Can Karnataka pave the way for a united opposition against the BJP in the Lok Sabha election?

The opposition seems to have realised the urgent need for unity, but challenges remain.

Published : May 31, 2023 17:23 IST - 8 MINS READ

Newly sworn-in Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah and Deputy CM D.K. Shivakumar with opposition leaders in Bengaluru on May 20, 2023.

Newly sworn-in Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah and Deputy CM D.K. Shivakumar with opposition leaders in Bengaluru on May 20, 2023. | Photo Credit: ANI

The recent victory of the Congress in Karnataka has sparked discussions about its wider implications for the party and the broader opposition as the Lok Sabha election approaches. While it remains to be seen whether this victory will boost the opposition’s morale and reshape the political landscape in its favour, there is a growing recognition among the opposition parties of the need to join forces ahead of the 2024 election.

The recent demonstration of solidarity among multiple Opposition party leaders during Siddharamaiah’s inauguration in Bangalore stands as a powerful testament to this collective resolve. However, it is worth noting that the Aam Aadmi Party found itself excluded from the event, although it did participate in 19-party boycott of the new Parliament building’s inaugural ceremony. Intriguingly, the Congress party’s position on the central ordinance curbing the powers of the Delhi government has sparked animated discussions.

In parallel efforts, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been engaged in discussions with the Congress and other parties, while West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is actively striving to forge a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance. Yet, irrespective of the aspirational posturing of potential prime ministerial candidates, it is unmistakable that the leader of the opposition will ultimately emerge from the party that secures the highest number of seats—an outcome that will only be revealed after the elections have concluded.

At present, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) views the BJP, Left, and Congress as its primary adversaries. Similarly, parties such as the Bharatiya Rashtra Samithi (BRS) express a desire to maintain an equal distance from both the Congress and the BJP. In certain states, such as Kerala, the Congress (UDF) competes against the Left (LDF), with the BJP’s influence being relatively inconsequential. In Telangana, the Congress faces the challenge of the BRS and the BJP, while in Andhra Pradesh, it contends with the YSR Congress Party (YSCRP) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

Neither the TDP nor the YSRCP has exhibited staunch opposition to the BJP. Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, the non-BJP alliance has encountered significant obstacles in making substantial headway. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which refrained from joining the nineteen-party boycott, has adopted a cautious stance, opting for a position of equidistance.

Nevertheless, Danish Ali, the party’s Member of Parliament from Amroha, underscored the imperative of opposition unity to counter the BJP, acknowledging the presence of certain contradictions. According to Ali, setting aside personal egos and fostering one-on-one contests would be the most effective strategy to keep the BJP at bay. He also emphasised the pivotal role of the Congress in the alliance in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, where people primarily vote based on the central government. Despite its limited support base, the Congress is regarded as a viable alternative by many. However, this perspective is not universally shared, as individuals recognise significant transformations since 2019, including Rahul Gandhi’s reinvention and the Left’s unequivocal ideological stance, while questioning the clarity of others on crucial issues.

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Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary, was optimistic about the Karnataka mandate in terms of what it meant for the opposition. He believed that by uniting and prioritising people’s issues, the opposition could effectively contain and overcome Hindutva forces. Yechury proposed a three-pronged approach for the opposition: agreeing on a set of national issues for a joint political campaign, allowing those willing to address problems like unemployment and inflation to take the lead, and emphasising the collaboration of secular parties at the State level to defeat the BJP.

Yechury acknowledged the diversity of States in India and emphasised the importance of State-level understandings and resolving differences among parties to form a national-level alternative. He cited historical precedents such as the Morarji Desai-led government, the United Front, and the UPA to point out that post-poll alliances were the norm.

Pawan Khera of the Congress asserted that the victory in Karnataka had diminished the perception of the BJP’s invincibility, boosting the morale of Congress workers. While there is consensus among the opposition parties on defeating the BJP, the process of unity must be followed to ensure a clear direction forward.

Congress must work with regional parties

D. Raja, CPI general secretary, stressed the urgent necessity for opposition parties to unite and safeguard democracy, highlighting the BJP’s direct control over the government as a threat to democracy. Raja urged the Congress to embrace regional parties as contributors to the nation’s destiny, rather than mere regional entities, and to adapt to the changing political landscape while reflecting on its own role.

