Opposition unity VS incumbency

Saturday, 24 October 2020



Opposition unity VS incumbency

Abhinav Pankaj Borbora | June 27, 2018 17:01 hrs

The currently prevailing discourse amongst political parties counterpoised to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pertains to the prospects of building a coalitional unity. Efforts in this direction have been forthcoming ever since the BJP formed the government on its own. The effort was however crippled by dissensions from the beginning and was consequently short-lived. The recent streak of reversals for the BJP has once again reoriented the discourse towards Opposition unity.  Over the last four years, this effort has been characterised by a variety of names like Grand Alliance, Mahagathbandhan, Rainbow Coalition and Secular Alliance among others. 
The typology of Opposition unity that is being contemporarily contemplated is qualitatively different from coalitions built around the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The anatomy of these coalitions was underpinned on a highly fragmented party system and party competition among respective national and state parties. The current aspiration has more similarity with composite formations like Sanyukta Vidhayak Dal (1967), Janata Party (1977) and Janata Dal (1988). This similarity is rooted in the nature of party competition prevailing during these preceding occasions as well as currently. All the periods under consideration saw the ascendancy of a party that was gradually entrenching itself in a position of dominance. This was accompanied by the absence of a similar formation and the existence of numerous intermediate and marginal formations. This structural arrangement compels the highly disparate intermediate and marginal formations to close ranks in order to pose a serious challenge to the incumbent. Coalitions of this nature thus represent a Unity against Dominance.


It follows therefore that the typology of such coalitions embodies a Cross-Cutting Unity across ideological considerations. Due to the imperative of avoiding a fissure in the collective strength, counterpoising parties undergo different levels of ideological dilution as demanded by the situation. Lohiaite Socialists and the Jana Sangh were coalitional partners in the Sanyukta Vidhayak Dal. Similarly, in the 1989 general elections, the Janata Dal was supported by both the BJP and Communist Party of India (Marxist). In the current phase, most of the proposed formulae and alliances for countering the BJP contain both attributes of unity. The by-election to the Kairana Lok Sabha could be treated as a veritable case in point that saw the legatee’s of Nehru, Ambedkar, Lohia and Charan Singh entering into a positive compromise. However, the extent of state level differentiation of the party system has become more pronounced now than thirty years back. Party competition in states have become not only more pronounced but multi-polar in many cases. Considering this, the universality of unity could encounter significant impediments in the coming period.


Such heterogeneity that undergirds the peculiar typology of unity concurrently transforms elections into reductionist referendums. This means that elections are contested not over concrete programmes but on the basis of a single overarching and melodramatic issue. The diverse and mutually conflicting positions could be workably reconciled only by superimposing a single general issue that commands maximum agreement. The programme of such composite formations therefore stands upon a Single Issue Unity. In the 1977 general elections, nearly the entire opposition rallied behind Jayprakash Narayan and Moraji Desai on the issue of restoring democracy. Similarly, the 1989 general elections brought a majority of the non-Congress opposition together on the singular plank of corruption. In the upcoming elections in 2019, the issue of secularism might become the fulcrum of oppositional unity.


These coalitions build their viability by attempting to progressively reduce the split of votes among the counterpoising parties through the extension of unity and with seat sharing arrangement. Resultantly, this type of coalition fosters a Status Quoist Unity. This is so because firstly, it precludes the necessity of any of the constituents independently broadening their base. Secondly, the coordinated internal competition poses a serious impediment to the emergence of alternate formations unaffiliated to either poles of dominance. The decimation of the Janata Dal could be attributed largely to its reliance on such coalitions. Unity of this nature may yield short-term results for a party but impedes the development of an independent base over the longer term.


Coordinated political action achieved through ideological dilutions and strategic adjustments render such coalitions electorally formidable. Indian politics has witnessed episodes where such coalitions have been successful. But electoral unity has been almost inevitably followed by a Government of Disunity. The reason for such inevitability could be explained as this. Political formations recede from their official ideological positions in order to coordinate within disparate formations of unity. Although ideology could be treated as a superstructural phenomenon, political formations cannot afford to alienate core constituencies upon which they existentially stand. Decisions of policy and allocation exercised by the incumbent coalition government carry contradictory implications for every constituent element.  When these contradictions assume proportions that threaten to alienate the popular bases of particular constituents, the latter responds by either bargaining a lucrative settlement or breaking away from the unity. 


(The author presents his observations at this time when discussions on opposition unity are in wide circulation and as a point of reference with regard to the vagaries of coalitional politics.)

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