Opinion: I.N.D.I.A. Alliance Looks Like 2019's UPA

The opposition I.N.D.I.A. bloc is facing internal turmoil, gradually unraveling. TMC leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has adopted an "ekla chalo re" approach in West Bengal, distancing herself from the alliance. The AAP has decided to go solo in Punjab, ending months of indecisive dialogue with the Congress. Nitish Kumar, once a strong contender for the position of I.N.D.I.A. Convenor, has gone back to the NDA fold yet again. Even the Shiv Sena (UBT) is demanding 23 seats in Maharashtra, despite facing a split within its ranks. Meanwhile, talks between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party have hit some sort roadblock in Uttar Pradesh, with the Congress demanding 20 seats while Akhilesh Yadav has offered 11 seats.

These developments will likely impact the outcome in Bihar, Punjab, West Bengal, UP, and Maharashtra, where the opposition's hopes were pinned to make inroads into the BJP's vote share and its tally of 303 seats. These states collectively account for 223 seats, with the BJP having won more than half (122) in 2019, constituting 41% of the Lok Sabha's strength.

The TMC, which initially agreed to concede only 2 out of 42 seats to the Congress in West Bengal, has now decided to contest all 42 seats independently. Had Congress and TMC formed an alliance in 2019, TMC might have secured 6 more seats than its actual tally of 22, and the BJP's count would have been reduced by 6 seats. This shift is a setback to the prospects of the I.N.D.I.A. bloc in West Bengal.

In Punjab, the AAP and the Congress will likely contest on 13 seats. Any alliance was never on the table here, given that the AAP had defeated the Congress in the 2022 state elections, and a significant portion of its vote share is anti-Congress. Had they joined forces, it could have pushed anti-Congress voters towards the Akalis or the BJP.

In Bihar, Nitish Kumar has abandoned the RJD-Left-Congress alliance to rejoin the NDA. This move strengthens the NDA's position in the state, which it swept in 2019 by winning 39 of the 40 seats. Without Nitish, the NDA's tally would have likely dwindled in the face of a combined opposition consisting of JDU, RJD, INC, and Left Parties.

In Maharashtra, the Congress contested 25 seats, and the NCP contested 19, leaving 4 seats for smaller parties. However, complications have arisen with the involvement of a Shiv Sena faction in seat-sharing negotiations. With 13 of its 18 MPs now under Eknath Shinde's leadership, the Shiv Sena Uddhav faction's status has diminished. Despite this, it is demanding 23 seats, the same number it used to contest with the BJP as part of an alliance. Additionally, the NCP has experienced a split, increasing the Congress party's bargaining power within the MVA in the state, though negotiations with the Uddhav Sena faction have yielded very little.

In UP, the SP has allotted 7 seats to the RLD, while the Congress is demanding 20 seats. In 2014, when all opposition parties contested separately. The Congress won 2 seats and was the runner-up in 6, indicating its standalone strength.

The I.N.D.I.A. bloc, formed with much fanfare six months ago, saw 26 opposition parties unite to challenge the BJP in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The UPA was rebranded as I.N.D.I.A. in the July meeting of opposition parties. The UPA originally included parties like the RJD, DMK, JMM, NCP, and the IUML. It gained strength with the addition of the JD(U), Shiv Sena (Uddhav faction), TMC, SP, and the AAP, broadening its base and reach.

Initially, the I.N.D.I.A. bloc generated optimism among opposition supporters, with many commentators and experts predicting a strong challenge to the BJP-led NDA in the upcoming general elections scheduled for April-May. The alliance garnered media attention and seemed to set the agenda in the initial months, up until mid-September.

However, the Congress shifted its focus to state elections after the initial trends suggested it might win three out of the five states. This gave the Congress a false sense of confidence, and it hoped to leverage these victories as a bargaining chip against regional parties. However, when the election results came in, with the Congress winning just one state, Telangana, out of the five, it backtracked. By then, the allies were growing increasingly discontent with Congress's attitude, sowing the seeds of discord.

In 2019, the Congress had contested 422 seats. Regional forces, including the TMC, had requested the grand old party to contest 300 seats, meaning they wanted the Congress to contest fewer seats in UP and West Bengal, among others. With Bengal and Punjab now out of consideration, all eyes are on UP. If an alliance there does not materialize, which seems likely at this point, the I.N.D.I.A. bloc may effectively become defunct.

In such a scenario, the alliance would revert to the old UPA, which was already in place in 2019 in states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, accounting for just 161 seats (30% of the Lok Sabha's strength).

The I.N.D.I.A. bloc currently appears to be in complete disarray, and with the highly charged emotional atmosphere in the country following the inauguration of the Ram Mandir, the BJP seems to hold a significant advantage at this moment.

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar, he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.