While the Congress maintains influence in certain States, regional parties also hold significant power. The Left parties, with a nationwide presence, lend support to governments in Bihar and Tamil Nadu. Raja emphasised the importance of realistically assessing the national and State-level situations and warned the Congress against growing complacent due to its recent victories. He dismissed the need for projecting a specific leader for the opposition, suggesting that parties could collectively decide on leadership.

Anurag Bhadoria of the Samajwadi Party, echoed Raja’s sentiments, asserting that the BJP faced a dearth of leaders, while the opposition would unite against the BJP and address public issues both within and outside Parliament. He emphasised the consequential step of seat sharing following the correct initial approach.

Also Read | ‘BJP’s defeat imperative to protect democracy’: Sitaram Yechury

However, political scientist and psephologist Sanjay Kumar advised caution in drawing conclusions about the opposition’s performance in 2024 based solely on the outcome in Karnataka. Kumar pointed out that voters had demonstrated different preferences in past Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in various States. Nevertheless, he believes there are encouraging signs for the opposition and the Congress. The Karnataka results underscore the importance of local leadership and issues while avoiding personal attacks on Narendra Modi.

Kumar argued that Hindutva did not yield significant results for the BJP in Karnataka, as the vote share did not increase despite the campaign centred around it. Governance issues played a more crucial role. He also warned the opposition against falling into the narrative set by the BJP and emphasised the shattered perception of the BJP’s invincibility.

Vote share factor

There is a belief that the Congress may have made improvements in its position. Anand Kumar, a retired professor of sociology from JNU, sees the Karnataka outcome as an opportunity for opposition consolidation. However, it is important to note that the BJP’s vote share has not decreased significantly. The divide between Hindutva and non-Hindutva parties remains, with the BJP representing the former and the Congress, followed by the Left, representing the latter.

One major challenge for the Congress lies in the significant disparity in vote shares between the BJP and the Congress in most of the States where the Congress stands as the primary contender against the BJP. This poses a formidable obstacle for the Congress to play a substantial role in unseating Modi in 2024. The gap between the BJP and Congress has widened in these States during Lok Sabha elections compared with the preceding Assembly elections. In some instances, this even led to a reversal of a Congress victory in the Assembly, highlighting that voting against a BJP State government does not automatically translate into a vote against the Central government led by Modi. Thus, it remains uncertain whether the Congress’ success in Karnataka will result in a similar or improved performance in the State’s Lok Sabha seats. Additionally, the Congress’ performance in subsequent Assembly elections after 2019 does not align with the narrative in Karnataka, as observed in Assam, Goa, and Gujarat.

Regional parties hold significant sway in the political landscape and often have ties with the BJP. Even within the Congress, there are elements associated with the RSS. The Congress needs a stronger central leadership to address factionalism and internal challenges. Multiple power centres within the party, such as Rahul, Priyanka, Sonia, and Kharge, have not been beneficial for its prospects.

The caste census is expected to play a significant role in upcoming elections, and there is opposition to forming alliances with regional parties in certain States. Despite attempts at unity by leaders like Sharad Pawar and Nitish Kumar, strong sentiments are directed towards parties like the BRS, the AAP, and the TMC. For instance, the AAP demanded seats in Gujarat’s tribal belt, which the Congress was unable to concede.

Congress, an indispensable ally

Opinions on the impact of the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) are mixed. Maninder Thakur, an Associate Professor of Political Science at JNU, asserts that the Yatra failed to establish any robust party infrastructure, despite instilling enthusiasm among party workers. According to Thakur, while the strategies of “nafrat ki rajneeti” (politics of hatred) and “mohabbat ki dukaan” (store of love) were effective, their messaging failed to permeate the Hindi heartland, at the very least.

However, the opposition now recognises the Congress’ indispensability in any alliance. The outcome of the upcoming State assembly elections will also play a crucial role in shaping the dynamics of opposition unity.

To establish itself as a key player within any anti-BJP coalition, the Congress must prioritise its performance in States where it stands as the primary contender against the BJP. These States, including Karnataka and Assam, have played a significant role in the BJP’s previous electoral successes. The Congress faces the challenge of closing the gap in vote shares and ensuring that its success in State Assembly elections translates into a favourable performance in the Lok Sabha elections.

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