we could be seeing another era of coalition politics in India if the many grand alliances defeat Narendra Modi.
Harish Puppala | Rakesh Sharma
The Lok Sabha election of 2019 is underway, and three out of seven phases are completed. There were family friendly photo-ops today - Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting his mother before casting his vote in Ahmedabad (psst...where was his wife?), and Amit Shah casting his vote in the same city. Elsewhere, one of the leaders of the opposition, Rahul Gandhi, is fighting to avoid a contempt ruling from the Supreme Court even as his second seat, Wayanad went to the polls today on Tuesday. Gandhi is up against 20 other candidates in a packed field, including potential allies CPI. That’s a good note to bring in our topic for the day - political alliances. As India votes for or against Modi, the opposition, which resembles a scattered debris field of political dynasties and ideologies in various states of disrepair, has found its mojo after deciding to unite in order to defeat someone that Mamata Banerjee described as “Hitler’s Uncle.” (Interesting aside here - Hitler’s nephew William changed his surname to Stuart-Houston, and wrote an essay titled “Why I Hate My Uncle.”)
Anyway, the desire to stop the Hindutva juggernaut has united secular forces in India, with many of them voicing the opinion, at different times, that a coalition will be necessary to stall the march of said juggernaut.
What that means is, we could be seeing another era of coalition politics in India if the many grand alliances defeat Narendra Modi. How are they planning to do it? And what will the future of India be under coalition rule? That is what we try to decode on this episode with me Rakesh Sharma on Moneycontrol.
Coalitions, or saving democracy from itself
Never mind psephology that drives TV debates every election cycle, the election is still undecided, with no one really sure of anything. It’s no surprise then that, according to Livemint, “...Congress and the BJP (are) banking on regional parties to stitch up their numbers beyond the Hindi heartland states...2019 is turning out to be the biggest platform for coalition politics.” It added that alliances with regional parties are most pronounced in the northeast and southern India, where both the BJP and the Congress have limited representations.
Praveen Chakravarty, Chairperson, Data Analytics Department of Congress, claimed the Congress will concede the most number of seats to allies and contest the fewest number in this parliamentary election. He tweeted, “Amidst all the din, 2019 will be the most `alliance friendly' election for INCIndia. With just the already announced alliances, it will concede the most number of seats to alliance partners and contest its fewest number of seats in a Lok Sabha election ever.” The numbers bear this out. ET estimated that the Congress contested 529 seats in 1996, 467 in 1998, 451 in 1999, 414 in 2004, 440 in 2009 and 464 in 2014. It has declared candidates in 218 seats for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The resurgence of regional parties and the rising popularity of identity politics also saw our news headlines dominated by calls for pre-poll alliances, forcing non-BJP and non-Congress outfits to pick sides ahead of the election. The current state of affairs between the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, with AAP repeatedly proposing an alliance and the Grand Old Party rejecting every such proposal has been amusing to watch, to say the least. After being approached countless times, I think the Congress must find a way to convey to AAP that no means no. Perhaps a Sharmila Tagore-esque "Don't be silly" from An Evening In Paris should suffice. Or cross party lines and borrow a Nahiii from Hema Malini.
One analysis in the Economic Times observed, “...It is a bad cocktail. Many in the Congress party's Delhi unit remain pathologically anti-AAP, arguing that a short-term alliance with the party that dethroned them in Delhi would pose a long-term existential threat in the state for them.”
In the most important state, electorally speaking - Uttar Pradesh - neither Mayawati nor Akhilesh Yadav have embraced Rahul Gandhi’s or Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's political overtures. The refrain usually is that the eventual PM, should Modi be defeated, would be decided later. Even within the Samajwadi Party, there remain divisions. ET noted that, according to some party leaders, Mulayam Singh Yadav, his wife and daughter-in-law are actively working against Akhilesh. The SP-BSP combine, a tenuous alliance on its best days, rejected the Congress’ offer of leaving seven seats for them in UP. Turning down the Congress offer, Mayawati asked it to contest all 80 seats.
