Besides Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unsurprising dismissal of the impressive mega opposition rally that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee put up in Kolkata on Saturday, there’s widespread concern about the post-poll stability of the “Mahagatbandhan” given the number of parties involved and the ambitions of their leaders.
The rainbow alliance of 23 parties that saw 25 powerful political leaders from across the country joining hands to declare their war against Modi and the BJP in the 2019 elections indeed looked promising. But it also revived the memories of post-emergency coalition against Indira Gandhi in 1977 that ended up as just a flash in the pan.
Political observers are justifiably cynical because once again the uniting common minimum programme is a menacing rival who they find as a threat to Indian democracy and constitution.
What will happen once the threat is removed? That was the two-year life-story of the Janata government that dislodged, shamed and even jailed Indira Gandhi.
However, the more imminent problem is not the stability of the alliance after the elections — that too if at all they will be able to defeat the BJP and keep the Modi-Amit Shah duo out of power — but how exactly they will roll out the grand-alliance.
If the alliance, which promisingly doesn’t have a pan-Indian national character and will be led mostly by regional parties or national parties with regional pockets of influence, has to work, it has to field a single candidate against the BJP in every constituency. That’s what Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who was sent by Congress president Rahul Gandhi to Mamata’s rally, also seemed to suggest. The BJP has been a beneficiary of both a communally polarised electorate and multi-cornered contests resulting from opposition disunity. As the bye-elections in Karnataka and UP have clearly demonstrated, the BJP can be defeated if the contests are one-on-one.
The leaders of the opposition parties — both at the national and regional levels — have understood this and have taken the first major step of pledging that they will work together. On paper, it works fine because the arithmetic it throws up is too daunting for the BJP. Unfortunately, the brightest part of the promise ends there. It’s easier said than done.
Alliances and realpolitik happen at the provincial and national levels, but they are tested on the ground where the elections are contested, or more precisely in the constituencies or at the voting booths. The leaders of two parties that have been at each other’s throats for generations may be able to bury the hatchet for a beneficial deal, but how does it get translated into overnight camaraderie at the operational level?
As former Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan once referred to, Indian politics is all about patron-client relationships. Political leaders are the patrons and the people are their clients. These patrons have usurped all forms of power and are in complete control of the citizens’ lives. It’s an ecosystem that’s built top-down. It exists at the national level, regional level, at the district level and even at the local level where the every day real lives of people play out. And political rivalry is about controlling this patron-client relationship. Becoming a leader and rising to power is not about a victory of ideologies, but the race to be a patron, the hegemonic authority at the top of a feudal pyramid. There’s no difference between even Communists and the Hindutva-enthusiasts on this.
Therefore it’s easier to strike a deal between leaders who have been plotting against each other till yesterday at the macro level, but when it’s transmitted down to where it really matters, there’s a huge problem. Asking a local leader to give way to the rival so that a common enemy can be defeated may sound logical as an idea of political opportunism, but not easy to implement because it means forfeiting one’s fundamental motive to be in politics.
Therefore when Janta Dal and the Congress decide to feel common candidates in Karnataka or SP and BSP give way to each other to ensure that anti-BJP votes are not split, it may sound good on paper, but not at the operational level. The local leaders, that are nothing but political equivalents of feudal chieftains, who have been waiting for their turn to gain control over people, will be asked to step aside and rival cadres will be asked to work together. There will be dissent, there will be rebel candidates and there will be organised electoral betrayal. Had the political change of hearts been transformative and driven by ideologies, it could have been easier, but when it is skin-deep and ephemeral, there’s bound to be suspicion, jealousy and betrayal.
In fact, the operational challenges will manifest even at the macro level. The Congress and the AAP may share a common platform such as the one raised by Mamata in Kolkata and declare their resolve against Modi and the BJP, but will they join hands, or at least have a tacit understanding in Delhi? Will the CPM get into a secret deal with Mamata so that it doesn’t field candidates in all constituencies of West Bengal and help the BJP win? Will the CPM, which can join hands with the Congress in Tamil Nadu, align with the same party in neighbouring Kerala? Will the Congress and the Left, stay out while SP and BSP take charge of defeating the BJP in Uttar Pradesh?
At the national and regional levels, it’s about strategy and numbers, but operationally it’s about people with generations of political rancour that even the national and regional leaders wouldn’t want to abandon in the long term for it’s their life-force. It’s not an easy proposition. So, even before Mamata, Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi start behaving like Morarji Desai, Raj Narayan and Charan Singh, they have a bigger problem at hand. After a gap for 40 years, Indian politicians are facing a test of their sagacity. Will they pass? Highly difficult to say.