Is Opposition unity possible, and does it matter?

The next general election in May 2024 is still some way off. But 2023 will be a dress rehearsal for the final act, with assembly elections in no less than nine states.
After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) thumping victory in the Uttar Pradesh election earlier this year, the party looked unbeatable in 2024. But subsequent headwinds have buffeted incumbents across the world.
High inflation preceded the Ukraine war but has been exacerbated by it. Central banks have raised interest rates sharply to curb inflation, causing a global recession that hits production and employment everywhere, including India.
Could this strengthen anti-incumbency and make the BJP beatable in 2024? The recent state elections showed that the BJP would win when facing a splintered Opposition (as in Gujarat and Goa) but could be beaten by a credible Opposition (as in Himachal Pradesh).
Splits in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) could also change the electoral arithmetic, with Nitish Kumar breaking away from the alliance and joining the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar.

In Maharashtra, the NDA in 2019 won 41 of the state’s 48 Lok Sabha seats. But now the Shiv Sena has split and the Uddhav Thackeray faction is with the Opposition. Going by 2019 arithmetic, the NDA looks vulnerable in Maharashtra.
In 2019, the NDA won a phenomenal 168 of 197 seats in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. If anti-incumbency reduces its seat share to 60% — still a high majority — that means losing 53 seats.
Add up all these potential losses, and the BJP is vulnerable in theory. However, two conditions must be met. First, the Opposition should be united, not splintered. Second, electoral arithmetic must be strong enough to withstand electoral chemistry, in which Narendra Modi excels. Come 2024, will the Opposition be united? And will that be enough?
Having won the state elections in Delhi and Punjab, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) aims to expand across India, mainly at the expense of the Congress. It won 12.9% of the popular vote in Gujarat and 6.8% in Goa, and that was enough to sink the United Progressive Alliance. That story is likely to be repeated in more states.
The Trinamool Congress also seeks to expand its footprint outside West Bengal. And now K Chandrashekhar Rao has converted his Telangana Rashtra Samithi into a Bharat Rashtra Samithi. Meanwhile, Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen threatens to take a share of the Muslim vote from other Opposition parties in several states.
In sum, the prospects of a strong, united Opposition are fading in large parts of India. But even in states where parties may indeed get together to form maha-gathbandhans or mega-united fronts, the vote shares of the individual parties rarely add up when they join hands: a substantial portion leaks to the BJP. That became evident in recent by-elections in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, and Kurhani, Bihar, where the BJP sprang surprise victories.

Above all, there is the issue of chemistry. The detailed calculations of electoral analysts come to naught whenever a charismatic leader comes along and sweeps these into the rubbish bin.
Indira Gandhi was the first to demonstrate this in 1971. The main Opposition parties, including the official Congress Party that she had split away from, formed a Grand Alliance. Electoral arithmetic suggested that the Grand Alliance would win. But Indira’s chemistry with voters was such that she swept the polls. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi’s chemistry with voters won him the most seats ever garnered by a single party. Yet that chemistry dissolved with the Bofors scandal and he was ousted in 1989.
Modi is the latest champion of chemistry. Such is his personal popularity that even where voters are against the BJP, they are with Modi. In covering elections across India, I often come across youngsters who plan to vote against the BJP in the state election but with it in a national election. The most dramatic example is in Delhi, where voters gave AAP enormous majorities in the state elections of 2015 and 2020 but a clean sweep to the BJP in the national elections of 2014 and 2019.
So, even if Opposition parties somehow manage to put a reasonably united front against the BJP in 2024, will it matter? Regardless of whether one is with or against the BJP, the answer has to be no.
This article was originally published by The Times of India on December 25, 2022.

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