India’s opposition challenge to Modi may be imploding
Sydney - Middle East Times Int’l: Last July, more than two dozen Indian opposition parties formed a coalition to challenge the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi in the upcoming general election. Named INDIA, an acronym for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, the coalition aimed to present a united front against the BJP, strategically sharing seats for a stronger impact.
Barely six months after its inception, the coalition faces disarray, triggered by the surprising exit of Nitish Kumar, a regional leader, from a state-level ruling coalition in Bihar to rejoin the BJP. Gilles Verniers, a scholar of Indian politics, notes “his departure is a big blow to the INDIA alliance. It also sends a signal that the alliance is not working”.
Adding to the challenges, Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and Arvind Kejriwal of Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and Punjab have distanced themselves from the Congress, expressing intent to go it alone in their respective states.
This internal turmoil comes at a time when Modi’s BJP appears unstoppable. Rahul Verma of the Centre for Policy Research observes, “Things have changed dramatically for the BJP after December. The odds in favour of the party’s electoral prospects in the elections have increased."
The fragility of the opposition alliance stems from differing perspectives on the Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi. Despite being the sole pan-Indian alternative to the BJP, the Congress struggles, securing less than 20 per cent of the vote and 52 seats in 2019. Verniers highlights the Congress’s perceived toxicity as an alliance partner due to its weakness and the potential to drag down the ticket.
In India’s competitive political landscape, pragmatism prevails as each party prioritises its interests. Verniers states, “Every other member of the [INDIA] alliance is putting their own interest ahead of the general interest. What matters to them is their own state. If they lose the general election, can they fall back on the state they rule?”
However, seat-sharing is only part of the battle. Scholars argue that the opposition fails to provide a compelling alternative narrative to the BJP’s blend of Hindu nationalism and development. Asim Ali, a political scientist, notes that this narrative enjoys support from a large section of the media, business, and society, saying, “Issues only come to the fore when they have widespread social support.”
Despite numerous issues for the opposition to rally around, including Modi’s handling of the jobs crisis and alleged attacks on media and political rivals, there appears to be no “ideological binding force” uniting the opposition against the robust Hindu nationalism promoted by the BJP.
Cobbling together an alliance to challenge a well-oiled and amply-resourced BJP led by a popular leader is easier said than done. The Janata Party coalition, which fought against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule, serves as a historical example. However, sustaining such alliances requires a serious existential crisis or exogenous shock.
As the INDIA alliance navigates troubled waters, Verma suggests a potential solution. “Regional parties are not willing to accommodate the Congress, which still sees itself as a major national player. So the Congress should concentrate on states where it is in direct bipolar contests with the BJP and defer to the regional partners in the rest of the states."
In the complex landscape of Indian politics, finding common ground remains a formidable challenge. The fate of the INDIA alliance hangs in the balance as it strives to overcome internal differences and present a unified front against the formidable BJP in the upcoming elections.
Again, as with a lot else in Indian politics, this is easier said than done.