The meeting of leaders of 15 Opposition parties, in Patna in Bihar on June 23, signals a new urgency among them to coordinate their campaigns against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to the 2024 general election. Against the backdrop of allegations that the BJP is misusing state power to corner the Opposition, the leaders talked up the import of the gathering; for instance, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin termed it a “war cry of a united opposition” for the “rebirth of a secular democratic India”. In reality, the deliberations were exploratory, and the event was more for optics than devising any common strategy. The recent victory of the Congress against the BJP in the Karnataka Assembly elections has had a mixed impact on unity efforts. Some regional parties such as the Bharat Rashtra Samithi of Telangana now feel more threatened by the Congress than by the BJP. Parties such as the Samajwadi Party of Uttar Pradesh and the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal want the Congress to vacate the field or play second fiddle for the sake of a common candidate against the BJP in every constituency. Janata Dal (United) chief and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is at the forefront of the unity effort, is not at the peak of his popularity or credibility.
The chemistry of any alliance is different from its arithmetic. The coming together of parties or leaders does not automatically lead to their voters coming together, as past experiences show. If at all the uphill objective of a single joint candidate against the BJP is achieved, that will be no guarantee of victory for the Opposition. It is natural for parties to change their views over time, but voters are smart enough to tell opportunism from an evolution of positions. A stark case in point is of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which rose to prominence by calling each of these Opposition leaders names, but now seeks their support to preserve its own power. There have to be some broad principles that tie parties of various ideological persuasions together. Federalism and secularism can be principles that bind the Opposition, and here again, AAP’s vacillations are instructive. Attempts to shield leaders credibly accused of corruption in the name of secularism or federalism also may not go down well with the public. While calling into question the BJP’s excesses and its problematic agenda, the Opposition parties must also introspect and take corrective measures to win public confidence. They must also anticipate multi-pronged responses by the BJP in the months ahead.