A week ago, a twitter war erupted between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.
When Akhilesh Yadav tweeted a picture of his talking to people in a dengue-affected village near Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, Indian Youth Congress chief BV Srinivas took to twitter to wonder how Yadav got a comfortable sofa in a house without plaster to sit on.
The Samajwadi Party hit back at the Congress, with its spokesperson Rajeev Rai tweeting a picture of Rahul Gandhi sitting on a sofa on a tractor: “Is a sofa found on a tractor rather than in the house of a poor man?”
The spat is a hint of a process that is increasingly visible in the past few months. Even as the BJP remains the single most powerful party at the central level, the opposition is engaged in contests in state polls and does not hesitate to trade barbs.
The All-India Trinamool Congress is not just combative when it comes to the Congress but is also seeking to expand at its expense, inducting leaders from the Congress in Goa, Tripura and even Uttar Pradesh. The Rashtriya Janata Dal also spurned the Congress in Bihar during the by-polls, with Lalu Prasad going on record to tell reporters that an alliance with Congress meant nothing except forfeiting one’s security deposit. The RJD lost both seats and the Congress contesting alone performed dismally.
On its part, the Congress is not hesitant to try and build its own base in poll-bound UP, where SP is being seen as the prime challenger to the BJP. The SP is also inducting leaders both from the BSP and the Congress.
The turn of events seems at odds with a past template. In the 1960s and 70s – and going up to the late 1980s – opposition parties often made seat adjustments to counter the Congress, which was then in a position of dominance.
In 1963, the Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, the socialists under Ram Manohar Lohia and the Swatantra Party made arrangements for four Lok Sabha bypolls. While Deen Dayal Upadhyaya of Jana Sangh lost, socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, JB Kriplani and Minoo Masani of the Swatantra Party won their seats.
In 1967, short-lived Sanyukta Vidhayak Dal governments were formed in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and MP when Jana Sangh MLAs made common cause with socialists and even CPI (M) within some hung assemblies. In the 1971 Lok Sabha polls, the Jana Sangh, the Swatantra Party, Congress breakaway faction Congress (O), the Sanyukta Socialist Party and the Praja Socialist Party made a grand alliance to take on the Congress but lost. In 1977, in the elections held after the Emergency, the Janata Party, formed by the merger of key opposition parties, trounced the Congress. Even in 1989, the BJP and the left supported the Janata Dal of VP Singh to defeat the Congress. These polls also entailed electoral arrangements.
The above attempts were characterized by a blanket category ‘anti-Congressism’, and were aimed at burying ideological differences and points of contention to take on the dominant political party.
This phase was followed by the phase of two-party politics, with the rise of the BJP in the 1990s. Here, regional parties allied with either national party to form governments. The NDA and UPA experiments come from this coalition phase.
With the rise of single party dominance yet again since 2014, one would have expected that opposition parties make common cause to take on the BJP. However, despite some moments of unity -- like a grand rally in Kolkata before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Bihar elections of 2015 and to a lesser extent the Lok Sabha election in UP in 2019 – this hasn’t happened.
Political scientist Sajjan Kumar says that there is a fundamental difference between the anti-Congress-ism of the 1960s and 70s and the present-day scenario. “The Congress had a ready and set vote base and non-Congress parties had their small vote bases. So, it made sense for them to combine those vote bases to take on the Congress,” says Kumar. “However, the BJP at present is acquiring new vote bases, like among the most backward castes. In UP, Akhilesh Yadav is trying to compete with the BJP for the same vote base, which the BJP has acquired just a few years back. In such a scenario, Akhilesh is trying alliances that tap into these votes, like with the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party. He cannot afford to go into alliances with the BSP and Congress, as he will have to surrender a large number of seats and lose the maneuvering space to reach out to these caste groups.” Kumar adds that while anti-Congressism had towering figures like Ram Manohar Lohia and Jaya Prakash Narayan that provided it a key fulcrum, the present Congress and opposition lack a leader who is acceptable to all opposition parties as towering above the political horizon. “Without the glue of a towering figure, there can be no anti-BJP-ism that entails mutual adjustments among opposition parties,” he says.
The Congress on its part thinks it is important to build its own organization in states like UP and Bihar. “The fact is that even SP and RJD are facing anti-incumbency because of their significant presence over 30 years now. They have not been able to repackage themselves to take on the BJP surge and are gradually losing ground to the BJP,” said a Congress leader on condition of anonymity. “What should the Congress do now? Should we see a 2019 repeat in UP, where both SP and BSP taken together could not defeat the BJP? Muslims are also aware that these regional parties cannot defeat the BJP. So, the Congress has to build its organization afresh and attract vote bases. Without that, there is no way of defeating the BJP through mere seat adjustments.”
The Congress leader pointed out another factor. “See the new world of social media and see TV channels. Young people in UP and Bihar see the BJP and Congress as national parties. Attacks on social media are directed against the Congress and not SP. On TV debates, it is the Congress spokesperson and not the RJD spokesperson who faces the BJP prominently on national issues. In such a scenario, is it not natural that the Congress has to chart out its own path to take on the BJP in large states like UP and Bihar, which are giving the BJP a head-start?”
A leader of the TMC, however, told Outlook that there is a perception among regional parties that the Congress is not being able to face the BJP at all in direct-fight states in Lok Sabha polls. “They should leave our states to us. We can give the BJP a fight and also defeat it there. They should focus on their own states rather than trying one-upmanship with regional parties,” he added.
RJD MP Manoj Jha is, however, still not resigned to the inability of the opposition to make common cause. “Even if you remember the days of anti-Congress-ism, there were differences between opposition leaders. Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram were not on the same page. JP could sometimes not sleep because of differences within the opposition. These are normal,” Jha told Outlook. “Those differences require correct moments to be sunk. That moment may not have come right now but can come soon.”
He, however, adds that since the BJP is a more sharply ideological party than the Congress of those days, opposition parties that don’t agree with it have to also close ranks on ideology. “Mere electoral arrangements won’t do. Opposition parties have to agree to build a counter-hegemony vis-à-vis the BJP and its worldview. They have to take clear positions on issues that they feel militate against their idea of how the country should be.”