Alliance Pangs 2019

After the triumph in the recently concluded polls, Congress has got the momentum that would help the grand old party to attract alliance partners in those states where it seems weak, but BJP won’t sit idle too;

By Anil Anand

The one sure conclusion of the Congress party victory in the three politically important states of Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan & when combined with an anticipated improved performance in Uttar Pradesh, is that the Hindi heartland would surely be the theatre of action in 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The results have given Congress ammunition to fire its re-entry into the otherwise lost arena & also raised questions on the much touted invincibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This is certainly not to suggest that the Congress is on a comeback trail or that the Modi magic has all but waned or that it is on the brink of vanishing before May 2019 Lok Sabha elections; but it (The Congress victory) has certainly kick-started a debate on these subjects. Although ideologically different as chalk and cheese, yet a common denominator links Congress and BJP that could make or mar their prospects in the general elections. It is the ability to forge alliances or to be more precise the knack of identifying, attracting and effectively managing the allies, particularly the regional ones that could be crucial in the run up to the general elections of 2019.

Both the parties of late have been facing problems finding such allies. Sometimes the complexities & compulsions are similar for both but at times these could be very different depending on the individual state or a situation. The most discerning thing, of course is the fact that BJP is a strong party ruling both in the Centre and in majority of the states; it is almost running roughshod on its allies ignoring their sentiments & demands if any. For the Congress, despite being a premier opposition party & with an experience of having captained the United Progressive Alliance aka UPA government for 10 years, they are finding it hard to make themselves acceptable to the other opposition parties when it comes to forging any grand alliance, a mahagathbandhan as they call it under their stewardship.

Their victories, despite major setbacks in Telangana and far-off Manipur certainly give greater advantage to Congress vis-a-vis its current partners and could be allies in the run up to the battle royale of 2019, as a senior partner of some consequence. And that perhaps explains the spontaneous decision of the hitherto defiant BSP supremo Mayawati, offering unconditional support to Congress in Madhya Pradesh & Rajasthan, even when it had gone on record saying that BSP is ideologically at variance with both BJP & Congress.  Maybe they chose the lesser devil in congress to keep BJP at bay in the current scenario.

Not to be left out of the current tide, Trinamool Congress president and West Bengal chief minister Mamta Banerjee, who like Mayawati has been nurturing dreams of a bigger role on the national stage, has described the election results as a “real democratic indication of the final match in 2019 and that she had no problem allying with Congress as she had not only worked for the party earlier, but also she has good relations with its top brass particularly Ms. Sonia Gandhi.

Intriguingly, nothing as yet has been heard from Samawajdi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav in the aftermath of these results, despite his apparent proximity to Congress scion Rahul Gandhi. His silence though baffling may not suggest anything contrary to that of aligning with Congress in the bigger picture. After all his party Samajwadi Party has also offered support to congress of it’s only MLA in Madhya Pradesh. Since both Mayawati and Akhilesh have been working in tandem in Uttar Pradesh, it would be naive to even think that their decision to lend unconditional support to Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan was without vetting the political arithmetic or without assessing their collective bargaining prowess if & when the ‘mahaghatbandhan’ were to see the light of the day.

Incidentally, congress victories in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan bolster their chances of wresting most of the 65 Lok Sabha constituencies from its adversaries. And with an almost negligible footprint of either the SP or BSP in these territories, this shall further increase the party’s bargaining power in the electorally important Hindi heartland.  The SP-BSP combine continues to bank on its strong presence in Uttar Pradesh, a state with 80 Lok Sabha seats, most of which though were won by BJP in the 2014 elections, with BSP drawing a blank. Coupled with reverses in other states, Mayawati & BSP are no more the same force to reckon with either in UP or elsewhere & such a situation has severely affected its old age game of muscle flexing in any pre or post poll alliance come 2019. The prospect of a SP-BSP-Congress combine has certainly enhanced in the aftermath of Congress victories, having checkmated the Modi juggernaut. It can well turn out to be a win win situation for all of the three parties who consider BJP as their common foe.

It would be easier said than done unless Congress, which aspires to be the at the forefront of any new alliance, reaches out to its allies; Even going beyond the Hindi heartland with the same honesty and magnanimity, it demonstrated at the time of UPA formation with Sonia Gandhi at the helm. This alone may not suffice unless the regional satraps, wanting to be part of the alliance against BJP, also respond in equal terms. After all it needs two to tango and in this case more than two to do so.

