India’s hunt for an alternative to Congress Party

Right now the biggest challenge the politicians and pundits are facing is how to ally with regional political parties without Congress in it. Despite that one cannot deny the realistic fact that it is only Congress that can lead the opposition against the ruling BJP

By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

  • BJP is comfortably placed because no opposition party is challenging the Hindu plank of the party
  • The Opposition has to provide an alternative vision, programme and agenda to the people
  • It is indeed true that an anti-BJP front would crumble if it cannot defeat BJP in an election
  • Congress is the only party with a national footprint, BJP has acquired footprint in north and western India

AFTER the two Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and 2019, and especially after 2019, the big question that politicians and political pundits are asking is this: Which party can replace Congress as the main opposition party? And they have not been able to find a satisfactory answer. The big challenge the politicians and pundits face: How to forge an alliance of regional political parties without Congress in it. And many of them have come to the realistic conclusion that it is only Congress that can lead the opposition against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), under West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, had tried to go beyond West Bengal. It has not had much success either in Goa, Assam or Tripura. It has also created resentment in Congress units in these states because Banerjee cannot but undermine Congress in these places if she is to succeed. But it has not worked. That is why Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar is pragmatic enough to acknowledge that Congress is a necessary part of the opposition unity needed to fight the successful and domineering Modi-Shah-led BJP. Shiv Sena leader and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray concurs with Pawar on the issue of Congress.

Some members of the Sena had wanted to push Pawar as the chairman of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which was forged by then Congress president Sonia Gandhi in 2004, and which succeeded in winning the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections. So, many, if not all, of the opposition parties are ready to do business with Congress in the lead. But there are other things to be sorted out. Not all the opposition parties are in the UPA. 

When Congress dominated the national politics in the 1950s and the 1960s, the opposition then was looking for ways to defeat Congress but could not, though it had won a significant number of seats in parliament. Today, the domination of BJP in national politics is to be compared with that of Congress of more than half-a-century ago

BIG QUESTION

All India Trinamool Congress  (AITC), Biju Janata Dal of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) under Telangana Chief Minister Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao (KCR), Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) under Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Jaganmohan Reddy, and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal are not likely to join the UPA led by Congress. BJD, TRS and YSRCP are also not averse to doing business with BJP at the Centre. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin is with the UPA, and the Left Front in West Bengal and Kerala will support the UPA from outside. Then in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) under Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren will go with the UPA. With the victory of AAP in Punjab, Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) cease to be the dominant players in the state, at least for now. 

There is feverish speculation that it is AAP that will challenge the hegemony of BJP now that Congress has ceased to be a major player. But poll strategist Prashant Kishor has shown why it is an unrealistic assumption to pick AAP as the real challenger to BJP. Kishor pointed out in a television interview on an English language news channel that AAP now has about two crore votes, and Congress even as it has hit the nadir, commands 20 crore votes. AAP would have to grow 10 times to reach Congress share of votes, while the difference in votes between Congress and BJP is around 17 crores. Congress has to move from around 20 crores to 37 crores, while AAP is required to make a quantum jump in its votes from 2 crores to 20 crores. In effect, there are no challengers from the opposition to BJP if one were to leave out Congress. Congress is the only party with a national footprint, and BJP has acquired a national footprint mostly in the north and western India. BJP is yet to make its mark in the east and south of India though it has found a footing in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Tripura. And it is the main opposition party in West Bengal. And in Odisha, it is waiting in the wings as it were with Congress crumbling in the state. 

K Chandrasekhar Rao has been toying with the idea of moving into national politics and handing over the Chief Minister’s office to his son and Cabinet colleague KT Rama Rao. He has been going around meeting leaders of other regional parties like West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, NCP leader Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray. But it appears that no clear idea has emerged. At the 21st anniversary of the founding of Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in April, he said that it was not the anti-BJP front that was important but an alternative politics and agenda. That was a shrewd formulation. It is indeed true that an anti-BJP front would crumble if it cannot defeat BJP in an election, and it might crumble even if it defeats BJP because then there would be differences and quarrels over sharing power, and who gets what. In some ways, Rao has pinpointed the main issue that should be at the heart of the opposition unity against BJP. 

ALTERNATIVE VISION

The Opposition has to provide an alternative vision, programme and agenda to the people. Does Rao have that vision which he can share with the others in the opposition? He may not want to share his vision with others and he may be tempted to go alone because he would not want to share the spoils if he succeeds. Possibly, he is keeping in mind the lesson from Telugu Desam Party (TDP) founder NT Rama Rao, who organised opposition enclaves in the 1980s, bringing together then Jammu and Kashmir’s National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and even Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. When trouble brewed in Congress, and VP Singh walked out of Congress, he became part of the National Front in the run-up to the 1989 Lok Sabha election when Rajiv Gandhi and Congress lost the election. 

