New Delhi: Barely over a month old, the coalition government in Karnataka has been perpetually in the headlines as the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) try to keep their alliance intact ahead of general elections next year.

The latest trigger in the ongoing political tussle between alliance partners was the open discontent expressed by former chief minister Siddaramaiah over his successor H.D.Kumaraswamy’s attempt to present a full-year budget.

Finally, Danish Ali, a senior JD(S) parliamentarian and its point person in Delhi, decided that it was time to intervene. Ali, the convener of the coordination committee between the two parties, called K. Siddaramaiah and asked him to come for the meeting on 1 July in Bengaluru to sort out their differences.

“I told Siddaramaiah that the coordination committee is the forum in which we can discuss all the issues he has been raising. He agreed to attend the meeting," said Ali, who also spoke to deputy chief minister G. Parameshwara and Congress state in-charge K.C. Venugopal, also members of the coordination committee.

This daily drama in Karnataka has to be seen in the context of the JD(S) and Congress deciding to contest the 2019 general elections together. It highlights the problems opposition parties will face as they try to stitch together an alternative to Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In another potential flashpoint, the Congress is working hard to enlist the support of political parties in the election to the office of deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha election, a prestigious post that has been with the party for four decades. This time around, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is also keen to field a candidate of her Trinamool Congress party. Both parties—who are crucial for opposition unity—do not want to give up their claim. It is likely that, once again, the Congress may have to find the compromise solution—just as it did in Karnataka when it offered the reins of governance to H.D. Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) in spite of having more seats in the assembly.

These two instances give a peek into the many challenges and roadblocks before opposition unity at the national level. “The biggest roadblock for a probable opposition alliance is that it is bound by a negative glue of being anti-BJP and that is really the only unifier that holds it together. Beyond that, if they want to stake claim to power, they will require much more than just anti-BJP pitch," said Sandeep Shastri, pro-vice chancellor, Jain University and director of its Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Education. Consider the challenges:

Seat sharing

Last month, Sharad Pawar, chief of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), alluded to 1977—when a combined opposition stormed to power after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. History, the veteran politician said, can be repeated and the collapse of the current government is possible if all the opposition parties came together. For this to happen, however, the opposition has to overcome its biggest hurdle—seat sharing arrangements.

Already, most of the dominant regional parties have demanded a greater share of Lok Sabha seats in their respective states. “If all the regional political parties that are opposed to the BJP are brought together along with the Congress, the opposition’s present strength in Lok Sabha is not more than 140. It means that there are 400 Lok Sabha seats which need to be divided between all these parties, since most parties would obviously like to contest from their sitting seats," said a senior NCP leader.

Senior opposition leaders explained that the problem is mainly in Uttar Pradesh, where there are at least four political parties ready to join hands against the BJP. Similarly, Bihar and West Bengal are facing hurdles as there are too many political parties and all them want a substantial share in the seats. “The three states put together, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal have 162 Lok Sabha seats. Political parties will have to sacrifice their personal ambitions to accommodate all parties. So far, it is only Samajwadi Party which has talked about sacrificing its share in seats. Other parties will also have to think of letting go of personal benefits to defeat the BJP," said a senior Samajwadi Party (SP) based in Lucknow.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati would be key to the success of any such talks. While the former Uttar Pradesh chief minister was one of the first to indicate she was willing to go in an alliance with arch rival SP in the 2019 polls, the Congress has been left in the cold—at least for now. For the Congress to be part of the coalition in Uttar Pradesh, it will be reduced to contesting a small number of the total 80 Lok Sabha seats from the state. Some fix this number at just two—Amethi, held by Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and Rae Bareilly, represented by Sonia Gandhi.

While many within the Congress agree that the party has low stakes in India’s most electorally-important state, they say contesting seats in the single digits would be a major climbdown for the largest opposition party in both houses of Parliament. “Uttar Pradesh is a problem but we are hopeful it will get resolved soon. Everyone’s turf will be respected and that is the idea we are going with. Each party will be given weightage, not just in terms of opinion but in seat sharing in their strongholds. For instance, it is obvious that an RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal) will be given prominence in Bihar and the Congress will have the upper hand in states like Punjab and Karnataka," a senior Congress leader and state in-charge said, requesting anonymity.

“The opposition will have to evolve a kind of a seat sharing formula with some flexibility. Relying on trial-and-error will not be a solution," said Sanjay Kumar, political analyst and director of New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

State rivalries

Last month, the West Bengal unit of the Congress party wrote an official communication to its central leadership recommending a pre-poll alliance with Left parties, clearly indicating that it continues to consider the ruling TMC as its key rival and that there should be no electoral pact with them.

