From the ramparts of Brigade Parade ground with leaders of 23 parties on the stage, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee last week sounded the ‘death knell’ for the BJP. Before lakhs in attendance, she declared that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is past its “expiry date”. She also posed for a customary picture with all leaders to flaunt the “unity” of grand alliance in the ‘United India’ rally. Mamata’s effort was to prove that grand alliance, or ‘mahagathbandhan’, was as much about chemistry as it was about arithmetic.
These churnings are not new to Indian politics. When one leader at the helm of a dominant political force becomes strong, or is perceived to be strong enough to pose a challenge to political rivals, the countervailing forces of multi-party democracy kick in. Regional forces and even traditional rivals bury their differences (or attempt to do so) to address the larger crisis at hand. It isn’t surprising to see, therefore, that BJP’s electoral dominance and prime minister Modi’s popularity have caused the fragmented Opposition to band together and challenge BJP’s hegemony.
If the mahagathbandhan materialises, the BJP will have a problem. Surveys indicate that BJP’s fortunes in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls may take a huge hit. The saffron unit may retain the tag of ‘single largest party’ but it could fall well short of the 272-mark, clouding Modi’s bid to remain in 7, Lok Kalyan Marg.
The BJP-led National Democratic Allience may slump to 233 in the 543-seat Parliament, according to a poll by ABP News-CVoter. Another survey, done by India Today-Karvy Insights, puts the BJP and its allies at 237 seats. Both opinion polls put NDA well short of the halfway mark. ABP’s poll was based on interactions with 22,309 voters across all 543 seats in December to January period, while India Today’s was based on “face-to-face interviews” with 13,179 voters across 97 parliamentary constituencies.
Interestingly, these surveys predict a scenario where a united Opposition is taking on Modi. The basic assumption behind the opinion polls is that these disparate political forces will forge a pre-poll seat-sharing arrangement and may also thrash out a ‘common minimum programme’. The question of prime ministerial candidate will be kept open. This, in a nutshell, is the 1 vs 1 formula floated by Mamata Banerjee, a strong advocate of mahagathbandhan.
But what happens if the grand alliance doesn’t materialise? The banding together of a fragmented Opposition to transfer their vote share and reduce the Lok Sabha election to a collection of 543 local contests is a plausible theory, but theories have a nasty habit of being impracticable. For all the hype and hoopla around the mahagathbandhan and the rosy picture of a ‘united Opposition’ painted by opinion polls, the proposed grand alliance is yet to take off in reality. With less than three months to go, in many states the mahagathbandhan has either been a non-starter or has been aborted.
Let’s look at a few examples: In Uttar Pradesh, the flagship state as it were of Indian democracy, which sends 80 lawmakers to Lok Sabha, key players Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party ignored Congress to form their own seat-sharing arrangement. BSP supremo Mayawati said experience taught her that “our votes get transferred to the Congress, but not vice-versa. We do not gain from alliance with Congress, whereas vote transfer is perfect in SP-BSP tie-up.”
SP chief Akhilesh Yadav sad “poll arithmetic” forced him to keep Congress out of the alliance. A miffed Rahul Gandhi has since fielded Priyanka Gandhi Vadra from eastern Uttar Pradesh, but SP-BSP leaders say her inclusion will not have “any impact” on the gathbandhan.
What we are about to see in Uttar Pradesh is a triangular fight between BJP, SP-BSP and Congress. It is too early to say whether that will impact BJP positively or negatively, but the point is that there will be no ‘mahagathbandhan’ in Uttar Pradesh. There has been a similar case in Andhra Pradesh. After getting a sound thrashing at the hands of K Chandrasekhar Rao’s TRS in the recently held Telangana Assembly polls, the TDP-Congress alliance has fallen apart.
Ironically, just a day after TDP chief and Andhra Pradesh CM N Chandrababu Naidu met Rahul Gandhi in Delhi, the Congress decided that it would walk alone in Andhra and field all 25 Lok Sabha seats and 175 Assembly seats in the simultaneous elections. In Karnataka, the Congress-JD(S) alliance was supposed to be the epitome of unity and efficiency, instead it has become a test case of all that is wrong with such a power-sharing arrangement. Disgruntled Congress lawmakers are busy beating up each other while chief minister HD Kumaraswamy is busy swinging between expressing his anguish and denying it.
Earlier this month while addressing a meeting of JD(S) MLAs, the chief minister reportedly said that he was “functioning like a clerk and not like a chief minister because of Congress’ interference in everything” and “Congress leaders always expect him to behave like their subordinate.” This ‘alliance’ may not survive beyond the Lok Sabha polls.
Across the spectrum in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress chief might be a ‘grand alliance’ enthusiast, but her party will have no truck with the (almost non-existent) Congress in the elections. In fact, one of the reasons why Rahul and Sonia skipped Mamata’s ‘United India’ rally was that their appearance on stage would have robbed the local Congress unit of the last vestiges of legitimacy.
There are murmurs of discontent in Bihar too, one of the few places where Congress hopes to ride on the coattails of its regional ally. Recent reports suggest that RJD-Congress seat-sharing talks have hit a roadblock and any announcement on this front has been postponed for now.
In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has nothing to do with the ‘grand alliance’. He is disinterested in national politics and is expected to comfortably hold on to his reign. Since JD(U) is not reliant on Muslim votes, Patnaik could emerge as a likely NDA partner in a post-poll scenario. Similarly, in Telangana, KCR, who harbors prime ministerial dreams, is rooting for a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance of federal forces. He also has nothing to do with the grand alliance.
The grand alliance is based on a mathematical possibility of defeating a hegemonic force. The arithmetic, however, is subservient to chemistry on the ground. There are other considerations too. To play the role of a fulcrum in such an alliance, the Congress must have acceptance among regional forces, be able to pull its weight and show the right attitude. In all three metrics, so far, it has fallen short.
SP, BSP consider it as superfluous in Uttar Pradesh. It is too weak a power in a state like West Bengal to have bargaining power. And in some cases, like Karnataka, it behaves like the proverbial big brother. Unless a last-minute cosmic intervention takes place, the grand alliance will remain a non-starter. That changes — or should change — quite a bit of the calculations.
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Updated Date: Jan 26, 2019 10:33:18 IST