The “BJP bhagao, desh bachao” rally organised by the RJD in Patna on Sunday confirmed the organisational prowess of Lalu Prasad and the RJD’s loyal vote base in Bihar, but it fell short of presenting a national platform for parties ranged against the BJP. The Gandhis, Mayawati and the CPM skipped the meeting that was attended by leaders of 18 parties, including Mamata Banerjee, from across the country. The spotlight, however, was on Lalu and sons. The congregation failed to rise beyond a conclave of regional leaders who had come together to offer support to a beleaguered Lalu.
Since the 1980s, regional parties have been influential in building national alternatives to the dominant party at the Centre. But at the core of these coalitions has been a party with a national presence. The anti-Congress National Front in the late 1980s was conceived as a federal platform for many regional parties, including the TDP, which was a key player, but the Janata Dal, which had pockets of influence across India, was the pivotal force. When the United Front was formed in the 1990s, the Janata Dal, though a diminished party now, once again provided the thrust. Since then, as the Congress and BJP have firmed up national coalitions — the UPA and the NDA — while the Janata parivar has disintegrated into scattered regional groups, and the communists, now limited to Kerala and Tripura, have been reduced to bit players. The shrinking of the Congress since its debilitating defeat in the 2014 general election has left the BJP’s Opposition without a core. With no clear leader or driving force, the Opposition has been pursuing a politics that is at best reactive to the BJP’s agendas.
The regional outfits are beset with their own problems and crises, with many of them burdened by charges of corruption and promotion of dynasty politics. Moreover, the BJP has been strategic in appropriating agendas formally identified with the Congress and erstwhile Janata formations. Old binaries like Mandal vs Kamandal, regional vs Centre and secular vs communal are less effective against the BJP because the party has smartly diffused these — by offering a mega narrative that simultaneously invokes nationalist, communal and class identities. Not only has the BJP been expanding its footprint and social base, it has also been collecting regional parties as allies. The Opposition will need both a core and an overarching narrative to challenge the BJP. Neither an acknowledgement of its formidable challenge, nor the will to meet it, was to be spotted on-stage in Patna on Sunday.