Of course, existential and domain issues would always cast shadows on any deliberation to forge an alliance at the national level. Such hurdles could only be overcome if the interested parties/stakeholders fix their attention to the broader objective, that of keeping BJP at arm’s length from Delhi. And once the alliance partners have ensured an equitable/winnable distribution of seats on the basis of a SWOT analysis of each partner in their respective constituency / region & also keeping in mind the pan-India influence of the congress party, most of the irritants can be kept at bay & a favorable ground created for putting up a united front. It would be worth the while ceding ground & sacrificing a little by each participant in order to achieve the larger goal, they all have united for.

If offer of support by Mayawati and Akhilesh reflect change in their outlook, a similar reflection could also be found in the manner in which Rahul Gandhi expressed his humble appreciation towards his arch rival, the BJP. His laudatory references to the outgoing BJP chief ministers of Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are a welcome sign in the otherwise polarized political discourse in this country. Coupled with hinting at a broader assortment of like-minded parties coming together for 2019, it would be interesting to see how such an attitudinal shift brings about a change in the collective outlook of the much hyped Mahaghatbandhan.

The BJP had won 59 out of the 65 Lok Sabha seats in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan in 2014. Even though the party may not have been thinking of adding to this number come 2019, retaining this number may have become more difficult after having suffered these reverses recently. The last word is still far away; who knows what the charismatic & Mr. Dependable Narendra Modi has up his sleeves for the election strategy. But unless he is able to rekindle memories of his charm, wit & humor, apart from unveiling some public friendly policy measures, I am afraid we may not see a repeat of 2014. The BJP & Modi have a lot to think about. To begin with they can hold back their mindless aggression and boastful attitude both of which have no place in a democratic polity. They must also stay focused on the agenda for development with Modi as its mascot, if they wish to redeem the situation from worsening further.

The bigger challenge for Modi and BJP apart from ensuring a strong National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would be to control the contradictions and fringe elements within the Sangh Parivar, who post BJP’s defeat in this round of polls, have already started talking about the need to address the core issues of Ram Temple & abrogation of Article 370. Given the penchant of Modi -Amit Shah Combine for stridency and Hindutva, the oft repeated “sab ka saath sab ka vikas’ slogan has somewhat taken a beating & BJP would do better not to court itself to any more controversy & at the same time keep the pressure mongers off its commitment to good governance.

If the elections results in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, considered strong citadels of BJP and the party’s drubbing in Telangana down Southern India and Manipur in North-East  are any indications, the Modi-Shah duo direly need to hit the drawing board running, particularly in respect of their policies on regional allies. Most of the NDA allies are unhappy and they mince no words, venting their ire on how they are being ignored on important decision making in matters of governance. The latest instance of Upendra Kushwaha, who quit as Union Minister and his party Rashtriya Lok Samata Party leaving NDA, should be another wakeup call for BJP.

The disquiet within NDA though is not sudden. The alarm bells started ringing early when BJP’s natural and NDA’s founder allies such as Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Telgu Desam Party (TDP) and even Biju Janata Dal (BJD) began expressing their strong reservation on treatment being meted out to them and their resenting the BJP’s big brother attitude. While SAD has been constantly squirming, perhaps left with no likable option other than NDA, Chandrababu Naidu-led TDP has already walked out of the NDA and shaken hands with Congress. Same is the case with BJD under Naveen Patnaik, who has become a near pariah in the current scenario & hence it is also on course to a complete parting of ways with NDA.

All eyes are now focused on Bihar and how Ram Vilas Paswan (heading Lok Jan Shakti Party) and chief minister Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (u) would react to the outcome of these polls.  The balance can tilt decisively, were Modi-Shah duo to refuse any change to their their big-brotherly attitude towards these two chieftains. And if the Bihari leaders feel that Modi’s invincibility has come under a cloud, both Paswan, better known as a weatherman for his prowess to read the political climate ahead of general elections and Nitish Kumar who is still waiting for acceptance of his demand of special status for Bihar, may well change their stand. But may I hasten to add that notwithstanding any compulsion, both leaders are feeding off the enormous goodwill generated by NDA & Modi that it would be unthinkable of them to desert the ship at this critical juncture.

To deal with allies on even keel, it would require a 360 degree turn in the approach by Modi and Shah towards their political partners from now on. The secret in winning the confidence of the existing allies and bringing some new ones would lie in the Atal Behari Vajpayee centric approach based on broadmindedness and spirit of cooperation rather than total domination and one-up-man ship doctrine followed by the current BJP brass.

