The Karnataka election results has left most analysts confused. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as the single largest party but has not succeeded in forming the government. The Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S) have formed an alliance and look set to form the government. The one clear conclusion that most observers have zeroed in on is: opposition unity will be key to defeating the BJP in 2019. A fragmented opposition will find it immensely difficult to take on the combined might of BJP’s organizational machinery and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.

The post-poll alliance in Karnataka is, therefore, leading us to the same conclusion as the pre-poll alliance in Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-elections earlier this year. The Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had come together to trounce the BJP in key Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh. The lesson from the grand alliance experiment in Bihar (2015) was similar. So, if it was so clear that opposition unity is crucial to defeating the BJP, why did the Congress and JD(S) not form an alliance before the polling in Karnataka?

The answer to this question may help one begin to understand the complexities of the “uniting the opposition" project. If the Congress and JD(S) had worked out a pre-poll alliance, it is unlikely that the former would have granted the chief minister (CM) candidature to the latter. The JD(S)’ H.D. Kumaraswamy was always more likely to become the CM in a post-poll arrangement than in a pre-poll one. For him, bagging the CM post was more important than keeping the BJP out of power. For Congress, keeping the BJP out of power was more important but it would have preferred to wait for final numbers rather than concede the CM post in advance to an ally.

If Karnataka goes for a re-election today, it would be imperative for the Congress and JD(S) to unite to prevent the BJP from winning a comfortable majority. Even if the Congress agrees to project Kumaraswamy as the CM face of a pre-poll alliance, success is not guaranteed. Kumaraswamy’s JD(S) is seen as a party of the southern Karnataka Vokkaliga belt. In the rest of Karnataka, the party has little traction. A Vokkaliga CM candidate may result in a non-Vokkaliga consolidation in the entire state in favour of the BJP. One does not know who would win the re-election, but this much can be said: Crafting a pre-poll Congress-JD(S) alliance and achieving success is easier said than done. That is precisely the reason the alliance did not happen two months ago.

But a pre-poll alliance did happen in the Uttar Pradesh by-elections. The reason was that BSP supremo Mayawati agreed to support the SP candidates in both the seats; there was no seat-sharing tussle. Mayawati has always believed that her votes are more easily transferable to the BSP’s allies and that the reverse doesn’t happen so smoothly. Put in crude caste terms, the question before her is: Will Yadavs (the electoral base of SP) vote for the BSP’s Dalit candidates, given the caste hierarchy on the ground? A fear of low strike rate—victory in fewer seats in proportion to those contested—compared to her allies will make her demand more seats than her party’s recent performance justifies.

Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress has emerged as a strong votary of opposition unity in the run-up to the 2019 election. She is also believed to have nudged the Congress into moving swiftly in Karnataka to form the post-poll alliance. But it is worth asking: How many seats in West Bengal would she sacrifice for the sake of opposition unity? Will she offer enough seats for the Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) to fight under the umbrella of an united opposition? If not, then all her talk of united opposition is driven by a selfish motive of elevating herself to the prime ministerial throne.

Finally, should the Congress try to achieve an united opposition through a grand national alliance or through different state-wise arrangements with regional parties? If it tries to stitch up a grand national alliance, there will be questions of leadership. Regional leaders like Banerjee, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav will not readily agree to project Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial face of the alliance. Moreover, the failure to get on board all possible parties into this alliance will raise questions over Gandhi’s leadership credentials.

If the Congress decides to enter into state-wise arrangements with regional parties, it will still not be an easy ride. The Congress will have to agree to play a secondary or fringe role in many states. Even if this is palatable to Gandhi to achieve the bigger objective of preventing Modi from coming back to power, the decision will have implications for the Congress’ political future. The party competes with these regional parties for some of the same voters. For example, agreeing to let the SP and BSP call the shots in Uttar Pradesh might mean losing its extant Muslim and Dalit votes in the state for a long time to come. Similarly, conceding a larger JD(S) role in Karnataka might imply erosion of Congress support in southern Karnataka.

To sum up, the opposition knows that unity is paramount in the current political circumstances but the road is riddled with potholes and speed-breakers.

Can the opposition parties come together to fight the BJP in 2019? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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