Will 2019 see an anti-Narendra Modi coalition? By Rajdeep Sardesai
The successful alliance between the SP and the BSP in the recent UP by-elections is seen as a pointer to the future.columns Updated: Mar 15, 2018 22:56 IST
In the mid-1990s, as a non-BJP, non-Congress ‘United Front’ government was being formed, we asked former Prime Minister VP Singh if such a ‘khichdi’ government was good for the country. “I don’t know about it being desirable, but it is inevitable,” was his sharp response. Singh was the original mascot of third front politics. In 1989, he became PM by forging a coalition with, quite miraculously, the outside support of the BJP and the Left. The single point agenda then was to remove the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government. The question that is now blowing in the political wind: will a similar anti-Narendra Modi coalition be forged in 2019?
The successful alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in the recent UP bypolls is seen as a pointer to the future. Sworn enemies are now seeking to somehow stop the Modi juggernaut in India’s most populous state. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has already announced her desire to forge a ‘federal front’ of regional parties. In Telangana, K Chandrasekhar Rao is also dreaming of a similar national alliance. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, one time flag-bearer of Third Front politics, is weighing his options after withdrawing his ministers from the NDA government. Sensing an opportunity, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi has held a dinner for potential anti-Modi allies. Sharad Pawar, another perennial prime ministerial contender, is set to host one.
If in 1989, it was anti-Congressism that brought Right and Left together on one platform, this time it is not even anti-BJPism but an unambiguous anti-Modiism which is seen as the unifying factor. The distinction is important. The push towards forging a grand Opposition coalition is not driven by hostility towards the BJP as much as the fear of a larger than life figure such as Modi and Amit Shah monopolising the political space. In 1996, the 13-day-old AB Vajpayee government was toppled because many smaller parties were hesitant to associate with the ‘communal’ politics of the BJP in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. Today, it isn’t the Hindutva tag of the BJP which is leading to its isolation but the anxiety in the Opposition that a Modi-Shah-led BJP is a ruthless election machine that will eventually devour every other political party. That even the Shiv Sena, the original Hindutva ally, has perhaps been the most vociferous in criticising the BJP leadership, is further evidence of the fact that battle-lines are being drawn this time over personalities rather than ideology.
But can this obsessive urge to defeat Modi become a game-changer for an incongruous Opposition? In terms of pure arithmetic, the answer has to be in the affirmative. Based on 2014 Lok Sabha figures, an SP-BSP alliance, for example, could bring the BJP down by around 35 seats in UP, a state which the saffron forces had swept . But elections are as much about chemistry as about the maths. Forging alliances may make numerical sense but they carry the risk of conferring on Modi the halo of political ‘victimhood’. In 1971, Indira Gandhi artfully used the gathering coalition of disparate forces against her to send out a powerful slogan: ‘Woh kehte hain Indira hatao, main kehtee hoon garibi hatao.” She swept to power and there is every possibility that Modi, in some ways the true inheritor of the Indira political playbook, will pose the options before the Indian voter in similar stark terms.
Moreover, while the anti-Modi Opposition may dread the prime minister’s authoritarian instincts, they remain wary of the Congress’s electoral preparedness. Which is why a Congress under Rahul Gandhi may find it difficult to become a magnet for a nationwide coalition. A Mamata or a Pawar, for example, are highly unlikely to accept Rahul’s leadership. A Modi versus all presidential-style contest where the Opposition cannot agree on a single credible leader as its prime ministerial candidate is a risky proposition. The more logical option for the Opposition is to have a series of regional match-ups where each local team seeks to take on Modi on their home turf . Since the IPL is around the corner, expect the 2019 Indian Political League to be also played on the lines of a franchisee model. The BJP remains the dominant ‘national’ player, but the principle political contestation could well revolve around who wins their home ground matches!
Post-script: At a recent gathering, a leading industrialist was overheard whispering, “Whatever happens, no third front leadership please, that would be the end of the India growth story!” Interestingly, the same leader had been spotted at Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal investment summit earlier, extolling her virtues as a national leader for the future!
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author.
The views expressed are personal