With its first political rally scheduled to be held in the first week of October, the INDIA coalition of 27 opposition parties is set to launch its campaign to oust the BJP from power, starting from this year’s Assembly elections in five States, all the way to the 2024 general election.
However, there are challenges galore owing to numerous clashes of interest arising when regional parties, many of which have either emerged after decimating the Congress or are its principal rivals, try to negotiate a mutually beneficial arrangement. The outcome of the upcoming State Assembly elections will determine how the Congress will negotiate its position within the INDIA alliance.
Speaking to Frontline, Javed Ali Khan of the Samajwadi Party, a Rajya Sabha member and part of the 13-member coordination committee of the INDIA alliance, shed light on the challenges as well as the strength of the opposition’s unity. Excerpts:
How hopeful are you about INDIA constituents contesting elections together to defeat the BJP, despite their ideological differences?
On one issue, all parties are in agreement, and that is to oust the BJP from power and not let opposition unity collapse. It is quite natural that there will be some differences when so many parties from different regions and different moorings come together. The key to success lies in avoiding getting into contentious issues and working on commonalities. That is what you can see has happened in the last few days: whether it is the Shiv Sena or the Congress, alliance partners are avoiding extreme positions on certain issues when they do not agree with others.
Why is the INDIA bloc delaying crucial seat-sharing talks? There is talk of an early Lok Sabha election.
See, the seat-sharing talks will be held by the top leadership between the parties concerned. Yes, it is true that this is the most crucial aspect and unless this works out, all other efforts will be only cosmetic. That is why the coordination committee meeting decided to start seat-sharing talks at the earliest. We are hopeful that this will be done by October. SP is in favour of early decisions on seats.
But how do you reconcile the differences? The PDP is not quite open to the NC’s idea of the status quo on seats being held by INDIA partners and confining the discussion on seat sharing only to seats won by the NDA. In Punjab, the Congress and the AAP have differences over seat-sharing plans. Even in the recent byelections, INDIA constituents fought against each other—the CPI-M against the Congress in Kerala and the Trinamool against the CPI-M and the Congress in West Bengal.
There is no denying the fact there are aspirations of all parties but there is a larger cause now and each party will have to make adjustments. In the coming round of Assembly elections, there is no major issue as it is mostly a Congress versus BJP fight. But yes, seat sharing between various INDIA members in UP, West Bengal, Punjab, and Delhi will need some brainstorming. But broad contours are emerging. Every party is aware that coming together is the need of the hour and they will.
“The ideological orientation of most of the INDIA members is pro-OBC, pro-Dalit, pro-minorities, and pro-weaker sections.”Javed Ali KhanSamajwadi Party leader and Rajya Sabha MP
What are the other key focus areas of INDIA’s strategy and common minimum program? Mamata Banerjee requested a manifesto and mini-agenda by October 2.
Manifestos of political parties are often lengthy and talk about issues that the common people are not directly affected by. We are trying to be very focused. We will include only those issues that directly affect the people and appeal to them. There will be a very effective manifesto for INDIA parties. The draft manifesto will come before the coordination committee. We will decide then.
How committed is the INDIA alliance to a caste census? Will members advocate for it during campaigning? Despite Trinamool’s reservations, the coordination committee decided to pursue it.
The ideological orientation of most of the INDIA members is pro-OBC, pro-Dalit, pro-minorities, and pro-weaker sections. It is on the basis of caste that most of the welfare measures in our country are implemented. Hence, all of us agree that we should have a real idea of caste numbers so that justifiable distribution of resources can be done. Our campaign committee has recommended it. Once it gets in our manifesto, it will definitely become a major issue.
“The BJP keeps on talking about face because it has just one face. We have several faces.”Javed Ali KhanSamajwadi Party leader and Rajya Sabha MP
There is always this talk that the INDIA alliance is wary of declaring a face to lead its campaign. Why this hesitation in arriving at a common name agreeable to all?
In all previous coalition arrangements, whether it was Janata Party (1977), the National Front (1989-1991), or the United Front (1996-1998), there was no face as such from the beginning. People came together on the basis of a common agenda and programme. The BJP keeps on talking about face because it has just one face. We have several faces. This is not a problem.
UP Congress chief Ajay Rai attacked the SP, blaming it for the defeat of the Congress candidate in the Bageshwar byelection in Uttarakhand. Why did the SP not reciprocate the Congress’s support in Bageshwar, despite the Congress supporting the SP in Ghosi?
State Congress leaders should follow their central leadership in the politeness and sensitivity it shows towards INDIA allies. We had appealed to all opposition parties to back the SP candidate in Ghosi. The Congress did not seek our support in Uttarakhand.
What is the message from the Ghosi result? How did the SP manage to trounce a well-known face like Dara Singh Chouhan?
For our party itself, there is a message from the Ghosi results. SP candidate Sudhakar Singh was a party loyalist, who never joined any other party even after he once quit the SP long ago. His local connect and strong socialist credentials ensured that the party got votes from all sections—the upper castes to which he belonged and the OBCs, the minorities, and Dalits. The message for us is that we need candidates with a larger acceptability and who are not just the representative of one caste or community. We have happily taken note of this. The party is already on this path.
Can the BSP’s non-participation in the Ghosi byelection and the Congress and RLD’s decision not to field candidates be a template for future Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh, even though the BSP is not part of the INDIA alliance?
Parties should now understand that people are no longer in the mood to accept diktats. People are not going to vote for NOTA [the BSP asked its supporters to vote NOTA in Ghosi] or support candidates of any other party just because some leader is saying so. For people, their issues are more important than any diktat. A message has gone among Dalits and most backward castes, who have benefited from constitutional safeguards and welfare measures, that the BJP is gearing up to change the Constitution and they are alarmed. They will vote for a party that is in a position to challenge the BJP.