Chemistry vs arithmetic: Can 'I-N-D-I-A' defeat Modi?

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On Monday, at least 24 parties will meet in Bengaluru to discuss plans to set up a united front against the domineering Bharatiya Janata Party. This is a significant increase over the 16 that had met in Patna in June. This comes after hectic efforts by Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, at building a united opposition. (Update: On Tuesday, the parties chose "Indian National Democratic Inclusive Alliance" or I-N-D-I-A as their name.)

Clearly, India’s opposition is making some serious efforts at putting up a united front to take on the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Should the BJP be worried?

A history

Opposition unity is, obviously, not a new concept. It was first attempted in the late 1960s when, for the first time after independence, the Congress stopped being electorally hegemonic. The attempt saw significant success as the united opposition was able to significantly cut down the Congress’s majority in the Lok Sabha and even form governments in critical states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Moreover, it later set the stage for 1977 elections, as the entire Opposition united to hand Indira Gandhi a massive defeat after the Emergency.

Seen from the point of view of the Nehruvian era, when the Congress was all but unbeatable, this was a significant achievement. Under Indira Gandhi, the Congress would have to work hard to win against an Opposition that was ready to pull out all stops to defeat the leading party.

While these parties had managed to defeat the Congress in select contests, replacing the party as India’s political pole was another matter. United Opposition governments were often chaotic without the ideological coherence and hierarchy of single-party governments. Even the Morarji Desai government, formed in the historical election that took place after the Emergency, lasted only two years, with the prime minister brought down by his own erstwhile deputy.

However, in the long run, these experiments at Opposition unity were critical in puncturing the Congress’ balloon of invincibility and would be part of the historical processes that would whittle down the Grand Old Party so that by the mid 1990s, it would cease to be India’s largest party.

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao meeting Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar in Patna in 2022. Credit: PTI.

Modi age

Modi’s reign bears significant similarities with Indira Gandhi’s. While the BJP is India’s most powerful party and runs a strong Union government, its political control is constantly contested. Measured at the state level, in fact, the BJP faces even more challenges than the Congress did under Indira Gandhi, with the saffron party being able to win very few elections in big states.

As a result, attempts at Opposition unity have seen much the same pattern that they did against the Indira-led Congress – except they have been more successful at the state level. Over the past decade in Bihar, for example, an Opposition coalition has frequently defeated the Modi-led BJP as well as kept it out of office using post-poll coalitions.

However, like in the 1960s and 1970s, these efforts have always had to contend with the fact that the Opposition is trying to battle a powerful party at the Centre with significantly higher resources and access to the levers of a powerful Union government. Similar conditions exist in Maharashtra, where Opposition unity has both kept the BJP out of power but has also fallen in the face of the BJP’s constant assaults using tools such as Central agencies.

More parallels: Indira Gandhi would win significant victories even against a united Opposition. In 1971, for example, the Congress, campaigning on a plank of poverty reduction, swept the elections. Like Modi today, Gandhi played up the fact that the Opposition had come together not on principle but on the single-point agenda of removing her.

Rahul Gandhi arriving for an opposition meeting in Patna in June. Credit: PTI

2024: Chemistry or arithmetic?

In effect then, the effectiveness of Opposition unity depends on an external factor: the type of election. Is it a chemistry election, where the charisma of a national leader and/or ideology has captured the imagination of the Indian people? Or is it an arithmetic election, which has no one overarching theme and voting is based on a summation of multiple local factors?

The Uttar Pradesh legislative election in 1967 and Bihar in 2015 were arithmetic contests. Although the Congress (1967) and BJP (2015) were strong, they were kept out of power by a coalition. However, subsequently, in chemistry elections, the electrifying presence of Indira and Modi as well as their respective socialist and Hindutva ideologies have also crushed Opposition unity. Multiple attempts at Opposition unity in Uttar Pradesh in the Modi age, for example, have failed spectacularly as the party rides a Hindutva high which a large number of Hindu voters, cutting across castes, find attractive.

Will Opposition unity then work in 2024? The answer depends on whether it will be a chemistry or an arithmetic election. At the start of 2019, with Lok Sabha polls looming, the BJP looked vulnerable. It could have been an arithmetic election in which case Opposition unity would have played a significant role. But, of course, a short conflict between India and Pakistan just a month before voting started, flipped the nature of the contest. The elections suddenly became a chemistry election as a wave of nationalism swept the Indian voter base.

With less than a year to go for the next Lok Sabha polls, the BJP looks bogged down. Economic issues such as price rise are significant concerns and the twin guns of Modi and Hindutva have failed in critical polls like Karnataka. This explains why the BJP is so desperate to break Opposition unity, as we recently saw in Maharashtra.

If this political climate remains, then 2024 might be an arithmetic election where the BJP would be wary of a united opposition. Of course, if in the coming few months, we have another event which drastically changes the political climate and the Lok Sabha elections boil down to chemistry then Modi can expect to romp home, unity or no opposition unity.

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