Clockwise from top left: Mamata Banerjee, Rahul Gandhi, KCR Rao, Arvind Kejriwal, Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik Image Credit: ANI/AP

That hoary cliché of the Modi era — “opposition unity” — is back in the news. Like clockwork, we start hearing this phrase after the Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections, the Indian equivalent of midterms.

If only there was opposition unity! If only they all came together! After all, the BJP wins only around 39% vote-share. If the rest all came together, the BJP would lose.

Like the Indira Gandhi era, the Modi era too has given us enough evidence that opposition unity is not the magic mantra of defeating a personality cult leader.

How personality cults fail

There are only two things that defeat a personality cult leader. One, the leader makes irredeemable mistakes, like the forced sterilisation programme of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975-77. It was Indira Gandhi’s own mistakes, and not opposition unity, that led to her defeat in 1977. The people just voted for whoever could defeat the Congress. She even lost her own seat.

Short of a personality-cult leader committing political suicide, the only other thing that displaces such a leader in a democracy is another personality-cult leader. Opposition unity or the lack of it is secondary.

For example, at the state level, personality cult leaders like Arvind Kejriwal, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee and KCR Rao have (so far) withstood the pressures of the BJP juggernaut in their states. In Rajasthan, it was the popularity of Ashok Gehlot that brought the Congress back to power in 2018, even though the state loves Narendra Modi so much that the BJP has won 25/25 Lok Sabha seats in the state two general elections in a row.

When 2+2 is not 4

It is as if “opposition unity” has not been tried and tested in the Modi era. In the 2019 general elections, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Same Party came together in Uttar Pradesh. On paper, the alliance was formidable.

In the worst case scenario it should have won at least 40 of the 80 seats the state has in the lower house of the parliament. Yet the alliance won only 15 seats. It reduced the BJP tally only by 9 seats over the previous election.

Why did the SP-BSP alliance in UP not work? Travelling in that election, I saw voters parrot the rhetoric that the BJP workers had left them with. The argument was, even if the SP-BSP alliance won all the seats in UP, that wouldn’t be enough to form a government in Delhi.

This was a national election. What would be their foreign policy? What are they promising to do with defence and economy? Most importantly, who will be the prime minister with their 80 seats?

The SP-BSP alliance did not have any answers to these questions. There was no national opposition alliance. Even if such an alliance comes up, it won’t work unless it answers that all-important question: who is your prime ministerial candidate against Narendra Modi?

Adapting to the post-coalition era

From 1989 to 2009, there was a consensus that national politics was a sum of the states and coalitions were a natural form of politics in this vast and diverse country. In 2104, Narendra Modi upended this consensus.

Since then, voters have been trained to think national over region in at least the Lok Sabha elections. Voters have also been trained to think more deeply in terms of personalities — Modi versus who? After Modi, who?

The reason why the BJP attacks and ridicules Rahul Gandhi so persistently is not because they are threatened by him. They attack Rahul Gandhi to heighten the contrast between Modi and Rahul, so that people rally around Modi. This is why we often hear people say ‘we don’t have an option’. There is only one option and that is Modi.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses party supporters at the BJP Headquarters during a celebration following the party's win in Assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh Image Credit: ANI

Maybe, maybe not

It is to be noted that the Congress party itself did not declare Rahul Gandhi as the PM candidate in 2019. When asked whether he would be PM if Congress won, Rahul Gandhi said in 2019, “Well it depends ... it depends on how well the Congress does.

If the Congress is the biggest party, yes.” Congress spokespersons thereafter dodged this question. When asked the same question a year later, Gandhi said, “This is on the country, not on me. I do my work. You have to ask the people of the country.”

This is in contrast to Narendra Modi, who in 2014 insisted that the BJP officially declare him as a PM candidate. There was only one regional leader, MK Stalin of Tamil Nadu, who endorsed Rahul Gandhi for PM in 2019.

In other words, the opposition did not have a PM candidate in 2019. The realities of Indian politics demand that any party that is serious about winning the general elections declare who the PM candidate will be. Voters want to judge the person, not just the party or its promises.

To win states, claim to seek India

Some regional leaders seem to be pitching for the PM candidate role. Mamata Banerjee was doing so after winning the West Bengal assembly election, but has stopped doing so. The proactive role of central agencies in Kolkata seems to have calmed her down.

Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao and Nitish Kumar, chief ministers of Telangana and Bihar states respectively, seem to be openly pitching themselves as PM candidates for 2024, stopping just short of saying as much. They are going around meeting regional leaders across the country.

Rao has decided to rename his party, the “Telangana Rashtra Samiti”, as “Bharat Rashtra Samiti”. Nitish Kumar had large banners put up in Bihar, saying “Pradesh mein dikha, desh mein dikhega” (What you saw in the state will be seen at the national level).

Both the Telanaga and Bihar CMs know they are not going to be taken seriously as PM candidates unless the Congress supports them. Yet they persist because their real motive is not to become Prime Minister. Their real motive is to not let the BJP sweep their own states in the Lok Sabha.

In Bihar, the BJP campaign in 2024 will say ‘Vote Modi for PM’. BJP workers will ask voters, what will you achieve by voting for any regional party when it’s Modi who’s going to be PM? Nitish Kumar is pre-emptively answering this question so that his workers, voters and supporters can feel it’s not a one-sided contest in the Lok Sabha. Ditto KCR.

This is a wise thing to do for regional parties, given the Congress party’s terminal decline. The BJP wins states by using a national pitch. Regional leaders thus need to counter this national pitch to retain their states.

Thinking out of the box for a PM candidate

On its part, the Congress party would do well to declare a PM candidate, even if they themselves don’t have the confidence to do so. By being reticent about the PM post, Rahul Gandhi virtually concedes he’s not ready, giving Narendra Modi a walkover.

Of course, Rahul Gandhi is not the face that can defeat Narendra Modi. Neither is Nitish Kumar. Nor is it KCR.

It may help if the opposition parties sat down and agreed on a consensus candidate. It could be someone who’s currently not in politics, so that such a name is acceptable to all the parties.

Perhaps they could persuade an economist with a public standing, someone who they could sell as a person with the right credentials to address India’s number one problem today, unemployment.

Perhaps opposition parties could persuade such an economist to shift from Chicago to Delhi. Why not?