By Dr S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
The unity between disparate groups of political parties united by common opposition to the BJP was beautifully exhibited by the typical gesture of holding hands after the swearing-in ceremony held at Bengaluru of the JD(S)-Congress government. It is a repeat performance enacted several times by parties aspiring for power at the Centre. To proclaim a sudden and spontaneous rise of top leaders of various parties to block the return of Modi next year, the magnificent Vidhan Soudha of Bengaluru provided an ideal venue.
Earlier in March, 20 Opposition leaders met at a dinner party hosted by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi, for informal chat on joining against the BJP. Such gatherings are going on simultaneously with the efforts of some regional leaders to revive the Third Front and form a federal front of non-Congress and non-BJP. Chief Ministers of Telangana and West Bengal are in the forefront of this effort and have discussed this with some regional leaders.
In the context of the approaching Lok Sabha election in 2019, it raises our curiosity to analyse the relative chances of pre-poll and post-poll alliances in the background of previous experiments and current aspirations of parties, to assess the individual strength of national parties, and to identify the major players in national government formation.
The General election of 2014 broke the prevailing myth of the inevitability of coalition governments in India at the Centre by giving individual majority to the BJP. That this party adhering to the unwritten coalition dharma chose to form a coalition government of the NDA is a different matter.
In the light of BJP’s serial victories in many States along with the decline of the Congress in elections since 2014, it seems at the outset that BJP’s defeat cannot be achieved in the near future without collecting together anti-BJP votes. But, the question whether it is enough is not asked. Nor any doubt regarding all anti-BJP votes going to any party in anti-BJP alliance is ever raised.
The CPM head remarked at the celebration in Bengaluru that only post-poll alliance would help formation of government at Delhi and shook hands even with the party’s prime enemy, the head of TMC, who also echoed by stating that there are already set examples be it in 1996 or 2004 when fronts were formed after the polls. At this juncture, what is perceived as most important is an understanding among the Opposition (meaning today anti-BJP parties) ahead of polls.
Leaders are preparing the nation to accept post-poll alliance of any grouping without bothering about their compatibility and without even knowing about their core policies and programmes. Marriage of convenience is accepted in politics. No prior arrangement is required. A judgement of the Supreme Court in 2005 confirmed Sarkaria Commission’s two options in allowing post-poll allies to form government – with all parties of the alliance joining the government or some joining and some providing “outside support”.
Karnataka government is an example of post-poll alliance of two bitter pre-poll rivals. Our parliamentary system, legal position, and inter-party relations allow this. When a party is short of majority by a few seats and has presence spread across the country (or State), post-poll alliance may seem logical. But, Bengaluru festival witnessed a congregation of small parties — literally pieces from a bigger party — joining hands with the sole common aim of keeping a common enemy away. “Enemy’s enemy is a friend” is the motto on display.
In a country with numerous kinds of diversities, multi-party system is natural and inevitable. Even in Britain, known for its strong two-party system, some have felt that 2017 elections have shown that we need not be locked in two-party politics.
BSP supremo has already stated that her party would enter into an alliance with other parties only if it was given a respectable number of seats or else it would contest the General elections alone. It is believed that the ground for an alliance of the BSP with Congress was set when the BSP announced support for Samajwadi Party in the Lok Sabha by-elections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur constituencies.
However, given the individual chances, aspirations of various leaders, and expectations of party cadres, SP-BSP-Congress-RLD alliance may be possible in some by-elections, but not for General election. To keep their flock intact, parties have to give opportunities to party loyalists and strong candidates. Hence, pre-poll alliance is hard to achieve while post-poll alliance seems probable.
Unity of parties in the name of “secularism” has lost its flavor with open exploitation of religious and caste sentiments. Still, motley groupings in the name of alliances and coalitions have formed governments. They have carried on orderly government as long as there is one dominant leader within and/or a broad understanding among the constituents.
In September 2016, 43 of 44 Congress MLAs including the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh resigned from the Congress and joined the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), a part of North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA — a BJP front.
The grand Opposition coalition rally sponsored by RJD at Patna in August last drew in senior political leaders from at least 12 parties including TMC. It was expected to be the forerunner for the Mahagathbhandan (grand alliance) of secular parties for 2019 Lok Sabha polls. However, BSP chief stayed away from the rally indicating lack of consistency in the role of parties. It was the time when even secular credentials of some of these parties were under cloud. Banning of Durga idol immersions on Muharram day and opposing triple talaq ban for Ishrat Jehan by the TMC were out of place in a secular alliance against the BJP.
There is a tendency to bloat out of proportion small victories gained by alliance of small parties as indicator of successful electoral strategy. That there is something as wider and State level and national acceptability is overlooked. By-election victories do not signify which way the wind will blow in Lok Sabha election.
Election victories are not a matter of plain arithmetic in all places, at all times, but include acceptability to the people in particular place and time. There are instances when people have voted differently in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the same State.
In 1989, a strange combination known as the National Front consisting of the Janata Dal, TDP, DMK, AGP, Indian Congress (Socialist) supported by the Left Front and the BJP came to power. It had strong leaders like NT Rama Rao and VP Singh, but lasted hardly two years and saw two Prime Ministers.
In 1996, a post-poll alliance of 13 parties named the United Front consisting of JD, SP, DMK, TDP, AGP, All India Indira Congress (Tiwari), Left Front (4 parties), Tamil Maanila Congress, NC, and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party formed government with outside support of the Congress and lasted until the support was available.
Regional parties must have realised that non-Congress, non-BJP pre-poll alliance is not feasible in the present scenario. Hence Bengaluru became the venue for “Congress-inclusive Third Front” against the BJP — a post-poll coalition taking us back to 1996. Numbering of Fronts and serial order are disturbed in Bengaluru adding another scene to the variety entertainment provided on the political stage.—INFA