Last Friday, the political buzz in Delhi was that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the upstart of Indian politics, and the Congress, the country’s oldest political party, were in talks to forge an alliance ahead of the 17th general election due next year. The apparent objective is to present a united opposition to thwart the bid by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to secure a second term. Given the circumstances, the alliance may well transcend political gossip.

Ironic, because the emergence of AAP—born out of the anti-corruption movement targeting the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for alleged infractions—was presaged on challenging the political hegemony of mainstream parties like the Congress. The obvious reason to undertake such a desperate rethink is the principle of enemy’s enemy is my friend. In this instance, the BJP is the bigger enemy, especially since it exhibited a meteoric rise under the leadership of Narendra Modi—fashioning an unprecedented expansion in its electoral footprint to 21 states—assuming almost unstoppable proportions. Not just the Congress but several regional outfits are fighting for survival as Modi continues to reset the political paradigm.

A week earlier, the same maxim had enabled otherwise bitter rivals, the Congress and Janata Dal Secular, or JD(S) who ended up second and third in the Karnataka election, cobble a tie-up and pip the BJP, which had fallen just eight seats short of a simple majority, to form the government.

With the general elections, likely to be a mother of all battles, less than a year away, political parties are jockeying for vantage—to exploit the inevitable sentiment of anti-incumbency against the National Democratic Alliance. Every election is different, but the upcoming one will be unprecedented.

Unlike in the showdown in 2014, the principal rival is no longer the Congress, but the BJP. This is understandable as in the last four years, the BJP has replaced the country’s oldest political party as the principal pole of Indian politics. Ever since its audacious win, the Modi juggernaut has steadily edged the Congress out, restricting it to Punjab in mainland India—but for its Faustian bargain with the JD(S) in Karnataka, it would have lost its last big foothold in south India too.

While the Congress, with its pan-India party structure in place, is still on paper the principal rival to challenge the BJP, the electoral reality is less convincing. With every defeat its clout has shrunk, some regional parties like the Trinamool Congress have even dared to claim the leadership of the opposition. To the credit of the Congress, it seems to have accepted the reality and has in the case of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh opted to be a junior partner in an alliance of formidable regional players; in Karnataka, it exhibited similar pragmatism and accepted the leadership of JD(S), someone it had dubbed as the B-team of the BJP in the campaign.

But the big question to ask is whether an alliance based on convenience is sustainable? On the face of it, the odds are loaded against it. For one, these parties may be able to bury their differences for a common enemy; fact of the matter is that they are otherwise bitter regional rivals. Without a binding common ideology, a political alliance is always tenuous; all the more when one is forged post-poll as it happened in Karnataka. And even a pre-poll alliance is presaged on a smooth vote transfer among groups otherwise divided on the social identity based on caste and religion.

Second, any political alliance requires a national anchor to keep the regional outfits together. In the case of the United Progressive Alliance, it was the Congress and for the NDA, it is the BJP. In the last four years, the stature of the Congress party has diminished.

Whether the strategy of the opposition works or not we will know only after the conclusion of the next general elections. Till then let the games begin.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus. Respond to this column at anil.p@livemint.com

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