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Why Prashant Kishor’s lunch meet is giving Modi rivals a taste of 2024

An anti-BJP Mahagathbandhan minus Congress for 2024 isn’t a bad idea. But a pre-poll umbrella of parties with influence over 300 seats can be a formidable entity, theoretically.

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What is Prashant Kishor up to? The poll strategist’s meeting with Sharad Pawar in Mumbai Friday has set political circles abuzz.

Kishor has already declared he is “quitting this space (election management)” and doesn’t want to do this “any longer”. His three-hour-long meeting at Silver Oak, Pawar’s residence, was obviously not about any poll management. The next assembly election in Maharashtra is three years away anyway.

Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leaders and Kishor described it as a “private meet”, a part of his “good will” tour to thank those who supported Mamata Banerjee in her fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the West Bengal election. “Don’t read too much politics in it,” said Supriya Sule, NCP leader and Pawar’s daughter who was at Silver Oak during the meeting.

Few politicians are ready to buy it though. When Pawar, a widely acknowledged ‘prime ministerial material’, meets the most celebrated poll strategist today, it’s bound to trigger talks about “much politics”. Speculation about a mahagathbandhan or grand alliance of opposition parties for the 2024 Lok Sabha election may not be totally misplaced. And not just because it’s the only hope Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s detractors have, given how the Congress on its own looks incapable of dislodging him from power. Thanks to an overbearing Centre and the BJP’s expansionist agenda, non-BJP governments in states and regional parties are increasingly rallying around one another to take on the saffron party. Prashant Kishor is perfectly placed to bring them together under one umbrella.

He has been instrumental, in varying degrees, to bring them to power—Nitish Kumar in Bihar in 2015, Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu, Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Of all these, Bengal election was his toughest test, with the BJP breathing fire. Kishor was the architect of the first successful anti-BJP mahagathbandhan—in Bihar in 2015. If he could bring together Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar, friends-turned-bitter foes, then, he is certainly the right man to build a similar umbrella at the national level.

But it’s easier said than done.

Also read: Sharad Pawar meets Prashant Kishor, fuels talks of an anti-BJP alliance for 2024 polls

Let’s do the maths

Although Prashant Kishor still enjoys a good rapport with the Gandhis, the Congress, which was a part of the Bihar mahagathbandhan, remains the biggest hurdle to such an all-encompassing anti-BJP platform in 2024. But before we come to this hurdle, let’s see if such a non-Congress alliance should worry Modi and Amit Shah.

As it is, there are 19 states and five union territories, with 204 Lok Sabha seats, where the Congress is either the ruling or the principal opposition party and wouldn’t share any seat with any opposition alliance. They include the eight northeastern states with 25 seats. The remaining 179 seats are spread over Madhya Pradesh (29), Karnataka (28), Gujarat (26), Rajasthan (25), Kerala (20), Punjab (13), Chhattisgarh (11), Haryana (10), Uttarakhand (5), Himachal Pradesh (4), Goa (2), Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu (2), Andaman and Nicobar Islands (1), Chandigarh (1), Ladakh (1) and Puducherry (1). They also happen to be the seats where regional parties that are not aligned with either national party are absent or insignificant, except in the case of the JD(S) in south Karnataka.

So, a mahagathbandhan minus Congress has to be centred on 339 seats (543-204). On a few of them—say, in states like Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu—the Congress may have marginal presence but let’s count them out for the purpose of convenience. Anyway, the Congress is largely at the mercy of its regional allies on these seats.

Also read: Bengal has stopped BJP’s Ashvamedha yagna — and given India an opportunity

Let’s deduct five Lok Sabha seats of Jammu & Kashmir from this tally. With regional parties in J&K raising the demand for restoration of special status (Article 370), mahagathbandhan architects may like to maintain an arm’s length from them. That brings the mahagathbandhan’s stakes down to 334 seats.

Let’s also deduct 21 seats of Odisha, given how CM Naveen Patnaik shows no inclination of taking on the ruling party at the Centre despite the latter becoming the principal political threat in the state.

We can lock it at 313 seats (334-21), even though it includes some fence-sitters. Andhra CM Jagan Mohan Reddy, despite his friendship with Prashant Kishor, is unlikely to join an anti-BJP alliance. Central investigation agencies continue to investigate cases against him. But the grand alliance strategists may hope against hope for a dramatic surge in Chandrababu Naidu’s popularity.

A mahagathbandhan minus Congress with strong claims on 313 seats isn’t a bad proposition. It may be a travesty of an alliance, one may argue, given that these regional players have little electoral appeal outside their home states. But a pre-poll umbrella of parties commanding influence over 300-odd seats can be a formidable entity, theoretically. A Pawar, a Mamata Banerjee or even a Nitish Kumar (never rule him out) would certainly spice up the polls, no matter the outcome.

Also read: Where is the opposition in Modi’s India? It is here and finally with a face

What about the Congress?

The common refrain against the concept of such a grand opposition alliance is the presence of too many prime ministerial aspirants. Prashant Kishor prefers to go with a face in an election. Remember his unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Gandhis to project Priyanka Vadra as the chief ministerial face in the 2017 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh? Trust him to get a face if he sets out to forge this mahagathbandhan.

Where does it leave the Congress? The Gandhis may scoff at the idea of a grand alliance without the Congress, which gets around 20 per cent votes even in its debacles in the Lok Sabha election. Consider this hypothetical scenario though: The pre-poll mahagathbandhan wins 150-175 of these 300-odd seats and the Congress struggles to reach a three-digit figure. This hypothesis must tickle die-hard optimists in the opposition camp although the very suggestion of a fractured verdict must infuriate BJP leaders and sympathisers.

How the Congress would react to any initiative for a grand opposition alliance would depend on the results of assembly elections ahead of the grand finale in 2024. Sixteen states will go to polls from February-March 2022 to December 2023. The Congress is a major player in all except Uttar Pradesh and Telangana. If the party gets back to its winning ways, especially in the last round of assembly polls in November-December 2023—in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—the swagger will be back. And so will be its ambitions to regain its numero uno position in Indian politics; that would mean no compromise with regional parties. But if the Congress receives drubbings in these polls, the party may become pragmatic and let regional parties have a say in those 300-odd seats. Such an understanding would be implicit, of course. Formally being part of a grand alliance without Rahul Gandhi as its PM candidate is a no-go for the Congress. And the idea of the former Congress president becoming the face is repugnant to many regional leaders.

It will take many more luncheon meetings to sort out these complex issues. ‘Modi vs Who’ is the question mahagathbandhan-wadis can’t wish away. Until they have an answer, the grand alliance remains a mere idea for Modi’s rivals to relish and cherish.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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