Our political history tells us this has never worked.
A united Opposition does work in some specific, limited, situations, especially in the states.
But never as some brilliant pan-national collection of diverse interests with no ideological or political core, asserts Shekhar Gupta.
Whenever a majority government is so firmly entrenched in power that it seems improbable for one challenger to defeat it, the idea of 'Opposition unity' returns.
We need to explain why this is a bogus, defeatist, and repeatedly failed idea.
Why this often ends up helping a well-settled incumbent.
And why this is the political equivalent of selling snake oil.
The Opposition is rehashing the same failed idea today, with just a year to go before the first votes are cast for the general election in 2024. We can understand where they are coming from.
Read their lips: We have the right to seek power. None of us has the weight to defeat Narendra Modi.
We have to do something. We can't just sit at home waiting for another five years on depleting Opposition benches.
Mujhe kuchh karna hai (I must do something, after all) is a laudable sentiment.
But must it be what's been done multiple times before, with the same dismal results?
The essential flaw in this tired and lazy idea is the belief that you can defeat a powerful leader and their party with arithmetic.
That is, if one party or leader could not defeat the incumbent, why not get all together?
After all, nobody, whatever the majority, gets more than 50 per cent of all the votes in India.
While the copyright on the argument that in elections chemistry matters more than arithmetic remains with the late Arun Jaitley, we can expand it to argue that electoral politics isn't about arithmetic plus chemistry either.
There is also psychology, the rise of the transactional, what's-in-it-for-me voter, some philosophy and, to be sure, pathology.
You will need a convincing mix of all these to persuade a comfortable voter to change sides.
Then you imagine Rahul Gandhi (or Mallikarjun Kharge), Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray, Arvind Kejriwal, M K Stalin, K. Chandrashekar Rao, Pinarayi Vijayan, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, Nitish Kumar, Hemant Soren, Tejashwi Yadav, Naveen Patnaik and Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy on the same stage.
All of them, added up, will make formidable arithmetic.
Then you run into three big problems. First, there is no way you can see them all together in one alliance against the Bharatiya Janata Party in the foreseeable future.
Second, too many of them can unite nationally (most regional parties, for example), but many have rivalries with the Congress in their home states.
Third and most important, there is no common philosophical or ideological thread to bind them.
Once you take out Patnaik and Jagan, who today see no particular need to fight the BJP for the Lok Sabha, your arithmetic depletes anyway.
Next, you can list those who cannot go with each other.
Akhilesh and Mayawati, for example.
Then you have odd combinations where the Opposition parties are also rivals in important states.
The Congress with AAP everywhere and with KCR in Telangana.
Then, the contradictions like Congress and the Left. Ideologically, the two are closer than they have ever been since 1969 when Indira Gandhi's minority government survived on votes from the Communist Party of India, kept in line by her well-wishers in the Kremlin.
They fought the Tripura assembly election in an alliance just this February, and in West Bengal earlier.
Rahul Gandhi's language on political economy is the closest his party's has been to the Left's since 1991.
At the same time, they are locked in perpetual combat in Kerala. Even in the unlikely event that they might divide seats to contest in Kerala, it won't convince many Left voters to vote for the Congress to keep Modi out.
The third is the lack of a common ideology and message.
In its absence, the voter is shrewd enough to see through an alliance of convenience, of people with diverse and often conflicting interests coming together to evict just the guy they overwhelmingly voted for twice.
The rest, as Indira Gandhi first demonstrated in 1971, is easy: 'They say remove Indira, but Indiraji says remove poverty (woh kehte hain Indira hatao, Indira ji kehti hain garibi hatao).
You make a choice. We know what that choice was. It won't be any different this time.
Our political history tells us this has never worked.
A united Opposition does work in some specific, limited situations, especially in the states.
But never as some brilliant pan-national collection of diverse interests with no ideological or political core.
The first real effort for Opposition unity was made in 1967.
India was going through grave economic and social hardship, coming out of two wars (1962, China and 1965, Pakistan), two consecutive, crippling droughts, and the deaths of two successive prime ministers (Nehru and Shastri) while in office.
Indira Gandhi, inexperienced as prime minister and still in her forties, looked beatable in India's first post-Nehru election.
She won a small majority, but many Opposition parties won enough seats to deny her power in several key states.
It is here that they got together in single-point (keep the Congress out) state-level alliances in a loose arrangement then described as the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD, United Legislators' Party).
The SVD state governments, however, had a short shelf life but set the template for Opposition unity for times to come.
If people come together only to keep somebody out of power, they do not stay together. Indira Gandhi rode this sentiment in 1971.
Was the post-Emergency 1977 election an exception?
Time spent together in Indira Gandhi's jails had brought Opposition leaders a sense of unity and they had much time to debate why their arithmetic had failed in 1967.
That's why they now coalesced their own ideological and political identities into one, the Janata Party.
But once in power, contradictions of ideology, personal ambition, and multiple inbuilt pathologies led to its break-up in just over two years.
From 1989 to 2014, we could say that India entered an era of coalitions, though Narasimha Rao's minority Congress government (1991-1996) only needed some votes from outside.
The rest were true multi-party coalitions. Of these two, V P Singh and Chandra Shekhar's lasted less than two years between them.
The biggest Opposition parties, the BJP and the Congress, backed these governments by turn only to deny each other power.
If this was Opposition unity, it was a very bad advertisement for the idea.
Two other coalitions, the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, ruled for 16 years between them.
But these weren't examples of Opposition unity?
Three key factors must be noted. One, each had one of the two biggest parties at its core and there was no doubt as to who was going to get the prime ministership.
Second, the party at the core was already getting 100-plus Lok Sabha seats.
And third, none of these was fighting a powerful, popular and full majority government.
Unlike 1996-2014, today's politics isn't a tussle between rival coalitions.
We are back to an Indira Gandhi-like era.
Even the talk of a single-point Opposition coalition to oust Narendra Modi will work entirely to his benefit: 'Woh kehte hain Modi hatao, Modi ji kehte hain Bharat ko Vishwaguru banao' (they say remove Modi, Modiji says make India a global power). We can call that election now.
It is a perfectly legitimate ambition on the part of the Opposition to defeat the incumbent. For that, however, they need three things: A leader, an idea and an ideology.
If they can't have these, then the only way ahead for them is to build state-level, conflict-free alliances to try and limit the BJP's numbers.
Talk and plans of grand alliances will be a case of unity in futility. It will help Modi. Like Indira Gandhi in 1971.
By special arrangement with The Print