Opposition leaders point to this to show how political rivalries of different parties in states could throw a spanner in the works. For instance, Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM-led Left parties and chief minister Banerjee-led TMC are arch rivals who are not keen on aligning on a common platform, even with the Congress as a potential unifier.

The West Bengal example shows how Congress will face resistance from its state units. For instance, if the top leadership accepts the state unit’s demand, a possible alliance with Left parties overall would mean a backlash from its Kerala unit where it opposes incumbent Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), which is led by the CPI(M).

“If parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and SP, which are traditional rivals can come together in Uttar Pradesh, other political parties too should find ways to end their differences for a larger cause to defeat the BJP in the general elections. The next Lok Sabha polls will be an ideological battle, it is important for all secular parties to come together," said the SP leader quoted above.

The Congress already has alliances with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, JD(S) in Karnataka and smaller allies in Kerala, like the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and Kerala Congress (Mani). It is also keen on taking ahead its understanding with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), party leaders say. They add that much will depend on the ground reality of rivalries in states.

Leadership crisis

It is quite clear to everyone that there is a leadership crisis in the opposition unity plan. “There is no such single leader who can become the rallying point. And ironically, if there is such a leader it will be the beginning of the end of the opposition alliance," Shastri said.

While the Congress is the largest national opposition party in the country, its electoral footprint has been sharply diminished in the past four years on the back of repeated defeats in state polls. Several party leaders also said while there has been a generational shift to Rahul Gandhi, the party had greater political clout under former party president Sonia Gandhi who took opposition leaders together. While Rahul Gandhi took charge of the party nearly six months ago, he still has to make inroads with other opposition leaders who have spent more time in public life and have played a significant role in states and nationally. His first official reach out to opposition leaders was in a recently hosted iftar party in national capital. Significantly, most of the opposition bigwigs gave it a miss, sending their representatives instead.

On the other hand, a section of opposition leaders feel that the presence of too many political stalwarts like NCP chief Pawar, TMC chief Banerjee and BSP chief Mayawati, with public appeals lying in different social groups, could pose a serious leadership crisis for the opposition with each regional party pressing claims to lead the flock.

Several opposition leaders and analysts feel that if the opposition parties do go ahead with one leader as its face, such a personality fight would end up benefitting the ruling BJP instead. “If the 2019 elections happen in a presidential form of contest, it would only benefit BJP because the party would then be able to electorally compare Modi versus the opposition candidate. The worry for the BJP is a caste and religion based contest. If the general elections happen on granular issues with caste differences, the BJP has everything to lose," said a senior Union minister on condition of anonymity.

Idea of unity

On the face of it, most opposition parties do accept the need to unitedly fight the formidable combine of PM Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. However, they do not seem to be moving swiftly to make it happen. “All the key opposition parties in a way have accepted that they cannot challenge the BJP if they are alone. There is a broad understanding that there should be state specific alliances with a common motive of defeating the BJP. We are hopeful that other issues will get sorted over the months leading to 2019," a senior Congress leader and former Union minister said requesting anonymity.

Opposition leaders insist that the Lok Sabha bypolls in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana in Uttar Pradesh, in which the BJP was defeated, have clearly shown that more parties can come together against BJP under a shared leadership. Banerjee too had proposed something similar when she spoke about a one-to-one fight specific to states to take on the BJP. That said, it would be a challenge to bring all stakeholders on board in less than a year. Additionally, the index of opposition unity gets threatened by regional players like Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and Telugu Desam Party (TDP), who are classic fence sitters.

Opposition parties argue that unity is inevitable. “In spite of all the visible hiccups, unity shall be achieved because unlike top-down approaches of the past, this time it is the churning at the bottom which is asking several political parties to jettison their narrow differences vis-a-vis each other. Each political party is in communication with its support base and they are getting an unambiguous message from the ground for unity," said Manoj Jha, senior leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

Of course, opposition unity will be tested not just in the upcoming assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh but also in coordination inside and outside Parliament. All eyes will be on the election of the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha later this month. “These attempts of coming together are not similar to 1977. Back then, the coalition came up on a very strong public protest against misuse of power and scuttling of democracy. I am not sure today is that kind of political situation or whether forces that can whip up such support in their favour," said Shastri.

Will the opposition be able to escape the burden of history?

Abhiram Ghadyalpatil in Mumbai, Arkamoy Dutta Majumdar in Kolkata, Dharani Thangavelu in Chennai, Sharan Poovanna in Bengaluru and Pretika Khanna in New Delhi contributed to the story.

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