“Abki baar, pata nahin kiski sarkar” (wonder who will form the next government), runs a recent newspaper headline. It reminds of the 2014 campaign slogan, “abki baar Modi sarkar,” a Narendra Modi-led government. It worked then – will it repeat?
The headline underscores vastly different situation as Modi, still towering over opponents but no longer invincible, prepares to seek a fresh mandate in elections scheduled next April-May.
It carries an unstated message of the possibility of a ‘hung’ Lok Sabha with majority for none and a government without one of the two national parties, Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, even both — and that has happened before.
When that happened two decades back, a dozen disparate parties glued together by power in a unique situation where national parties, short of numbers, were forced to sit out and to support the coalition, keeping one foot in the corridors of power.
Like it or not, such prospects can repeat in a diverse India with 29 states and union territories and 800 million voters that make the world’s largest democracy unique.
Although recent statistics maintain that economic progress is faster under such governments, prospects of a “third front” victory scare the urban middle class and the India Inc. Both want stability that they see coming from the two major parties. The largely-corporate owned media plays on this fear. But an unpredictable electorate in many states has gone beyond the two main parties, preferring those representing regional aspirations, even electing them to parliament.
Numbers’ game dominated Indian political scene last century-end and the first new decade. The Vajpayee Government had to resign, once after only 13 days in office and again, in 2004, when the Congress Party beat its rivals with just a score of seats more.
India has seen coalition governments, of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Although enjoying majority support of its own, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heads the NDA. Coalitions are inevitable in politics.
Both UPA and NDA have lasted because their constituent parties are broadly similar in ideology and policies, and are, therefore, able to reach common ground on key issues. But that does not stop their switching sides.
More importantly, nobody in the alliances feels unduly threatened by another. For instance, two of Congress-led UPA’s biggest constituents Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), didn’t feel threatened by Congress, a bit player in both Tamil Nadu and Bihar.
It was similar for NDA — till 2014. The BJP has since unleashed the modern-day equivalent of Rajasuya, an unceasing campaign to wrest control of the whole country, seeking to demolish the state level and regional parties.
Whether this unitary approach can work in a vast and diverse polity remains doubtful. What is not in doubt, however, is scare among the smaller parties of being sidelined and eventually vanquished.
Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Navin Patnaik in Orissa and Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh feel threatened by the Modi-Amit Shah led BJP juggernaut. Many others dread losing support base to the BJP that wields power at federal level and in most states and has resources that go with it.
Even if senior in the state, they fear being diminished tomorrow. A case in point is the Shiv Sena-BJP ties in Maharshtra. The BJP played a bigger role in the Lok Sabha polls, while Sena got lion’s share of the assembly seats. This changed in 2017, after BJP realised that it could do better on its own. Equations between the two have changed significantly despite close ideological affinity. In the same alliance, they have uneasy, even acrimonious, relationship.
In Bihar, Nitish Kumar has aligned and opposed the BJP four times. He broke the alliance to oppose Modi in 2013 and was instrumental in the ‘mahagathbandhan’ (grand alliance) victory in 2015, trouncing the BJP. But he switched sides last year. He fears being marginalized yet again, before or after parliamentary polls or the assembly polls due in 2020. He is rumored to be preparing to again quit the NDA.
Such flip-flops, trading in high-sounding terms like democracy, socialism, secularism et al characterise Indian politics since 1967. More are likely in months to come.
Without doubt, Modi will lead the BJP/NDA. That explains the efforts at forming an opposition alliance. Given numerous and complex ifs and buts, one or more formations could emerge, whose common target will be Modi.
Make-or-break urgency will prompt such formation(s) since every election marks watershed for a politician and/or the party. Many fear falling by the way side.
Age factor kicks in for Samajwadi patriarch Mulayam Sinh Yadav whose party lost power in Uttar Pradesh last year. Another oldie, former prime minister H D Deve Gowda has bounced back to national prominence after his son became the Karnataka chief minister.
Headed by Mulayam’s son Akhilesh, Samajwadi Party has regained relevance in UP by aligning with Maawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Losers of the last two polls, they have aligned tactically to trounce the BJP in some key by-polls.
Next, they have agreed not to poach on each other’s leaders and cadres – a normal phenomenon in India. Now, their more difficult task is sharing of seats to effectively transfer votes in their fight for survival against the BJP onslaught.
Congress needs this fight the most. It took over three years, when it lost more states, to shed inertia, before a reticent Rahul Gandhi assumed its leadership. Today, it is a bit player in key states like UP, Bihar and West Bengal. It must fight back in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where assembly elections are due, to survive as a national party.
But the Congress needs to shed its ‘national’ aura and ambitions to join the alliance-making efforts. It fought coalitions in the past and brought down many a government; now it must join one. While Rahul is politically ‘junior’, his mother and past president Sonia is respected across parties and is good at it. The winning coalition gambit in 2004 was her doing.
Senior Congress leaders privately talk of ‘anchoring’ an alliance without leading it. They want to ride piggyback on Lalu in Bihar and Akhilesh and Mayawati in UP from where Sonia and Rahul contest.
In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, Congress and BSP may talk to each other, while in Gujarat and Maharashtra, Congress wants to keep Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) on its side.
There are problems that cannot be wished away. Many regional parties want an anti-BJP alliance, but not with Congress in it.
Potential members of such an alliance have identical vote banks — minorities and depressed classes. Coming together may help them win more seats. But BJP could thwart them — like Indira Gandhi had done in 1971 — considering vote transfers among new allies don’t occur in a linear fashion every time.
Most regional satraps nurse national ambitions that could impede alliance-making. Mayawati would have to surrender hers if she decides to go with Congress in MP and Chhattisgarh.
Will Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), competing for political space in the national capital, tie up in Delhi? Ditto with Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and Congress in Telangana. The list, like competing ambitions, is endless.
In UP, electorally the most vital state, the power to defeat Modi lies in the hands of Mayawati and Akhilesh. If their alliance stays intact till the next general election, the BJP could lose many of the 73 parliamentary seats that it won in 2014. And that could thwart a BJP majority in 2019.
There are pitfalls in a Modi-versus-the-rest contest. “Modi hatao”, cannot be a slogan on which the people can be moved. The “Indira hatao” slogan of 1971 had failed.
Finally, who will bell the cat?
The Left that formed the nucleus of alliance-making efforts, gathering people and ideas, even working out common minimum programme in the past, has thoroughly weakened. Its largest party, the CPI (Marxist), opposes the BJP, but is deeply divided on any alliance with the Congress.
Weakened, Congress and the Left leave the field open to regional and caste-based parties that do not always think nationally. Their “third front” is less likely to succeed against Modi’s ‘nationalist’ rhetoric on need for political stability to ensure stable economic development.
(The author can be contacted at email@example.com)