Ironically, NT Rama Rao lost the assembly election, and he was marginalised in the formation of the government at the Centre with VP Singh as prime minister though he was the chairman of the National Front. Chandrasekhara Rao, an admirer and even a protégé of NT Rama Rao, seems to remember the lessons from his political mentor’s experience in national politics. So, he would not want to create an opposition front where he could be pushed aside once the opposition parties come to power. Telangana has just 17 MPs in the Lok Sabha. Though it is a crucial number when every seat is important, it does not give Chandrasekhara Rao the strength to bargain for power.

Mamata Banerjee’s attempts to become a political force to reckon with in neighbouring Assam and Tripura have not met with success, nor did its attempt to make a mark in far-off Goa. She might be open to the idea of an Opposition front, even with Congress leading it and with the Left Front in it. For TMC, both Congress and the Left Front are irreconcilable rivals in West Bengal. 

The arithmetic of an anti-BJP front would work depending on what each party brings to the table in terms of the number of MPs. It is possible that Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Telangana can marshal about 120 Lok Sabha MPs and Congress brings in 50. The opposition would still fall short of more than 100 seats to be able to form a government. If it is assumed that Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar can rustle up another 50 between the two, the shortfall of another 50 seats remains.

It is to be assumed that after 10 years of BJP government at the Centre, people would want a change in 2024, but the people would want to vote for a clear and viable change. It is unlikely that an untidy opposition group will be able to win the confidence of the people. 

NUMBER GAME

Right now, in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of political formation, BJP looks unassailable. It has shown in 2014 and in 2019 that it can win a majority on its own, and it is not dependent on its allies. Unlike the other parties, it shows greater cohesiveness. There might be a clash of interests inside the party, but both the leadership in the party and the presence of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ensure that the differences are sorted out and they fight as a single, united front. This may not always ensure success, but it gives BJP an initial advantage in the electoral battle.

The 2024 Lok Sabha elections are two years away, and with the opposition parties still in a disarray, it seems there is little scope for BJP not getting a third term in office. This is likely to make the opposition parties more desperate than ever, but which would have no political impact

With the 2024 Lok Sabha elections two years away, and with the opposition parties still in a disarray, it seems there is little scope for a BJP not getting a third term in office. This is likely to make the opposition parties more desperate than ever, but which would have no political impact. It is most likely that the opposition parties, including the regional parties, will win the state assembly elections, and they will have limited success in the Lok Sabha elections.

When Congress dominated the national politics in the 1950s and the 1960s, the opposition then was looking for ways to defeat Congress but could not, though it had won a significant number of seats in parliament. Today, the domination of BJP in national politics is to be compared with that of Congress of more than half a century ago. BJP wants to remain in power for 50 years and more in the manner of the Chinese Communist Party or the now-defunct Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico. Congress managed to be in power at the Centre for 50 years and more in a haphazard manner. BJP, on the other hand, approaches the power game with a single-minded focus on strategy. And it has two clear political strategies. The first is to raise the bogey of Muslims posing a challenge to the majority of Hindus in a Hindu-majority country like India. The construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, and relegating Jammu and Kashmir to the status of a Union Territory, and the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 are striking examples of the assertion of a Hindu India. The second big strategy is that of massive welfare measures for the poor. It is a winning combination of religious prejudice and economic populism. Chandrasekhara Rao is right when he said that more on an anti-BJP front, there is a need for alternative ways of doing people’s politics. The Opposition parties have not yet found the alternative politics that will help them outflank BJP. 

Many critics have been shedding crocodile tears that a democracy needs a strong opposition. But it looks like India is moving towards a homogenised democracy where everyone believes that India is a Hindu country. BJP has altered the terms of political debate. The question is not whether it is legitimate politics to focus on the importance of Hindus in Indian democracy. BJP has come to power on this Hindu plank. The Hindu plank will be found wanting if the Indian economy falters, fails to provide jobs, and offers some hope to the majority of people that there is the hope of a better life in the future. BJP government at the Centre is floundering on the economic front because the global economic situation is not favourable. The dream that the Western countries are turning away from China and turning to India remains a dream. 

BJP wants to remain in power for 50 years and more in the manner of the Chinese Communist Party. Congress managed to be in power at the Centre for 50 years and more in a haphazard manner. BJP, on the other hand, approaches the power game with single-minded focus on strategy

BJP is comfortably placed because no opposition party is challenging the Hindu plank of BJP. And the opposition parties have failed to nail the government on the many chinks in the economy. The economy is in trouble, but it has not yet reached a critical point. The opposition is at sea. The ideological mood of the country is Hindu majoritarianism and this is serving as the opium of the people. The opposition has not worked out the terms of opposition to BJP.


Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who's worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian.

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