West Bengal is a crucial state, what with 42 Lok Sabha seats up for grabs. Meaning, if a coalition were to form a government at the centre, TMC and Mamata Banerjee, who dominate West Bengal, could well be a senior partner, and even become the Prime Minister. The alliance between the Congress and the Left in that state crash landed before it could even take off. West Bengal's senior Congress leader Abdul Mannan tried to forge an alliance with the TMC as well, but according to Economic Times, “the personal chemistry between Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi is not at its best. Banerjee was never keen on an alliance with the Congress because she knows that in Bengal, the grand old party is in a state of decay.” Right now, the Trinamool's domination, on the basis of Banerjee's brand equity in the state, is undeniable. The Economic Times claims that BJP will become the main opposition in the state. Mamata Banerjee knows that if her party was to align with the Congress, it would be the Congress that benefits more in the state than the other way around. Banerjee is supremely confident of her position, so she chose not to enter into a pre-poll alliance, even saying Rahul Gandhi is, “just a kid.” Well, that certainly is fake news. Rahul Gandhi is nearly 49 years old, younger than Mamata’s 64 years but certainly no kid. (And neither is Arya Stark, for all those that took to Twitter over the weekend. She is well over 18 years, and it looks like she could be dying in the next episode. So let her have her fun with rowing champion Gendry, thank you.)
In Maharashtra, relations between the Congress party and the Nationalist Congress Party have seen better days. According to ET, Sharad Pawar has a chequered history with the national party.
Bihar, which saw voting in five of its 40 Lok Sabha seats in the third phase today, has undergone a pronounced change since last general elections in 2014. In the absence of any potent third front in the state, Bihar is set to witness bipolar elections between the NDA (comprising BJP, JDU & LJP) and the Grand Alliance which includes the RJD, Congress, RLSP, HAM and VIP. According to Sanjay Singh on the Economic Times, “The Left parties - CPI and CPI(M) - are fighting for political survival in a few LS constituencies.”
The big shift in 2019 is that the arch rivals of 2014 - BJP and JD(U) - are allies this time around. Sharad Yadav, a key confidant of Nitish Kumar, is now in the opposition camp as is BJP’s Patna Sahib MP Shatrughan Sinha. Meanwhile, the RJD is fighting its first Lok Sabha election without its iconic mass leader Lalu Yadav, who is in jail after being convicted in a fodder scam case. His son Tejashwi has been trying to keep the party going as the negotiations over seat sharing picked up steam in the last couple of months.
While the Congress is seeking to regain ground after ceding its dominant position in several states, the BJP is looking to enter new regions with the help of local partners. In the 130 lok sabha seats from southern India - across five states and one Union territory in South India—Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry - the Congress and BJP have only 20 seats each while regional parties account for more than 80 seats.
Insecurities of the local partner, including the fear of being wiped out, is also a factor facilitating alliances. The deaths of J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi has left a key state open to electoral machinations. Karunanidhi’s family, which runs the DMK, has hitched its wagon to the Congress while the AIADMK has thrown its lot in with the BJP. This is new, because the BJP has one MP from the state while the Congress has none.
The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (or AIADMK) is hoping its alliance with the BJP would save it from a crushing defeat. The Congress, on the other hand, with a vote share of just over 4.3% in Tamil Nadu, is hoping to regain some ground riding on the back of a seemingly resurgent Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (or DMK).
In Karnataka, the one southern state where the BJP is expected to garner a substantial number of seats in 2019, distrust and bitterness between the two ruling coalition partners - Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress - has been overt and dramatic. While the two partners are competing in the Cauvery basin districts, an analysis in The Hindu claims “their complex chemistry in north Karnataka could have a significant impact on the prospects of the alliance in this BJP stronghold.” JD(S) is a marginal player in the 14 constituencies — 10 of which are held by the BJP — that vote on the 23rd. However, as The Hindu noted, “...the transfer of its votes will be critical in Raichur and Koppal, where teething problems remain, while the ability of the coalition’s workers to work together could break into the BJP fortresses in Shivamogga and Davangere.” As one report in Hindustan Times noted, “The Congress might have a difficult time in convincing its local leaders to rally behind what they could perceive as a top-down alliance with the JD(S).”
