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Chasing a rainbow alliance

By-poll results show that Narendra Modi can be challenged. Yet Opposition unity is more easily proposed than achieved

When four years ago, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha, there was not a shred of doubt about the new Prime Minister’s pre-eminent position in Indian politics. He was astonishingly popular with a committed, almost fanatical following. As he won election after election, taking his party to the farthest corners, his legend acquired superhero dimensions. Convinced of his invincibility, critics and admirers alike began speaking of 2024 as the election that might challenge him.

Change in the air?

With a year to go before Mr. Modi’s term ends, few will dispute that his persona still overwhelms and he has no rivals to match. Yet something somewhere is not quite the same. He can still walk into the fag end of a losing election campaign and turn it around. That’s become the expected thing, in fact. But there is a weariness about the victories, a realisation that more often than not they are products of deliberately provocative and polarising messaging. There is similarly a feeling of contrived smartness to Team Modi’s stratagem of conjuring governments out of defeat, seen in Goa, Manipur, and most stunningly in Meghalaya, where the BJP won only two of 60 seats. In the recent election to the Karnataka Assembly, the formula bombed and the BJP was beaten at its own game by the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S).

Today the BJP is in power, either on its own or with its allies, in 19 of 29 States. Yet there is the paradox of the party winning the big elections and losing the by-polls. In the latest round of by-polls, it managed to win only two of 15 seats (one of each in four Lok Sabha and 11 Assembly seats); it lost the third consecutive Lok Sabha by-poll in Uttar Pradesh. On all three U.P seats, the BJP’s opponents got together to beat it. In Kairana this month, the victory of Tabassum Hasan, a Muslim woman, was particularly significant for defeating the polarisation attempts made during the campaign.

Whatever the future of Opposition unity, there is a message in the statistics for the Prime Minister. In peak form in 2014, Mr. Modi could capture a vote share of only 31.34 % for the BJP, which is historically the lowest vote polled by a party winning an absolute majority nationally. To put this in perspective, with a vote share of 39.53% Rajiv Gandhi lost the 1989 election. With a vote share of 34.52% cent, Indira Gandhi’s Congress sat in the Opposition in 1977. How did this happen? Mr. Modi was unassailable against a splintered opposition whereas Indira and Rajiv Gandhi were defeated by a combined Opposition. Also, in the first-past-the-post system, the winner is decided as much by how well the opponent fares. In 2014, the BJP’s triumphant march to a full majority was aided equally by the Congress’s dismal showing. The BJP had a 12 percentage point lead over its nearest rival. The results might have been different had the Congress performed better or if the Opposition had been more united.

If this ought to discomfit Team Modi, consider the fact that in the majority of State Assembly elections held since 2014, the BJP’s vote share has dropped well below what it polled in the Lok Sabha election. A comparison shows that in Bihar, the drop was from 29.86% to 24.42%. In Goa, from 54.12% to 32.48%. In Gujarat, where it won all 26 Lok Sabha seats, from 60.11% to 49.05%. In Uttarakhand, from 55.93% to 46.51%; in Karnataka from 43.37% to 36.20% and in West Bengal from 17.02% to 10.16%. The BJP could not do an encore even in U.P, where it picked up 71 of 80 Lok Sabha seats. Its massive haul of 312 of 403 Assembly seats came on a vote share of 39.67%, marking a three percentage point drop compared to 2014.

What-ifs

Should the declining trend continue, the BJP will find it harder to win a majority in 2019. Winning will become an uphill task in the event Opposition unity, dazzlingly displayed at the swearing in of H.D. Kumaraswamy as Karnataka Chief Minister and witnessed in the string of by-elections, stays the course and translates into votes on the ground. Opposition leaders have figured that formidable as the BJP under Mr. Modi is, it can be beaten comprehensively if the party’s opponents form rock-solid state-level alliances. Karnataka, where the Congress and the JD(S) pushed back the BJP via a deftly executed post-poll pact, has shown the way. Estimates suggest that together the two parties might have crossed the 150 mark in the 224-member State Assembly. In the Lok Sabha, a Congress-JD(S) alliance could mean only six of 28 seats for the BJP.

A pre-poll pact between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in U.P is similarly capable of delivering blockbluster results. A simple addition of the vote shares of the two parties in the February 2017 Assembly election shows them to be match-winners against the BJP. Opposition seat-sharing in Karnataka and U.P. alone can set the BJP back by 70 or more seats, not to mention the magnified effect of the formula being adopted in other States.

This is as far as theory goes. In practical terms, synchronised State-wise Opposition unity is easier spoken of than done. Alliances work best when the vote bases of partners are complementary rather than overlapping or antagonistic, and party workers and leaders alike are able to see the larger picture. Most importantly, alliances work when there is mutual respect and the senior partner or the supporting party does not get carried away by an exaggerated sense of self-worth.

Unfortunately, the history of coalition governments in this country does not inspire confidence. Lofty sentiments expressed prior to alliance formation tend to melt away and ideological considerations take a back seat when the exigencies of seat-sharing and later ministry-making kick in. The Karnataka example is already before us. A week into his Chief Ministerial tenure, an exasperated Mr. Kumaraswamy was quoted as saying he was obligated to the Congress, the senior partner, and not to the people of Karnataka. This is an ominous sign given the Congress’s reputation for acting imperious when in a superior position and its unedifying record of pulling down governments at the Centre.

Trail of fallen governments

Between 1979 and 1997, the Congress toppled four governments, led each by Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral. As he exited, Mr. Gowda reminded former Prime Minister and the then leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, P.V. Narasimha Rao, of the promise he had made to him: “History will not say that it was because of the Congress party that this government has fallen.” To be sure, it is a different Congress that is today in the forefront of Opposition unity efforts. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have been chastened by the successive routs since 2014, and in any event they are gentler versions of the dictatorial yesteryear Congress bosses.

The Congress has a special responsibility in Karnataka. The model has absolutely to succeed for Opposition unity elsewhere to succeed. One wrong step, one sign of power lust, and the BJP, with all its failures and some more, will come out looking vastly superior to its squabbling opponents.

Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.

E-mail: vidya.subrahmaniam@thehinducentre.com

 

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 5:56:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/chasing-a-rainbow-alliance/article24061338.ece

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