Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to realize that the world, and India, are going through major changes. Photo: AFP

“Mahagatbandhan,” a Grand Alliance of India’s opposition parties, has been the talking point among political analysts and voters as the next general elections get nearer – most probably to be held in April-May 2019.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is very optimistic about retaining power. The BJP, since assuming power in 2014 by defeating the Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), has been able to transform itself into a pan-Indian party from its earlier incarnation of being only a Hindi belt party.

The BJP’s growth has reduced the 133-year-old Congress party more or less to a regional party. Not only Congress, but many regional parties such as the Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Maharashtra-based Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), West Bengal-based All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) and the Bihar-based Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), are worried about their survival on their own turfs, as the politics of the BJP is very different from theirs.

Most of these regional parties and the Congress have one thing in common: the Muslim vote bank. On the other hand, the BJP’s politics revolves around Hindutva, unifying Hindus as one vote bank. This Hindutva politics threatens casteist parties such as the two Yadav-dominated parties – SP and RJD – and the BSP, the party of Dalits. Also, the atheist Left parties are losing their Hindu voters to the BJP. That’s why there have been calls from the opposition quarters to cut across ideologies for a Grand Alliance – or “Mahagathbandhan” – against the BJP-led NDA.

In by-elections held this year for the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian Parliament) seats in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana in Uttar Pradesh, the opposition alliance was successful in defeating the incumbent BJP. These victories gave hope to the beleaguered opposition camps that the Modi-led BJP is not invincible, as thought earlier, if the opposition unites.

Uttar Pradesh sends the highest number of members of Parliament (MPs) – 80 to the Lok Sabha – and last time the NDA grabbed 73 seats, boosting the numbers required to cross the magic figure of 272. So far, the Grand Alliance has almost materialized in Uttar Pradesh, where two arch-rivals, the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP and Mayawati’s BSP, have decided to join hands, taking along another small caste party, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), for the upcoming general elections. It is uncertain whether the Congress will be accommodated but they will support that party in two constituencies – Raebareli and Amethi, the traditional seats of the Gandhi family.

An alliance in Bihar, another very significant state, which has 40 Lok Sabha seats, is more likely to take shape. The main opposition RJD is already in alliance with the Congress and there has been news of integrating the Communist Party of India (Marxist Liberation) CPI(ML), a radical leftist party and the two other communist parties – the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), into the alliance.

CPI(ML) holds a sizable Dalit vote bank and has been the arch-rival of the Yadav-dominated RJD. However, the BJP’s dominance is breaking the ice among the two arch-rivals just as in Uttar Pradesh.

There is a greater probability of an alliance in Karnataka combining Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), which may also include the BSP.

In Maharashtra, sealing the deal with Sharad Pawar’s NCP will not be easy for the Congress along with accommodating such parties as the BSP and Raju Shetty’s farmer based party Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS). There has been gossip about the Hindutva-oriented Shiv Sena, a disgruntled ally of the NDA, joining the opposition but the other parties, mainly the Congress, are averse to this idea.

Shiv Sena had earlier declared its intention to contest the elections alone in both the Lok Sabha and the state assembly polls. It seems that the party is buying time, as seen in the recent election of the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament), where it supported the NDA candidate.

But in other states – West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha, Telangana, Assam, Haryana, Punjab and Delhi, which have 42, 39, 25, 20, 21, 17, 14 ,10, 13 and seven Lok Sabha seats respectively – a grand alliance among the opposition parties seems unlikely.

In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is also the Trinamool Congress supremo, is unwilling to share seats with the Congress as she herself is eyeing the prime minister’s post. The CPI(M)-led Left Front has its own compulsions of fighting not only against the BJP but also against its arch-rival Mamata Banerjee.

In Tamil Nadu, Congress will most probably ally with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Left, which will push the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) only toward the NDA.  There are other factors in the state – new entrants like Dinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), Kamal Hassan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) and Rajinikanth’s not-yet-revealed party are yet to disclose their cards.

Also in Andhra Pradesh, which sends 25 MPs, there seems no possibility of a grand alliance where both regional parties – Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and YSR Congress – are competing against each other and are also against the Congress party.

There is less possibility of an alliance in Assam between the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) – a Muslim party – as it may polarize the Hindus toward the BJP.

In Kerala, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) has to fight against its probable national ally, the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). Also, whether the Congress will accede some seats to the BSP in Hindi belt states like Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh is not clear.

The recently held election for the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha broke the myth of countrywide opposition unity, where the Congress couldn’t garner support of the other opposition parties for its candidate B K Hariprasad. The BJP, which didn’t have enough numbers on its own, nominated its ally Janata Dal United’s Harivansh Singh as the candidate of the NDA and managed to get more votes than the NDA’s current strength in the house.

That happened thanks to support of such parties as Odisha-based Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), Tamil Nadu-based AIADMK, Haryana’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and the BJP’s unhappy ally Shiv Sena. This assumes significance because in the next elections these parties will play a key role in case no single party achieves the majority – especially as the BJD and the TRS are expected to win handsomely in their strongholds.

Very dissatisfying for the unity of opposition was the absence of such parties as Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), YSR Congress and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the voting. Later, the AAP, the ruling party of Delhi and the main opposition of Punjab, declared it was moving out of the Grand Alliance and contesting the upcoming elections separately.

The problem for opposition unity is that it is full of contradictions, with many regional leaders like Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar eyeing the post of prime minister and threatening Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s own ambitions. Most of them don’t want to weaken their position by becoming a mere junior partner in the respective states; all they want is a respectable share of seats. That’s why the opposition is hesitating to declare its choice for the prime minister’s post.

The narrative of the opposition – to save the secular credentials of the country, which are under threat by BJP rule – may also backfire. Mamata Banerjee’s strict opposition against Assam’s National Register of Citizens pushing out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants – mostly Muslims – is only helping the BJP to polarize Hindus, which may ultimately cost the opposition, especially the Congress, in the Hindi heartland.

The opposition shouldn’t forget that in the 2014 polls, for the first time Hindu voters came together cutting across ethnicity, giving full majority to the BJP. So any kind of move that antagonizes Hindus will only help the BJP.

One thing is very clear: Up to now, the opposition has no proper narratives. To win elections, arithmetic alone is not enough, one needs chemistry too. Currently, it looks like the opposition is busy only with the arithmetic and neglecting the chemistry, which is very important as it binds the voters by cutting across various groups.

The writer is an India-based commentator on politics, religion, culture and philosophy and tweets @sagarneelsinha.