Apart from the Hindi heartland, developments in Southern Indian and North-East should also worry BJP. The Telengana assembly elections could have been an opportunity for the saffron party to find its feet in the region outside of Karnataka. On the face of it, an impression was created about BJP’s proximity towards Telengana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) of K Chandrashekhar Rao. They contested elections separately, with TRS ultimately sweeping the polls and hurting BJP where it hurt the most by aligning with All India Ithehadul Musalmeen of Assadudin Owaisi. The BJP came a cropper winning only two seats that shattered its dream of finding new ground in the South.

The question arises whether TRS will join NDA for 2019 Lok Sabha elections & if BJP will overlook TRS’s alliance with Owaisi for a larger political heft in the centre. In either case, this opportunistic outlook would be fraught with dangerous consequences for the BJP.

A similar story did rounds in Mizoram, where a smoke screen was created, of BJP being an ally of the Mizo National Front (MNF). Again the two parties contested separately for tactical reasons as the Christian majority Mizoram would not have accepted MNF in alliance with BJP for the purpose of elections. The strategy paid off more for MNF than for BJP as the former registered a landslide victory in the process, divesting Congress of their last bastion in the North-East. The BJP though opened its account in yet another North East state, for which they may claim a moral victory of sorts & also for making North-East ‘Congress-mukt, they could certainly have hoped to do better. Except Assam where a BJP government is in power, in most of the other states of the region the BJP is a minor partner of the ruling alliances.

At this juncture it cannot be conclusively said that the election results mirror a reflection of how Modi’s popularity has dipped in North India. Pre-election surveys showed that the prime minister was less popular in Madhya Pradesh than in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. According to the Lokniti-CSDS survey, 39 per cent respondents in Madhya Pradesh said they “highly like” Modi, compared to 52 per cent in Rajasthan and 48 per cent in Chhattisgarh. Ostensibly, this survey had some reflection in election outcome in these states.

The gap between the popularity of Prime Minister Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi was lowest in Madhya Pradesh at 6 per cent, compared to 34 per cent in Rajasthan and 20 per cent in Chhattisgarh. Besides, 29 per cent respondents in Madhya Pradesh felt the Modi government is corrupt compared to 13 percent in Rajasthan and 17 percent in Chhattisgarh, showed the survey.

So could it be argued hypothetically that BJP’s trump card, the Modi magic, was on wane already in these states & hence it did more harm than good for BJP’s poll prospects? It could be definitely said that this vote was more against the BJP than for the Congress, or else there could be resounding victories for the opponent, the challenger in Congress. That was not the case.  Except for the promise of farm loan waivers, the grand old party did not offer anything big to the people, even when it can be said that Congress led by Rahul Gandhi, made sincere & significant efforts to defeat the BJP at the hustings. The one important outcome of these efforts has been that it has propelled people to raise questions of the ruling dispensation. So much so that whispers can be heard within the BJP & Sangh Parivar about whether or not the aura, appeal & invincibility of Modi, which till a few days back was unthinkable, has diminished.

Even those within the BJP who persistently rejected the argument of these assembly elections being a semi-final in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections, seem veering around the reality that the polls have set the stage for the 2019. The mandate has set the process for derailment of the BJP juggernaut and raised serious questions on the infallibility of Modi-Shah leadership.

Given the fact that the voters in these states have broken conventions and set some new bench marks, it should be worrying more for the BJP than Congress that the electorate has displayed impatience and disenchantment towards governments for their non-deliverance of promises. The message is loud and clear. It is the actual delivery on ground and not hollow promises that would matter in the ultimate analysis.

Under these circumstances, the significance of properly nurturing the alliances has grown for both BJP and Congress. At the same time it is imperative for mercurial and impatient characters such as Mamta, Mayawati on one side, and Paswans, Badals, Nitish Kumars and Shiv Sena on the other side to act responsibly, display pragmatism & shed a bit of their ego, indiscretions & impatience.

The smaller parties and regional satraps may have a slight advantage of co-opting who they think was good for their political careers, the same cannot be said for the Congress and BJP. But let it also not be lost on regional players that no alliance would be possible at the national level without the blessing & participation of either of the two main political dispensations. The fulcrum of all long lasting partnerships is mutual respect & equal participation in governance.