Three decades after N T Rama Rao, the founder of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), took the lead to float a National Front of opposition parties to take on Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress, his son-in-law and the present TDP chief, Chandrababu Naidu is attempting a similar role and build a broad platform of opposition parties to take on the BJP. On Thursday, he was in New Delhi to hold talks with Congress president Rahul Gandhi. He also met NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav and CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury. When he met the Press later in the day with Rahul Gandhi, he claimed that there’s a “democratic compulsion” to stitch an alliance of opposition parties to “protect the country”.
The talk of a mahagadhbandhan of opposition parties against the BJP in the 2019 general election has been in the air for some time. Before Naidu, Pawar had spoken about his willingness to coordinate opposition parties to build an anti-BJP alliance. However, these talks have failed to congeal into any concrete political platform with a clear agenda. This may well be because the parties in discussion seem to think that arithmetic itself is sufficient to trump the party in office. The unity of opposition index can indeed trouble a party facing incumbency. The NF was successful in the 1989 general election because it had forced direct contests with the Congress, then the national political hegemon, by negotiating seat arrangements independently with the BJP and the Left Front. However, it must not be forgotten that the NF had successfully presented itself to voters as a representative platform of regional aspirations, the non-elite and the middle and backward castes and its anti-corruption campaign attracted the then nascent middle classes. The only other pre-poll alliance to win an election — the United Front in 1996 and the United Progressive Alliance in 2004 were post-poll formations — was the NDA, which too had anti-Congressism as its political core. The BJP has since replaced the Congress as the pole of national politics while the likes of Naidu are trying to build a united opposition platform with the Congress as the nucleus.
However, contradictions arising out of the fragmented nature of national politics could stymie the attempts to build a united front against the party in office at the Centre. Self-preservation seems to the sole agenda of most regional outfits, as they fear that the BJP would encroach on their space. However, they also seem wary of backing the Congress, the principal rival to the BJP, and vice versa, since their support bases overlap. This is evident in the failure of the opposition parties to project a united front against the BJP in the upcoming byelections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In the days ahead, the Opposition may have to go beyond rhetoric and build a cogent and convincing political narrative to challenge the BJP.