Opposition Unity Is Overrated. Here’s The Math

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s 70th birthday celebrations turned into a show of “opposition unity” with leaders from the Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi Party and National Conference speaking from one platform in Chennai. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), BRS and Trinamool Congress, all nursing national ambitions, skipped the bash.

As Stalin attempted to provide a platform for like-minded opposition parties to come together, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge executed a strategic backflip. Days after declaring at the Congress plenary session that the grand old party will lead any opposition alliance, Mallikarjun Kharge said who will be PM candidate “is not the question”, signalling that unity is paramount. Good move.

Talk of opposition unity usually starts a year or so before every election. In 2019, the parties produced the “one-on-one contest” strategy in which the Congress or any regional party best suited to give the BJP a fight takes the lead in each state.

Near 100 per cent opposition unity was achieved in the 1977 election when many parties merged to form the Janata Party, which allied with the Left parties and some regional forces to defeat the Congress. 

The basic premise of alliance talks is that when two parties join forces, the synergies must result in a higher vote share than their combined strength. But normally, any such alliance leads to some disgruntlement among voters on both sides, thwarting a seamless transfer of votes and resulting in leakages. The 2019 Mahagathbandhan of the Samajwadi Party, BSP, and RLD in Uttar Pradesh is a case in point. 

Research by political scientist Adam Zeigfied reveals that while the Index of opposition unity (IOU) increased from 64 per cent in the 2014 general election to 85 per cent in 2019, the BJP’s tally increased from 282 to 303 seats. The IOU indicator denotes the level of opposition consolidation faced by the dominant party or the party in power. It shows that high opposition unity could be counter-productive if not backed by a common minimum program, as voters may see it as an opportunistic alliance.

In the current context, the opposition is already united to the extent possible. 100% opposition unity is a myth, a mirage not worth chasing. Let’s see why.

The Congress and its allies (UPA) were winners and runners up in 350-odd seats in 2019, that is almost 65% of Lok Sabha strength. The Congress was no.1 or no.2 in 261 seats, and the allies in the remaining 90. The BJP and its allies were winners and runners up in around 430 seats in 2019. The numbers dropped as some left the alliance. In around 250 seats, it was a direct UPA vs NDA clash. 

The UPA can bank on two new allies – Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and the Shiv Sena (Uddhav faction). Nitish Kumar has been pitching for the Congress to take the lead in talks for opposition unity, while Uddhav Thackeray, after his party’s split, has few options left.

The opposition parties who matter are fairly united in Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir. That makes 148 seats or 27% of Lok Sabha.

The Congress faced the BJP in 191 head-to-head contests, primarily in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Assam, Delhi, Himachal, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Delhi and Gujarat. Except in Karnataka, Delhi and Gujarat, regional parties do not have any significant vote share, so opposition unity is not really required. The Congress has to fend for itself.

Opposition unity is not possible in Kerala (20 seats), where the CPM and the Congress are locked in a direct fight with the BJP, a distant third. However, even if the CPM wins some seats, it is expected to not back the BJP at the Centre at any cost, having already tied up with the Congress in West Bengal and Tripura. This can be considered a friendly fight among opposition parties.

Then we have two states, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, where the dominant forces, BJD and YSRCP, have shown pro-NDA tendencies and a united opposition is not possible. While the BJD was born out of anti-Congressism, YSRCP is a splinter group of the Congress. The Congress was reduced to one and zero seats in these two states in 2019 and is hardly a threat to either the BJD or YSRCP.

In Uttar Pradesh, a Mahagatbandhan is not possible again, with the BSP and Samajwadi Party breaking up acrimoniously. However, the weakening of Mayawati’s BSP gives hope to Akhilesh Yadav. Here again, the Congress has a minuscule vote share and is not likely to severely damage the Samajwadi’s prospects.

Then we have the three parties with national plans – AAP, Trinamool and the TRS/BRS of K Chandrasekhara Rao. The worsening of relations between the Trinamool and the Congress, the complementary vote blocks of AAP and Congress in Delhi, Punjab and to a lesser extent in Gujarat, mean that in West Bengal and Delhi, the opposition may not be united. In Gujarat, there is a lesser impact of AAP compared to Delhi and Punjab.

In Telangana, the BRS and Congress have historically been adversaries and can’t join hands. In Bengal and Telangana, the Congress’s strength has significantly reduced, and the main contest is between Trinamool/BRS and BJP.

On 185 seats in UP (80), Bengal (42), Odisha (21), Telangana (17), and Andhra Pradesh (25), regional parties will be holding fort against the BJP. The Congress is in no position to severely impact their prospects. Whoever wins in these states, except for Odisha (BJD) and Andhra (YSRCP), is likely to back a non-BJP government at the Centre.

The contours of the battle against the BJP and the opposition are already set, in a way. In 185 seats, it is the regional parties who will drive. In some 250 seats, the Congress and its allies will take on the BJP. In 100-odd seats, the BJP and its allies are not big factors (ranked third or below), though the party is prepping strategy to try and win these to compensate for losses in states where it has peaked. 

The opposition should focus on preparing a common minimum program and presenting a credible alternative vision to the voter instead of chasing 100% unity, which appears to be Mission Impossible.

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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