it comes to seat-sharing. The ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had been a steadfast opponent of the Congress, especially in Punjab. In Delhi, the Congress will have to convince its leader, Ajay Maken, who is strongly opposed to any tie-up with the AAP, to join hands with Arvind Kejriwal’s party.
The parties in INDIA need to first frame a seat-sharing formula for each state. That there will be differing voices became evident within 24 hours of the meeting as Partap Singh Bajwa, senior Congress neta and leader of the Opposition in the Punjab Assembly, said there will be no seat-sharing in his state with the AAP. How the new group will resolve these contradictions remains to be seen.
Overall, the INDIA camp has a formidable task at hand as it faces the revived NDA. In 2019, the NDA clinched 353 seats and secured 45% of the votes (BJP alone got 303 seats and 37% of votes). NDA’s victories remained concentrated in north, central and western India; it remained weak in the south and east where regional parties fared better.
BJP notched up impressive victories in 2019: It won 224 seats by a margin of more than 50%, and about 105 seats were won with a margin of over 3 lakh votes. Forty seats in UP were won with a margin of more than 50%, and NDA’s vote share overall in the state was 50.51%. These are intimidating figures and present a daunting task to the opposition vis-a-vis turning the tables on the BJP.
But then, BJP’s challenge lies in retaining the seats it won in Maharashtra, Bihar and West Bengal—due to the change in the alliance landscape in the first two and uncertainty with regard to its voter base in West Bengal.
While this is so, it knows it reached saturation levels in states like Gujarat and Rajasthan (where it won all 26 and 25 seats, respectively), or Madhya Pradesh (28 of 29 seats), and Karnataka (25 of 28 seats) in 2019, and so it needs to look at other states for numbers.
But then, the BJP is not known to be complacent as far as elections go. It faces every election—be it Lok Sabha or Assembly—as if there is no tomorrow. It keeps its election machinery always well-oiled and greased. And that’s where the challenge for INDIA lies.
B S Arun
Senior journalist based in Bengaluru