The ‘Opposition unity’ caution

Opposition unity is a potent political force, but does not mean it can be a powerful electoral force too.

April 24, 2023 12:30 am | Updated 10:19 am IST

An old phrase is now the shiny new entrant in India’s electoral lexicon — opposition unity. It is an electoral strategy to vanquish the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by ensuring a direct contest between the BJP and a united Opposition in every constituency, preventing a split in votes.

It supposes that if India’s entrenched multi-party democracy can be turned into a two-party democracy in each State, the ruling BJP can be defeated easily. The faith in this idea is so strong that many Opposition leaders have even alluded that the blatant subjugation of democracy by the BJP, with the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi, may be a blessing in disguise to unite the Opposition and evict the BJP electorally. Can India’s elections be neatly engineered through such mathematical shortcuts and arithmetic ballot measures?

The foundational premise for the ‘Opposition unity’ strategy is that the BJP won only 37% of the votes in the 2019 election and that 63% of Indians voted against the party. The argument goes that if the 63% of the voters can be united, then it ensures an automatic opposition victory. This is a fallacy. The BJP only contested 80% of the seats in 2019, leaving the rest to its alliance partners. In the seats that the BJP won, it secured well more than half the votes, implying that no amount of ‘opposition unity’ could have prevented its victory. Together with its alliance partners, the BJP won the support of 45% of all voters. However, this still does not mean that the remaining 55% disapproves of the BJP and can be united to vote against them.

Let us suppose that a woman voter in Uttar Pradesh had four major choices of parties to vote for — the Samajwadi Party (SP), the BJP, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Congress — and she chose to vote for the SP. Does this mean that she disapproves of the other three parties or just the BJP? If her primary motivation is to vote for the party that represents her best, then it may be inferred that she disapproves of all other parties equally. In which case, it cannot be assumed that she will transfer her vote seamlessly to a united Opposition candidate. She may even prefer to vote for the BJP, if the BSP instead of the SP is on her ballot representing the united Opposition. This is exactly what happened in Uttar Pradesh in 2019 when the BJP increased its vote share from 2014, despite the SP and the BSP coming together.

Need for representation

Democratic politics at its core is about representation of interest groups. In an extremely diverse society such as India, the proliferation of numerous political parties is a reflection of the need for representation for many diverse groups. In the last six decades, there have always been 20 or more parties represented in Parliament. This staggering political diversity is the steam whistle of the pressure for representation in a very diverse Indian society. Artificially suppressing this outlet through a forced and manufactured unity of political parties can backfire, if not articulated carefully to the public. Electoral unity of political parties does not immediately mean unity of their voters.

To be clear, this is not to imply that there can be no amalgamation of different parties along ideological or identity axes. There are already synergistic alliances between the Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, and the National Conference in J&K. In fact, in the 2019 election, the Congress contested the lowest number of seats, forging alliances as widely as possible, but to no avail. New alliance formations such as the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) may add more synergy.

‘Opposition unity’ with a show of joint hands of Opposition leaders for television cameras in New Delhi may not immediately lure voters to discard State barriers and vote for a united Opposition. If any, the last few years have only further thickened State political boundaries. It is far-fetched to believe that an alliance, say between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Congress in West Bengal will lure a voter in Gujarat or Odisha to vote for the Opposition in a national election.

This is not to say that there is no scope for a united fight against the ruling party. A united Opposition is both a necessary and a powerful weapon to fight for a level playing field and rights of Opposition politics in India’s democracy. Misuse of institutions, monopoly of media and money, and intimidation of Opposition have to be fought against vehemently, which a strong, united Opposition is best positioned to do.

A joint political action against the ruling party by all Opposition parties can reverberate much louder across the nation. But this does not mean a combined electoral front of these parties will translate into votes for the joint Opposition in first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system. It is important not to conflate united political action of Opposition parties with a united act of voting by each party’s supporters.

A united political Opposition to safeguard India’s democracy is necessary. But it is no magic pill for easy gains in an FPTP electoral system with many parties in the fray. To the contrary, it calls for more work by each party to explain the rationale for a united Opposition alliance to their support base so as to not risk turning them away, and be complacent in the belief that it is a shortcut to electoral success. 

Opposition unity is a potent political force, but does not mean it can be a powerful electoral force too.

(Praveen Chakravarty is a senior office bearer of the Congress party)

This article has been corrected for a factual error.
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