That brings us to another political stalwart, one who stormed out of the NDA and struck out on his own, claiming he was insulted, and, worse, given false promises regarding special status to Andhra Pradesh. All bluster aside, N Chandrababu Naidu is under the gun this election. YS Jagan Mohan Reddy has become a serious threat to Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and, as a result, Chandrababu had to forge an alliance with the Congress party, even going so far as to portray Reddy as an agent of the BJP. “Modi’s pet dogs,” were his words of choice, if I recall. Wow! Talk about spiteful! For CBN, this strategy may yet pay dividends. But does having Naidu on his side help Rahul Gandhi? An Economic Times article claims, “In Telangana, he remains the main khalnayak since he was opposed to the formation of a separate state. One senior Congress leader admitted that the leader had become a "gale ka haddi" (bone stuck in throat) for the Congress.”
Coming to Kerala, Business Standard painted a dire picture for the leftists allies. It said, “It is a do-or-die battle for both the ruling CPI(M)-led LDF and opposition Congress-headed UDF in most of the 20 Lok Sabha seats this time in the state, known for its decades-long bipolar politics.” The BJP sees an opportunity to win a couple of lok sabha seats for the first time in the state. Its vote share is set to see a considerable rise all over the state thanks to its stand against the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala temple. A Deccan herald report claimed that the Left Front, which is concerned about the BJP’s rise in Kerala, could back the Congress tactically to ensure that the BJP does not open its Lok Sabha account in Kerala.
In the NorthEast, the BJP managed to bring the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) back into the NDA just prior to the elections. BJP is contesting 10 seats, AGP three and Bodoland People’s Front one. AGP had quit the alliance in January, opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill or CAB. According to Deccan Herald, “BJP is contesting both seats in Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, and supporting its ally NPP in one of the two seats in Meghalaya. It sees a bright chance of winning the two seats in Tripura. In Nagaland, it is supporting ally NDPP’s candidate, but in Mizoram, it has fielded a candidate against its NEDA partner Mizo National Front.” A Livemint report noted that these parties started distancing themselves from the CAB but, with the centre “..putting the CAB on hold...the anti-CAB forces celebrated what they thought was their victory...holding back the Bill hasn’t sufficiently allayed the fears of the tribal minorities in the region who foresee a deluge of Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, numbering 12 million.”
But no election is complete without some hilariously anticlimactic moments. More than a few political leaders across many parties are disgruntled. And consequently, 2019’s election, while bitter, has thrown up some humour as well. Even as the Congress and the SP-BSP-RLD alliance are trying to ensure that the NDA doesn’t sweep UP like it did five years ago, Congress leader Naseemuddin Siddiqui cautioned voters against voting for the SP-BSP-RLD alliance (or the Mahagathbandhan) saying they should either vote for BJP or for the Congress candidate Ratna Singh.
Campaigning in Pratapgarh in Eastern U.P., Siddiqui said, “I am not taking the name of any caste as all are wise enough, I am saying this to those who oppose BJP. Either give your vote to Ratna Singh or to BJP. Voting somebody else means selling yourself. Now only tickets are being sold, later on you will get sold too.” He explained, “I know Mayawati more than she knows herself. When there was no 'mahagathbandhan', party tickets were sold at 5-10 crore but post alliance the tickets were sold at 25-30 crore. We are being sold.”That, then, is the story of the political alliances which could potentially lead to a grand coalition at the centre after 23 May. If that is what comes to pass, we can be certain of one thing: it won’t be boring.
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