There is a growing realisation among the majority of the opposition parties that their political survival is now dependent upon their unity.

assembly elections, opposition parties, Congress, Sonia Gandhi, 2019 general elections, electoral strategies, electoral challenge
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The Bharatiya Janata Party's huge electoral victory in the recently held assembly elections in five states and the local municipal corporation elections in the national capital has proved that no single political leader or a party on its own strength can either match Prime Minister Narendra Modi's hold on the electorate or his popular credibility.

Modi's sway over the people has set alarm bells among the opposition parties. And this prevailing ground realities seem to be preparing the stage for a united battle against the BJP-led NDA in the coming presidential election.

There is a growing realisation among the majority of the opposition parties that their political survival is now dependent upon their unity. They apprehend that if they remain divided, they will soon become politically irrelevant. Therefore, parallel efforts are currently going on to unite the non-BJP parties for jointly fighting what they call an onslaught on some of the fundamental structures and values of the Constitution.

On 1 May, over a dozen leaders of the opposition parties and trade unions came on a common platform to observe the 95th birth anniversary of late socialist leader Madhu Limaye. Limaye was one of the prominent architects of opposition unity in 1977, leading to the formation of the Janata Party that defeated the Congress in the general elections. This resulted in the formation of the first non-Congress government at the Centre. The leaders stressed upon the need to have a united approach and joint strategy to fight the BJP at the political level.

Simultaneously, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has been meeting leaders of the non-BJP parties to agree on a common candidate for the coming presidential election. At another level, CPM General Secretary Sitram Yechury, veteran JD (U) leader Sharad Yadav, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, to name the few, are meeting leaders of the other opposition parties like the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), India National Lok Dal (INLD) and the Telengana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) to enlist their support. There are also some discreet efforts to woo some of the NDA allies like the Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena.

On June, leaders of all the major opposition parties are meeting in Chennai to celebrate the 95th birthday of DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi. This celebration is aimed at bringing the opposition parties together, sinking their inter-party differences so that a united opposition can offer a credible alternative to the people in coming elections.

The presidential election is going to be the first test of whether the opposition parties together can take on the BJP-led NDA in the 2019 general elections or not. And the understanding evolved and experience gained during the presidential battle may prepare the ground for future electoral battle against the BJP.

There are only three possible outcomes of the presidential election. One, the BJP-led NDA is able to have a person of its choice as the head of the state. Two, the opposition parties, against all odds, field a joint candidate and gather enough votes in the electoral college to make him win the contest. Third, both the ruling NDA and the opposition arrive at a consensus to elect the new president without a contest.

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President Pranab Mukherjee's term is going to end on 25 July this year. Therefore, it is a constitutional requirement to elect a new President before that date.

Will the next President be a consensus candidate between the ruling BJP-led NDA combine and the opposition, or will there be a contest this time?

While the non-BJP opposition parties led by the Congress are in the process of mutual consultations to agree on one joint candidate to have a person of their choice in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not revealing its strategy, possibly waiting for the opposition to make the first move.

An electoral college, consisting of elected members of both Houses of Parliament and elected members of the legislative assemblies of States and the Union Territories of Delhi and Puducherry elects the President of India. The total strength of the electoral college is 1098,882 and the NDA on its own has a strength of 53,1442, falling short of just 18,000 votes from the majority mark of 54,9442.

After the victory of the BJP in the assembly elections and the poor electoral performance of the Congress, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the NDA stands relatively a better chance to have its candidate for the country’s top post.

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The NDA has to manage the shortfall by roping in either one or all the three non-NDA parties -- the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), the TRS and the BJD. The opposition, if it wants to win, will have to ensure that not only the non-BJP opposition parties stay united but also win over one or two of the NDA allies.

Coming weeks will indicate whether the Opposition can sink their differences and can stand united to give a serious challenge to the BJP under its seemingly invincible leader or not?

Irrespective of the result of the presidential election, the entire exercise is sure to contribute to greater understanding between the main opposition parties. This may prove to be a launching pad for future electoral battles, like in the coming assembly election in Gujarat later this year and in Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan next year, and eventually resulting in a common battle against the BJP-led NDA in the 2019 general elections.

On paper, the opposition parties have the required strength to defeat the BJP in any electoral battle in one-to-one contests. In the 2014 general elections, the BJP had won 282 seats by polling 31.34 percent votes. The BJP-led NDA won 336 seats with 38.5 percent votes.

At the same time, the Congress which got 19.4 percent votes could win only 44 seats.

However, the Congress-led UPA alliance, with a combined share of 23 percent votes, won only 60 seats.

In the recently held assembly election in the biggest state of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP-led NDA won 325 seats with 41.4 percent share of polled votes. The Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance polled 28 percent votes and could win only 54 seats, while the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), despite polling 22.2 percent votes, won just 19 seats.

It could be argued that if the SP, BSP and the Congress had contested the UP assembly election in an electoral alliance, then the BJP-led NDA would have been easily defeated by the three-party alliance having 8.8 percent more votes.

Theoretically, it is very much feasible that the BJP under Modi's charismatic leadership can be defeated in straight one-to-one contest, but politics is not a game of number alone but is far more a perceptional battle where emotions, sentiments, electoral strategies and imaginative promises play significant role.

Beyond an agreement between the leaders of the opposition parties, unity and harmony between cadres of different parties is far more important for effectively countering the BJP's electoral challenge. Common struggle at ground level and unity of action at the constituency level are some of the effective tools to forge unity among workers of different parties who in many cases have been rivals of each other. However, it is easily said than done.

The Opposition, obviously, cannot alone depend on numbers and poll percentages. Opposition leaders, apart from abandoning their big egos and over-estimation of their respective electoral strength, will have to evolve a common minimum agenda and a vision that can capture the popular imagination, particularly of the younger generations, to succeed.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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