Both national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are not in particularly good shape for the upcoming general election. While the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which has been in power for nine years, will have to counter strong anti-incumbency, the Opposition BJP is currently afflicted with serious infighting, with a small but significant section of the party, headed by L.K. Advani, opposing the projection of Narendra Modi as the party’s face for the 2014 election.
With the Janata Dal United, one of the oldest allies of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), walking out, there is increasing talk of a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative. The formation of a non-Congress, non-BJP dispensation at the centre may seem a bit far-fetched, not just because of numbers, but due to the fact that a lot of regional satraps including Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav and J. Jayalalithaa harbour prime ministerial ambitions. Many of them are mercurial and it is tough to predict their future course of action. It should be stated however, that the proposed Federal front, which is likely to be a grouping of chief ministers from a number of States, and which for the time being includes Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik, may or may not cobble together a coalition at the centre. But, it can play a crucial role in strengthening India’s federal character.
First, the debate on federalism so far has been very narrow and invariably hyphenated with coalition politics. While the national parties overlook a lot of genuine federal demands, some regional satraps have launched long tirades against the Centre without coming up with constructive solutions to the economic and political problems they have with the Centre. The federal front can be institutionalised. Irrespective of the political outcome of the next general election, it can be a bloc which has greater coordination on issues of economic policy, national security and distribution of resources. Second, for the time being, the discourse has been dominated by economic growth. Industrialised States like Maharashtra and Gujarat are drawing all the attention. Such a front could potentially give a platform to the less developed States which have some genuine demands, and which are neglected. This is important, because no specific model can be foisted at a pan-India level, since each State has varying dynamics.
But there are a few issues which remain unanswered with regard to this proposed front. In case it needs to achieve even partial success, it needs to respond to some of the following questions, which are legitimate and likely to be raised by the sceptics. Is this front just a grouping formed with an eye on the general election, or is this a long-term project. Were some parties to join the UPA and the NDA, would there still continue to be an understanding among these regional parties on issues pertaining to States? The front must brainstorm and where leaders of regional parties outside these respective alliances can also participate. On issues like the setting-up of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail, a number of political parties, across the political spectrum, did join hands, yet there was not enough cohesion and coordination.
Second, were the federal front to emerge as a grouping of States and regional parties, what would its ambit be and what are the issues on which it will focus? How will it ensure, that the numerically weaker members of such a grouping are given a voice? Perhaps for this reason alone, it should have a road map.
As eastern voice
Third, while the idea of an eastern club — within the federal front — is laudable, will such a front also ensure that States with lesser parliamentary representation, especially from the North-East, have a voice? Hitherto, not only have they been neglected economically and politically, but they are not given the importance they deserve on foreign policy issues, even though they share borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, two extremely important countries. If the front was not able to do so then it would only be a group of States which are politically relevant.
Fourth, while a political leader will emerge, will there be scope for a coordinator who ensures that there is regular communication between members of the front on important issues?
In conclusion, it is important that the federal front emerges not just merely as an opportunistic coalition, but as a pressure group of States which can help in strengthening India’s federal character. The front should not only seek to capture power but also contribute constructively towards the debate on federalism.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based columnist and policy analyst. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )