Ever since India entered the unpredictable terrains of coalition politics in early 1990s, winning parliamentary elections and forming governments have been all about the right alliance partners. The coming national polls beginning on April 11 is going to be no exception. The last fortnight has seen frenzied alliance-building and seat-sharing exercises by parties on the opposite sides of the political spectrum with ruling Bharatiya Janata Party stealing a march over its rivals.
This is a far cry from the situation that prevailed in the entire 2018 when the saffron party, in spite of emerging as the single largest party without clear majority in Karnataka state assembly polls, was outwitted by the Congress which showed remarkable reflexes to join hands with the regional outfit Janata Dal (S) and formed government. The Congress was the larger of the alliance partners by miles but allowed its junior partner to head the government in a compromise to keep the BJP out of power. It had given rise to a perception that if opposition parties come together, the BJP can be kept at bay. The opposition hoped the Karnataka development was the right signal in the run up to the 2019 parliamentary battle.
Thereafter, a series of political developments including the victory of the Congress in three heartland states Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and prior to that, the parting of ways between the BJP regional parties Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh and People's Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir tended to strengthen the impression that the BJP was failing to retain allies. Besides, the BJP's relationships with its oldest ally Shiv Sena in Maharashtra was mired in all sorts of difficulties with the latter training its guns at Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a daily basis.
But one year is “light years” in politics. Come February-March this year the BJP suddenly got back its coalition-building acumen not only retaining its existing allies but also regaining some estranged ones. It has finalised poll alliance and seat-sharing with Shiv Sena, Akali Dal in Punjab, Janata Dal (U) in Bihar and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham in Tamil Nadu. More importantly, the BJP managed to bring back in its alliance six small but key regional parties, including Asom Gana Parishad, in north eastern states which had drifted away from the saffron party over sharp differences on the Citizenship Amendment Bill that seeks to give Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now, the BJP will fight in partnership with these parties in six states (Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh) out of seven north eastern states.
In the run up to the 2019 national polls, the BJP has so far struck alliances with 30 parties, both big and small, across India. In the process of coalition-building, the BJP, no doubt, had to make some adjustments, an euphemism for compromises, giving up a number of seats it won in 2014 to its allies in Bihar and Jharkhand and Maharashtra and taking in its stride the strident criticism from them in the past. Coalition-building entails a certain cost to a pan-India party like the Congress and the BJP. But then coalition politics is all about making compromises like Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP had shown in 1998 when his party put on the back-burner contentious Hindutva issues like uniform civil code, Ram Temple construction at the disputed site in Ayodhya and abrogation of special constitutional status to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir in order to lead an alliance of 24 political parties. Narendra Modi too has shown that he is all for coalition. Despite getting majority on its own in the 2014 parliamentary poll, the BJP led by him, opted for National Democratic Alliance and he sticks to that coalition course.
In contrast to the BJP, the efforts of the opposition parties to put up a united front appear to be in disarray. The Congress has so far managed to stitch up alliance and seat-sharing in just three states—Maharashtra which has the second highest number of parliamentary seats (48) after Uttar Pradesh (80), Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand. The Congress has been excluded from the alliance forged by two key players in the key battleground state of Uttar Pradesh—Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party—and will go it alone there. In Andhra Pradesh, the state's ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) refused to tie up with the Congress although TDP chief N Chandrababu Naidu had been one of the prime movers of opposition unity. The Congress's negotiations for alliance and seat-sharing with the CPI(M) in West Bengal, which elects the third highest number of Lok Sabha members (42) after UP and Maharashtra, seemed to have reached a dead end. The Congress is also divided on tying up with Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi to take on the BJP in the national capital. Lack of Congress' alliance with the regional parties in Andhra Pradesh, UP, Delhi and West Bengal, which together account around 158 parliamentary seats, means multi-cornered contest and a division of anti-BJP votes which could favour the saffron party like in the previous parliamentary polls five years ago and in UP assembly elections two years ago.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi has been criticised by some Indian analysts for lacking personal rapport with key regional leaders like Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and a penchant for alliance-formation. Rahul's performance in this area has been juxtaposed with that of his mother Sonia Gandhi as the party head in the run up to 2004 parliamentary elections when she put aside long-held suspicion about Tamil Nadu's key party Dravida Munnetra Kazagham and its links with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which was behind the assassination of her husband Rajiv Gandhi and firmed up a tie-up with that party. In 2004, Congress returned to power after being in the opposition for eight years and ruled India till May 2014. It is easy to flay Rahul for not being big-hearted and accommodative towards regional parties. But one must realise that he cannot be expected to cede political space to other parties in states at the cost of his own party's potential to grow and regain its past supremacy there. For instance, the Congress is the main contender for power against the TDP in assembly polls in Andhra Pradesh, which are to be held along with parliamentary elections, and a main challenger to Trinamool Congress in West Bengal where assembly polls are due two years down the line.
Rahul Gandhi has a difficult choice—to help the Congress stand on its own feet which is a long-term goal or compromise on that to stop the BJP as a near term objective. He also needs to strike a balance in reconciling the interests of the Congress Party in state-level politics and looking at the pan-India picture. Blending the two will require a lot of political skill on the part of Rahul.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent to The Daily Star.