The photograph of leaders of different political parties, now being called “the Opposition”, on one stage in Bengaluru has undoubtedly given rise to a variety of emotions, ranging from euphoria to disgust, and indifference in between. However, it was clearly a unique event in recent history. People who otherwise refused to be even seen with each other were smiling and holding hands. In terms of electoral results, it is the Congress that can provide the national glue for what is certain to be a state-by-state alliance. As the recent byelections to the Lok Sabha and vidhan sabhas have shown, different parties are testing out how alliances will work at the booth level and if the electoral ethics can be worked out on the ground. Going by the results in different constituencies, the rehearsals are going as “the Opposition” would hope.
The BJP’s reaction is predictable, calling this alliance unprincipled and focused on “Modi hatao”, among other things. Of course, there is no point in recalling that the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which morphed into the present BJP, was a key part of what was termed an opportunistic and unprincipled alliance by Congress for the “Indira hatao” agenda since the mid-Seventies. This agenda had hidden inside it many other motives that eventually came to the fore as the members and social forces of that alliance fought each other to carve out their own space. Only the BJP, among these forces, could create an all-India presence. It today holds office at the Centre under the Modi-Shah dispensation, supported by the RSS and a favourable fragmentation of the Opposition. In 2014, the BJP secured 31 per cent of the popular vote and 282 seats out of 545 in the Lok Sabha. This could be compared with Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress winning 197 out of 545 seats in 1989, with a popular vote of nearly 40 per cent. Even lay people know that splintering of votes plays an equally important role in the outcome of elections as does the positive projection of a leader and party.
So, logic would suggest that the Opposition would unite against the Modi-Shah juggernaut. That it is actually coming together is still somewhat surprising. But going back into Indian electoral history, Indira Gandhi showed, on more than one occasion, that she could defeat a united opposition with an appeal to the masses over the heads of her own party machinery because the opposition agenda was not convincing. So, the danger remains that the prime minister, who dominates the media and is popular among the articulate urban middle and upper classes, could sink the new alliance entirely if the latter is shown to be bereft of coherent plans or ideas. While a negative campaign will consolidate traditional votes, whether it will be enough to tip the scales is difficult to say because purchasing of local leaders and their mini vote banks is an altogether familiar exercise.
There are some parallels between the creation of UPA I in 2004 against a barrage of India Shining propaganda and the possibility of a new alliance for 2019. As in 2004, regional alliances going into the election, followed by a post-election national alliance, is likely to be the most viable strategy. The Congress will probably be the national glue for this alliance, as it was under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership in 2004. But to play this part, it may have to accept being a junior partner in different states as it seems to be willing to do.
In the northern states, the coming together of the BSP, SP, RJD and Congress is quite interesting. Of these four, only the BSP is a truly non-Congress outfit. The lineage of SP and RJD can be traced back to the formation of the Congress Socialist Party group within the Congress in 1934. In those days, communists, socialists and many hues of thoughts and interests co-existed in a broad democratic alliance called Congress against the British empire. This alliance broke down progressively as representation in elected bodies became important for each group post-Independence.
Of the Congress Socialist Party founders, Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia have remained prominent, thanks to their heirs who became regionally powerful after the JP movement of the mid-Seventies. Hatred for the Nehru-Gandhi family, the regional ambitions of newly-awakened caste groups and the individual ambitions of their leaders at various rungs of society played a part in the electoral decimation of the Congress. If for the moment we assume that the Congress is willing to accept a junior role in these states, the hatred of the Nehru-Gandhi family would even transform into love. Those who have always accused the family of being hungry for power, I feel, are in for surprise in the coming year. The fact that Sonia Gandhi did not claim prime ministership and handed over the reigns to Manmohan Singh was turned into propaganda about a government under “remote control”. But as the Gujarat and Karnataka elections have shown, the Congress leadership is in a different mood. This mood, which could be very disarming, should worry their opponents more than the Bengaluru picture.
Of course, the politics of UP and Bihar is bound to impact Rajasthan and MP, where it is reported that the Congress is succeeding in putting its house in order. In these states, the Congress is clearly the senior partner by far but the completely non-Congress BSP is willing to join it in an alliance.
In contrast to these alliances, the politics of Maharashtra is interesting. Unlike the BSP that has non-Congress origins and the RJD, RLD and SP, which have roots in the pre-70s Congress, the NCP’s leader, Sharad Pawar, is a hardcore Congressperson. The Congress and NCP do not trust each other in electoral politics but Congress supporters may have a secret wish to go into the 2019 battle with Pawar as their leader. In fact, there is every reason to expect the NCP to merge with Congress for the simple reason that it is much more of a natural ally for Congress than any of the others.
The main problem with the new alliance, which is still not being dubbed UPA III, is that it will remain patchy unless the quantity of partners changes into some political quality. To say, “let bygones be bygones” is difficult enough, leave alone actually practising the idea in politics. The byelections have shown that booth-level alliances can work but more is needed. It appears that while trying to create a Congress-mukt Bharat, the BJP has succeeded in bringing together all the centrist forces with their origins in the Congress. In fact, if one so chooses to do so, one can look at the alliance as the start of a new Congress. This could be the time to start building it.