Supporters of India's main opposition Congress party attend a public rally by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March), in Panipat, India, Jan 6, 2023. (PHOTO / REUTERS)
NEW DELHI – Leaders of 15 Indian opposition parties agreed on Friday to fight the 2024 national elections on a common platform against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The parties, many of which are regional rivals and have been splintered at the national level, account for less than half the 301 seats the BJP has in the 542-member lower house of parliament.
They have however sought to sink their differences to challenge BJP after Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party, was convicted in a defamation case and disqualified from parliament in March.
Their campaign got a shot in the arm in May when Congress trounced BJP in a key state election, exceeding expectations and gaining fresh momentum ahead of more state elections due this year and national elections in April-May 2024.
Everyone has agreed that we will all work together in the interest of the country.
Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister, Bihar
Although Modi remains popular and is widely expected to win a third term without much difficulty, opposition leaders say a joint campaign and straight, one-on-one constituency contests against BJP could turn the tables.
Friday's meeting in the eastern city of Patna was called to discuss plans for such a campaign.
"Everyone has agreed that we will all work together in the interest of the country," Nitish Kumar, chief minister of the eastern state of Bihar, of which Patna is the capital, told reporters.
"There is agreement to go together, there has been agreement to fight the elections together," said Kumar, who hosted the meeting, adding that a second meeting would be held next month to seal Friday's discussions.
Gandhi said the fight against BJP was an "ideological battle" and opposition parties were united in it.
"There certainly will be some differences among us but we have decided we will work together, work with flexibility," Gandhi said.
India's opposition parties have formed alliances to challenge governments – led by both Congress and BJP – in the past and win elections but have a mixed record of sticking together and running governments smoothly.
An indication of that fractiousness was visible on Friday when Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which rules the northern state of Punjab and the capital territory of Delhi, stayed away from Friday's opposition news conference after participating in the meeting of leaders.
In this March 30, 2023 photo, activists and supporters of India's Congress party take part in a protest against the central government after conviction of Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi in a criminal defamation case, in Amritsar. (PHOTO / AFP)
AAP said in a statement that it would be difficult for it to be part of an alliance with Congress if Congress did not support AAP against a move by Modi's federal government to curb AAP's powers in Delhi.
AAP and Congress are fierce rivals in Delhi and Punjab.
BJP leaders said they were not worried as there was little hope for such alliances.
Amit Shah, the federal home minister and the powerful number two in BJP, called the Patna meeting a "photo session".
"I want to tell leaders of the opposition, join as many hands as you want but opposition unity is not possible. And even if it becomes possible, BJP will win more than 300 seats under Modi-ji’s leadership," he said, using a honorific for Modi.