It is clear by now that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be defeated if the opposition fights in a united manner. Even in the recently concluded Karnataka elections, the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Congress together earned 57% of the popular vote while the BJP got 36.2%. And yet, the 1:1 formula suggested by Mamata Banerjee is not working out. In the Karnataka election, the Congress and the JD(S)-BSP combination fought separately; ensuring that the BJP became the single largest party.
I see this as an elaborate game of chicken being played out between different constituents of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to maximize their chances of leading a coalition of the opposition. As the game continues, individual members of the opposition suffer greater reverses, and the opposition as a whole has less time to organize itself before the 2019 general election. At some point, hopefully with enough time remaining for the general election, the leadership issue will be resolved. Else, the opposition parties will all go careening over the cliff in a completely saffronized India. Perhaps, the decisive moment is upon us.
But first, let us understand the dilemma of the Congress. When Mamata Banerjee suggests a 1:1 formula, she expects other opposition parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), her bitter rival, to cede to her party in West Bengal. She has no presence in other states. Thus, the 1:1 formula amounts to an unconditional win for Banerjee and does not reflect any commitment on her part. It does not require her to sacrifice anything for the cause. How about offering 30% of parliamentary seats in West Bengal to the CPI(M) and 10% to the Congress, while keeping the remaining 60% for herself?
But, unlike the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), or any other opposition party, the Congress has an all-India footprint. Its losses in 16 state elections since 2014, not counting Karnataka, can obscure the fact that it has, barring some exceptions, picked up a fairly respectable number of seats and a reasonably high vote share across states. For instance, it was the single largest party in Goa and Manipur. Even in Assam, it won 26 seats and topped the vote share with 31% of the vote.
If it were to cede space to another opposition party in a state as part of a 1:1 formula, it would risk scattering its not inconsiderable support base. A case in point is Uttar Pradesh (UP). While the Congress is in a distant fourth position in that state, behind the BJP, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BSP, it is not bereft of a support base. This base has no love lost for the SP or the BSP—parties which rose to power based on an anti-Congress sentiment. Agreeing to play third fiddle to the SP and the BSP would alienate its supporters. It would also vitiate the emotional bond the party likes to believe it has with the state where so much of its history was written. A similar situation exists in Delhi with respect to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or in Kerala with respect to the Left Democratic Front.
Thus, in a large number of states, the Congress would like a 1:1 formula but only if it is an active voice in, if not the helmsman of, the opposition front. Its sense of self also requires that its leader be projected as the face of the opposition. In my view, Rahul Gandhi has come into his own as a leader but, unfortunately, the charge of dynastic politics refuses to come unstuck.
How can the Congress walk the fine line between recognizing present realities without losing face or triggering an exodus of its cadres? Here is where Deve Gowda comes in. He is the only mass leader of the opposition who has been a prime minister (PM). He has the political cunning to take on the BJP. Note how in this election he used the help of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres to emerge with 37 seats, and then went back and allied with the Congress, the very party whose elimination had motivated the help from the RSS. If he has chosen to ally with the Congress, it could not have been just to secure the position of chief minister for his son. This is a position he could have wrested from the BJP as well. Somewhere in his mind could be a desire to use the alliance to play a role on the national stage, something he would not be able to do with the BJP.
While the Congress leadership feels obliged to project its party president as a prime ministerial candidate, if it could get a compromise candidate, it might be willing to keep its powder dry for a more opportune time. Deve Gowda could be projected by it as a possible PM candidate on account of his track record and seniority. He is less of a threat than Banerjee or Mayawati. Having a small organization himself, he would rely on the Congress machinery to project himself, thus putting the Congress in a position of power without having to take the risk of exposing Rahul Gandhi.
Having solved the problem of the face of the opposition in its favour, the Congress could concede some ground in the interest of opposition unity. For instance, in UP and Kerala, it can be content with five-six seats. Surprisingly, the test of its moral leadership will come in smaller states like Delhi where it looks upon AAP as an eyesore and, churlishly, refuses to give them their due. At some stage, the grand old party will have to model the grace that opposition leaders need at this time. Projecting Deve Gowda and recognizing the appeal of the AAP in Delhi would be good places to start.
Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon, and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory. Views are personal.
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