A number of opposition parties are scheduled to meet in Patna, Bihar, on 23 June, to try and work out a common strategy which prevents the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from winning a majority in next year’s general elections.
It is a veritable gathering of acronyms which nearly span the alphabet. The spectrum of ideologies is equally diverse, ranging from Maoism to mercantilism, with various shades of socialism in-between.
They have four factors in common: a critical dependency on the identity vote, a clear intent to place reckless welfarism over fiscal prudence, an inability to win a mandate on their own, and an existential fear that if they don’t get their act together collectively, then they will be individually subsumed by the BJP.
But will this attempt to increase opposition unity work? What dividends can it give? And to what extent can it damage the BJP’s prospects?
In a house with 543 seats, where the majority mark is 272, and in which the BJP has 303 seats, the parties gathering at Patna represent 333 seats. The BJP presently holds 162 of these 333 seats.
But the BJP is not a force in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and The Punjab, which have a total of 72 seats. This means that the BJP will not be dented no matter what the degree of opposition unity is. So, subtracting 72 from 333 leaves 261 seats.
Now, in these 261 seats, we have to deduct the 14 seats of Assam for three reasons: the AIUDF and the Congress have already carved the Muslim vote neatly between them, the BJP’s local alliance is firmly intact as on date, and none of the other parties have a material presence in Assam.
Next, we have to deduct the 80 seats of Uttar Pradesh because the political dynamics of the state is insulated from the moves being attempted at Patna.
The Congress has been wiped out in Uttar Pradesh, so they have no meaningful vote base to add to the opposition kitty.
It means that the Samajwadi Party will have to take on the BJP pretty much on its own, along with whatever few, remnant votes, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) can scrape together in western Uttar Pradesh.
It might have been a slightly different scenario if the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had, like in 2019, been part of the opposition’s alliance (though only slightly, because the BJP’s electoral predominance in the state is overwhelming), yet, alas, the BSP has decided to go it alone in 2024.
Worse, and perhaps as a harbinger, news reports emerged just as this piece was going to the press, that RLD leader Jayant Chaudhry has decided to skip the Patna meet.
So, with a status quo prevailing in Assam, and a reduced index of opposition unity in Uttar Pradesh, the Patna meet would have only minimal effect, since the advantage actually swings in a decisive manner to the BJP.
Thus, deducting these 94 seats from the remaining 261 gives us 167 seats.
In Jharkhand, where the BJP won 11 of 14 seats by thumping margins, and an ally won one, the Congress is already in alliance with Hemant Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.
Of the Patna crowd, only the Left parties have a presence in the state. But it is peripheral, so, an alliance with them would give the opposition only an additional 2-4 per cent, which in turn might hurt the BJP in only 2-3 seats.
In Haryana, the BJP won all 10 seats in 2019, and all by margins of over 20 per cent, except Rohtak. Abhay Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) is largely finished in the state, so even if they join hands with the Congress, it is hard to see how such an alliance can dent the BJP as things stand.
Jammu and Kashmir has only six seats, of which the BJP will retain an edge in three no matter who allies with whom. It is the same in Delhi, where the combined vote share of the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was still less than what the BJP got in 2019, in all seven seats.
Thus, deducting these 37 seats we are left with 130 seats in three states – Bihar (40), Maharashtra (48), and West Bengal (42). The BJP currently holds 58 seats, and its numbers will change in Bihar and Maharashtra because its alliances have changed.
In Bihar, the BJP is in alliance with Chirag Paswan’s LJP and a few smaller parties. It is up against the Congress, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), the Yadavs’ RJD, and the Left. The BJP has its work cut out to retain the 17 seats it won in alliance with Nitish Kumar in 2019.
In Maharashtra, Eknath Shinde’s rebellion within the Shiv Sena, means that Uddhav Thackeray is no longer a member of the party his father founded.
At the same time, a leadership tussle has arisen within Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP); whether it is his daughter, nephew or friend who finally succeeds him, it is clear that this internal strife will hurt the NCP, opposition unity, and partially offset whatever gains Thackeray may bring to the table.
The Congress is in any case in fourth place, and withering on the bough. Under these circumstances, the BJP, in alliance with the Shiv Sena, could actually improve their position if they play their cards right.
And that leaves West Bengal. Today, the bulk of the contests are bipolar ones between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC). An alliance with the Congress and the Left can give the TMC an electoral edge, but only slightly, for multiple reasons.
One: both the Congress and the Left are geographically restricted to small pockets of the state, so their value addition would be limited.
Two: the TMC doesn’t need them to defeat the BJP.
And, three: such a politically-absurd coalition between bitter rivals would, in all probability, trigger a massive counter-consolidation in favour of the BJP — not least because it would be interpreted by the electorate as a mark of desperation on the part of the TMC.
Thus, we see that of the 333 seats theoretically represented at Patna, a completely united opposition would still be able to trip up the BJP in only around 30-40 seats. That is just 10 per cent of the seats in which these parties have a strong presence.
The inference is that this level of opposition unity is insufficient to achieve what they seek. It also means that the mandate will be decided largely in the balance 210 seats where the main opposition party is the Congress, and where the other parties meeting at Patna don’t exist.
Consequently, and in conclusion, it is clear that no matter who says what at Patna, or what decisions are taken, the BJP can be successfully prevented by the opposition from securing a renewed mandate only if the Congress improves its performance in those hundreds of seats where it is in direct contest with the BJP on its own.
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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