If there is to be a successful turnaround for India’s Opposition, people will look back and point to the moment when Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah attempted to drive a nail into the Congress coffin in 2017, hoping to keep senior leader Ahmed Patel out of the Rajya Sabha. It was an unnecessary effort in the larger scheme of things – one extra Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament would not have mattered either way to the BJP – but it offered an opportunity to send the message that the saffron party’s clarion call of ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, a Congress-free India, was being implemented in full.

One does not say this often about Amit Shah, but in this case, he overreached ever so slightly. Patel, more through fortune than tactics, came away the winner in that fight, and gave a major boost to the Congress hopes in Gujarat. The Congress, and the Opposition in general, has not exactly had a whale of a time since: the BJP won in Gujarat in December 2017, albeit after its worst performance in years, and then proceeded to expand its footprint across the North-East.

But the success of a Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party alliance in two Lok Sabha bypolls in Uttar Pradesh gave the Opposition a boost, especially since those were the seats vacated by the UP chief minister and deputy chief minister. If the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress manage to come to power in Karnataka, that will give the Opposition hope that the worst may be behind them. Arresting the BJP advance in the south, that too after the saffron party managed to be the single-largest party in the results, would send the message that the Opposition isn’t just relying on anti-incumbency, it is also learning from its opponents.

Karnataka efforts

The efforts of Opposition units outside Karnataka gave an indication of this on Thursday. While the Congress High Command was focused on the Supreme Court battle and the Karnataka unit was trying to keep its flock together, the party in Goa and Manipur decided to use the BJP’s own logic against it, and insist that it ought to be given a chance to form government as the single-largest party. In both of those states, the BJP ended up forming government despite the Congress getting more seats. In Bihar, where a pre-poll alliance was split by the BJP so it could come to power, the Rashtriya Janata Dal did the same, telling the Governor it should be in charge.

Both of these moves are symbolic. If the parties actually wanted to make this argument, they would do so by moving a no-confidence motion on the floor of the assembly. (Although, as some on Twitter pointed, the BJP has been afraid of those too, not allowing one to be debated in Parliament despite many parties demanding it). But it reflects a level of energy, not just online, that has often been lacking in efforts to take on the BJP. Here is the Opposition taking advantage of a narrative in one state to earn headlines and force the BJP to respond elsewhere.

Just like you could cherry pick events from the last few months – Gujarat and UP bypolls, ignore the North East – to build a positive storyline for the Opposition, so too could you argue that Karnataka is a good sign, even with the BJP coming in as single-largest party. This turn of events has actually forced the Congress to re-look at its go-it-alone approach, and prompted the Opposition from all over the country to push for an alliance that gives as much weight to regional parties. And of course, there is no substitute for being in charge of a large state, especially in the run-up to General Elections expected next year, an advantage the Congress would not have if it cannot prevail in Karnataka.

Floor test

What happens to this narrative if the Opposition does not get its way during the floor test tomorrow? There are three ways the vote could go:

  • BJP wins the floor test. However the party manages it, this would be a big blow to the Opposition since it requires some cooperation from a few Congress or JD(S) members.
  • BJP loses the floor test. If order is maintained and votes confirm the BJP does not have the numbers, Yeddyurappa will be expected to resign, and the JD(S)-Congress combine will eventually be given an opportunity to run the state based on another floor test.
  • Voting leads to ruckus and a delay: If calm is not maintained, presumably by a side that thinks it will not win, and if it is unclear how many are cross voting for whom, the Speaker – or the Pro-Tem Speaker in this case – may very well be unable to control the members, and so adjourn the session for another date. This would inevitably give the BJP more time to engineer more defections, as it was initially hoping for. An unlikely, exaggerated version of this outcome is for the ruckus to be used as a pretext for President’s Rule, as happened after a confidence vote in Gujarat in 1996, when JD(S) founder Deve Gowda was prime minister.

The first option would be the most disastrous for the Opposition, for obvious reasons. The second would be most positive. The third would be harder to judge. From one angle, it would be preferable for the BJP, since it gives the party more time to manoeuvre in the hopes of bringing MLAs onto its side, and potentially keep the Opposition out. But it might also attract an adverse reaction from the Supreme Court, as well as from the public at large, giving credence to Opposition arguments about authoritarianism.

As it stands, the odds remain stacked against the Opposition. Yet they are better than where things stood before the Congress and the JD(S) had gone to court and reduced the timeline for the floor test by 14 days. The BJP, meanwhile, is scrambling to manage as many defections from the other two parties before the floor test as possible.

If the saffron party pulls it off, this brief period – like Ahmed Patel’s Rajya Sabha victory – will be seen as a temporary blip at a time when the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine still seems ahead of any competitor by a mile. Failure would, however, give the Opposition a proper inflection point. First Ahmed Patel, then bye-polls and then an actual electoral victory would put wind in the sails of Modi’s many detractors in the run-up to General Elections due in 2019.