The impending exit of Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) from the BJP-led NDA is the best thing that could have happened to both the parties - and the polity. Reason: alliances should be based on fundamental principles and similarity of views, not mere electoral math or convenience.
There is a difference between an alliance and a power-sharing agreement. An alliance has to share some core ideas and principles. A power-sharing agreement is about compromising principles and ideals to gain power. In this sense, neither NDA nor UPA is an alliance. They are pre- or post-election power-sharing arrangements.
This is why the so-called demise of the NDA is not a bad thing. At the core of the NDA alliance are just three parties: BJP, Akali Dal and Shiv Sena. All three share the basic idea that religious identity is important to their politics. The rest of the NDA can be reconstructed only after an election shows who has what numbers to culminate in a power-sharing arrangement.
The Congress-led UPA, on the other hand, is largely a power-sharing arrangement. The only party with which the Congress shares an ideology is the NCP in Maharashtra, and the rest of the alliance is a loose grouping of so-called secular forces that just wants a stake in power. Secularism is the figleaf to talk power-share with the Congress and all these allies have been with the BJP in the NDA too. Sharad Pawar’s NCP, too, would be happy to seek the BJP's backing in a situation where he could be PM even for a few months.
The Federal Front, or the Third Front backed by the Left, could theoretically be both ideologically aligned (in terms of broad principles, not Communism) and share power if only its leaders could swallow their own personal egos and see what is ahead of them.
The core principle of any Federal Front of state powers and parties ought to be the following: a promise to amend the constitution to devolve more powers to the states, and an agreement on what roles should be left with the centre beyond defence, foreign policy and macroeconomic and fiscal management. Plus and agreement on how power will be shared at the centre.
But such are the ambitions and egos of these state leaders that it is difficult to spot such clarity of thought as yet. All of them are state powers, but they dream like central powers. Mulayam Singh wants to be PM, and so does Nitish Kumar, when their writ does not run beyond UP or Bihar.
When, and if, the penny drops, the Federal Front could be the most potent force of Indian politics. Potential federalists are in power in UP, Bihar, Odisha, Kashmir, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu - and futures Federal fronters exist is Andhra, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana and the north-east. Getting to 272 in the next Lok Sabha is not an impossibility if they can sort out the basics of core ideology and leadership.
So why did I say that the BJP-JD(U) break up is good news for everybody? Five reasons why.
First, it explodes the myth that there is an alliance called NDA or even one called UPA. There are only state powers and central powers. Both alliances are essentially post-poll power-sharing deals. The Congress is the only central power, but its umbrella is shrinking faster than the BJP’s.
Second, national or regional elections make sense only if parties stand for something. In power-sharing arrangements no party stands for anything beyond power. Is it any surprise everyone is busy looting the country? A break-up between the BJP and the JD(U) over a matter of principle is this good for both.
Third, India cannot be governed well without federalism - this is a continent and immensely diverse. There can be no trust between peoples of different regions, castes and communities when there is such diversity and no sense of who stands where. Power has to go down to the states and further down to regions and even districts and cities and villages. A Federal Front, if it sees a historical role for itself, should focus on this limited objective. If it does, India can rival China over the next 10 years. If not, we will be busy neutralising ourselves internally.
Fourth, the BJP also has a historic opportunity to be partly national and partly federal. Reason: unlike the Congress, which cuts any regional leader down to size, the BJP is inherently federal in character. Modi's rise is a tribute to this federalism. But it will work only if Modi respects this federalism in practice.
Fifth, Modi, too, is in with a chance to take BJP to the next level if he does three things:
1) Forge an internal federal front with existing BJP state powers such as Shivraj Singh in MP, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, Sushil Modi in Bihar, Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, BS Yeddyurappa in Karnataka, and Prem Kumar Dhumal in Himachal. This is the only way the BJP can fight unitedly;
2) Create an explicit promise of federalism and shift power to states in order to defang the Federal Front; and
3) Focus his own efforts in areas such as UP, Bihar, Andhra, Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, et al – places where the party is not in power, and where it has a reasonable chance to grow both immediately and phenomenally in the future.
Even with all this the BJP may not gain enough to win the next election. But the purpose of a political party is not just to gain power but to become an agent of change and a powerful force that can influence that change.
Political parties are not just about the next election. If the BJP hopes to be a party to reckon with, it should look even beyond 2014.
LK Advani's Ayodhya movement brought the BJP to 180 seats over 20 years. Modi's role, or his successor’s, should be to take it past 272 over next three elections.
For the Congress, the options are simpler: if it sticks with the Gandhi family, it will shrink continuously. If it federalises, it will grow new leaders at state and centre, but the family’s role will have to shrink.
For all parties, and for India, federalism is the answer.