Distantly Close | A history lesson from past coalitions - Hindustan Times
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Distantly Close | A history lesson from past coalitions

By Vinod Sharma
Apr 18, 2023 06:14 PM IST

Amid talks of Opposition unity, it'll do us well to remember that political fronts take time maturing. Their best chance is in straight contests with BJP

Coalitions in India have almost always taken shape after elections, bar the 1977 post-Emergency Janata Party experiment. Even the Janata Dal-led National Front only took office in 1989 after Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress with an image sullied by the Bofors gun scandal, did not bid for power despite being the single largest party. That built ground for Congress renegade VP Singh, the newly-formed Front’s anti-graft crusader, to become prime minister with outside support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left. Smartly linked to national security and by extension the safety of soldiers from farming families, the disputed howitzer gun purchase, which the Swedish company AB Bofors was meant to supply, became the first instance of electoral dividends through an anti-corruption plank.

A wise beginning has been made by assigning Nitish the task of reaching out to non-BJP outfits unenthusiastic about the Congress’s centrality to the Opposition’s scheme. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
A wise beginning has been made by assigning Nitish the task of reaching out to non-BJP outfits unenthusiastic about the Congress’s centrality to the Opposition’s scheme. (HT Photo)

The narrative that the anti-Congress parties spun at the time was that of graft at the expense of 'jawans' and 'kisans'. The script was repeated in 2014; the Manmohan Singh regime was painted into a corner over allocations of 2G spectrum and coal mines. Investigations into these so-called scams came up short several years later, but the elections were lost and there was no turning back the clock.

The NF vanished as fast as the Janata Party did. The BJP withdrew support to VP Singh on the Ram Temple question. The Congress, for its part, repeated history, propping up Chandrashekhar’s breakaway faction the way it had hoisted the Janata rebel, Charan Singh as PM for 24 weeks in the 1970s.

What propels coalition politics?

The anxieties that have led the current Opposition to cobble up an alliance, howsoever fragile, are no different from those that prompted even the Jana Sangh, the BJP’s precursor, to tie up with socialists and the Congress (O) to form the Janata party. The fight then was against Indira Gandhi’s autocracy; ironically, the adversary accused of the same thing today is the Jana Sangh’s successor, a party founded in 1980 after the fall of the Morarji Desai dispensation.

The ideological cover Charan Singh offered to justify his exit from the Janata Party and assume PM’s office with support from the Congress, was the Jana Sangh leadership's continued membership in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), though all parties that formed the Janata Party were meant to subsume their individual identities.

Socialist veteran Madhu Limaye had then prevailed on Charan Singh to break free in protest against this.

Those were different times. The RSS has since acquired acceptability amid rising majoritarianism which has radically altered the political landscape of the country’s electorally precious north. It’s this factor that compounds the contemporary Opposition’s worries.

In coalition politics, power is the glue. The number game is at once driven by survival instinct and the attendant imperative of creating political space through consolidation of fragmented constituencies. This is all the more important in the face of a formidable adversary, who can only be felled in a straight contest. The Janata experiment succeeded in doing that but was torpedoed by fratricidal squabbles. The rainbow party’s premature demise destroyed all hopes of a bipolar polity.

The perceived official patronage of the Adani group carries the same resonance as the graft allegations for which the Congress paid a heavy political cost. But the trust deficit among anti-BJP entities makes the prospect of competing interests collecting under one party flag nearly negligible. Anti-Congress-ism was the reigning sentiment that gave shape to early coalitions. Can the BJP be defeated or at least denied a full majority that it has enjoyed since 2014, in the upcoming parliamentary polls?

Straight contests against BJP

The answer to the question has perhaps been proffered by Sharad Pawar and Shashi Tharoor. The only way to set up straight contests (as advised by Tharoor) is by according constituency/ state-wise primacy to individual players on the basis of their relative strength (as advocated by Pawar). The resultant one-line rule: shun friendly fights that’ll divide the anti-BJP vote. This seems doable in the time available instead of putting together a pre-poll coalition that’ll be like making frogs stay put in a bucket.

With or without a formal front, the Lok Sabha polls must be fought in this framework, leaving the leadership question to be decided till after the elections. It’s a no-brainer that the largest Opposition party in the new House will be at the core of any construct if aggregate numbers are good enough to bid for government formation.

Will that opportunity fructify; is that as easily done as stated? Pragmatism dictates that the BJP has to be denied any slipway. The Congress for its part will have to reconcile to focusing its energies on the 200-odd seats where it has been losing heavily in direct fights with Narendra Modi’s party. The gains it logs in these seats could help stop the BJP-led NDA short of a majority. If that happens, the battle is half won.

Uphill climb for the Congress

The task indeed is uphill for the party that’s gotten old and has ceased to be grand, given its pathetic scores in the previous two general elections. The BJP’s nationalism that comes wrapped in myriad hampers — religious, cultural, military and economic — is on the face of it, a hard mix to triumph, what with the added lure of free ration for the poor. That makes inescapable the need for a counter-narrative focusing on joblessness, inflation, agrarian distress and the shrunken space for democratic dissent.

The alleged misuse of institutions of the State, the shift to plutocratic tendencies, as evidenced by the government’s refusal to countenance questions on the Hindenburg report on the Adani group, and Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from the Lower House, cannot but be part of the Opposition’s critique. But the centrality accorded to them needs to be balanced with equal emphasis on issues directly impacting the people.

“We need some good scriptwriters,” said a Congress leader. He also admitted to the lack of party managers with outreach to other like-minded formations. Maybe the gap can be filled by the JD (U)’s Nitish Kumar and the NCP’s Sharad Pawar, given their vast experience and contacts. But a consensus has to be promptly built on the talking points in the lead-up to the pending state elections and the big ticket 2024 polls. A wise beginning has been made by assigning Nitish the task of reaching out to non-BJP outfits unenthusiastic about the Congress’s centrality to the Opposition’s scheme.

Political fronts mature on slow burn

The formalisation of political fronts as was seen in the building of the NDA under BJP (1996-2004) and the UPA (2004-14) under the Congress is a time-consuming process. It took AB Vajpayee three elections to give it shape in 1999 after leaving power for want of majority in the first two attempts. Likewise, the UPA was the work of the Congress’s surprise 2004 victory followed by a better show in 2009. The party not just formed governments but also saved UPA-I when the Left withdrew support on the US-India nuclear deal.

The UPA weathered the storms it faced through back-channel manoeuvres by the late Ahmed Patel who spoke for Sonia Gandhi. There’s no such apparatchik in the Congress ranks now. In the proximate space, Nitish Kumar and Sharad Pawar have the acumen to deliver. Much will depend however on whether the Congress can bring itself around to trusting them.

Learning from past experience, but for the able management of the TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu and the CPM’s Hari Surjeet, the 1996-1998 United Front government that saw two PMs, HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral, would have died at embryonic stage. The choice of Gujral after Gowda’s ouster at the Congress’s behest was choreographed by VP Singh through Naidu. He became the PM because the rickety front needed an administrator who won’t pose a threat, in popularity terms, to other aspirants like the SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav.

To cut the long story short, the Opposition shouldn’t bite more than it can chew. Its ship will sail if all hands are on the deck and in agreement with a blueprint on how to set up and win straight fights against the BJP. Short of that, the vessel might sink before leaving the port.

HT’s veteran political editor, Vinod Sharma, brings together his four-decade-long experience of closely tracking Indian politics, his intimate knowledge of the actors who dominate the political theatre, and his keen eye which can juxtapose the past and the present in his weekly column, Distantly Close

The views expressed are personal

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