West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee
Some of India’s opposition leaders believe moulding a ‘federal front’ to stop the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut is an idea whose time has come.
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Mamata Banerjee has proposed a conclave of opposition leaders after May 2, when votes to the current round of assembly polls in four states and a union territory will be counted.
No doubt such exercises in the past have inspired the proposal, including the one 38-years back under the blazing summer sun in Vijayawada.
In May 1983, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief NT Rama Rao hosted 24 opposition leaders of 14 political parties to stitch an alliance against the Indira Gandhi-led Congress for the Lok Sabha polls, which were 18-months away.
The Vijayawada conclave was significant as it was the first time 14 ideologically disparate non-Congress political parties — including the communist parties and BJP — got together at one place and issued a joint statement, even if a banal one. The meeting came on the heels of the Congress losing Andhra Pradesh to the TDP and Karnataka to the Janata Party in the January 1983 assembly polls.
With Tamil Nadu ruled by the MG Ramachandran-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which had Left and other anti-Congress parties as its allies, the only southern state the Congress ruled then was Kerala. By the end of March, Karnataka Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde had called a meeting of his southern counterparts to ostensibly discuss federalism. The rise of the regional parties in the national politics can also be traced to the events of 1983.
Banerjee’s proposal comes in somewhat similar circumstances. She has flagged erosion of the powers of the states. It is quite possible that by the evening of May 2, the AIADMK, currently an ally of the BJP could lose Tamil Nadu, and the BJP is left with only Karnataka and Goa of the eight states below the Vindhyas.
There are at least two obvious challenges such a federal front would face. These are: one, programmatic coherence between ideologically disparate opposition parties. Two, the elephant in the room — who would lead this ‘federal front’? Would it be Rahul Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, or someone else?
For the moment let’s look beyond these seeming obstacles, and more at circumstances which make incubation of such a ‘federal front’ a possibility for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
The BJP’s sway over the polity might look complete at the current juncture with its comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha, a near majority in the Rajya Sabha, and governments, either its own or in alliances, in 13 states.
Look closer and one finds that the BJP has won majority of seats in only two states in the last 18 assembly polls, since the beginning of 2018 — Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh.
It fell short of majority in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, but formed governments through the backdoor. It was meted out a similar treatment in Maharashtra.
Both Haryana and Bihar, where it now runs governments with help of allies, were close shaves. It lost its governments in Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh. It tried but couldn’t wrest Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim, and Delhi.
Therefore, large parts of the country are currently not under the BJP’s rule.
The BJP might have won a comfortable majority of 303-seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha. The ‘first past the post system’, and the BJP maximising it’s vote share in the Hindi heartland, meant the party won 57 percent of the 543-Lok Sabha seats at a vote share of 37.4 percent.
The flip side of this data is that 62.6 percent people in India voted for a party other than the BJP, including voting for the likes of the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal, who have since left the BJP’s side. For starters, a ‘federal front’ would look at ensuring ‘one-on-one’ contest with the BJP on most of the 543-seats so that any anti-BJP vote does not split. This tactic came to be known as the ‘index of opposition unity’ during the days of the Congress dominance of the Indian political scene in the 1970s and ’80s.
The first experiment of this was in the assembly polls in the Hindi heartland in 1967. Its high noon was the 1977 Lok Sabha elections with the formation of the Janata Party, and then again when formal and informal alliances were struck between the Janata Dal-led National Front, the BJP, and Left parties in 1989.
A Weak Congress
Third, a change that could make it easier for a federal front to take shape in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls is the continuing decline of the Congress in several states. This has made the party more amenable to seat adjustments.
In the end, can a ‘federal front’ defeat the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, which holds the key to the seat of power in Delhi, without a Charan Singh, whose leadership delivered all that state’s 85-seats to the Janata Party in 1977? Or can it find a VP Singh, who was sacked from the Congress, but subsequently helped defeat the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress in 1989?
These are imponderables of the future. The Opposition would do well to not think too far ahead, and take the first few steps on the road to 2024.