A ragtag opposition front may turn out to be a blessing for the Prime Minister in 2019
PR Ramesh | 31 May, 2018
ON MAY 25TH, a Twitter post on MyVoteToday asked people to vote for a definitive change in the Constitution that would make it mandatory for any party to electorally win a minimum of 51 per cent of the seats in any legislative body to stake a claim to form a government. Citing the example of the Karnataka Assembly elections, the tweeter said in a video that despite winning 104 seats in a 224-strong house and emerging as the single largest party, just eight short of the half-way mark, the BJP was thwarted from power in the state. The Congress and JD(S), with a joint total of 116 seats, formed a post-poll alliance and pipped the BJP to the post. This, after the spectacle of the Congress sequestering their MLAs to stop them from taking a decision based on their conscience in the vote of trust in the Assembly that the BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa, sworn in as Chief Minister earlier by Governor Vajubhai Vala, was to undergo.
“The Constitution is unclear on who should be called to form the government in such a situation. Do you want our democracy to be strengthened and the Constitution to be clear on this so that people are not deprived of a good government through a circus that allows elected members to be locked up? Vote ‘Yes’, if you want changes in the Constitution, and ‘No’, if you want the chaos to continue,” exhorted the voice in the video. With three days to go for the test of strength, 76 per cent of the 10,500 or so respondents had voted in the affirmative.
The tweeter may have been prescient about the unsteady government that the Congress and JD-S—with the former ostensibly offering ‘unconditional’ support to the latter—had put together to block the BJP from taking charge. Just days after he was sworn in as Chief Minister, the JD(S)’s HD Kumaraswamy made a statement signalling that all was not well with the alliance. On May 28th, after prolonged negotiations between Karnataka’s two new alliance partners, he said he was at the ‘mercy’ of the Congress rather than the state’s people. “The people of the state rejected me and our party. I had sought an absolute majority. I have heard the statements of farm leaders too and how much they supported me,” he said. “I have some compulsions as a politician. Mine is not an independent government. I had requested the people to give me a mandate that prevents me from succumbing to any pressure other than you. But I did not get an absolute majority, meaning that the people rejected me and my party. Today I am at the mercy of the Congress. I am under pressure to not be accountable to the 6.5 crore people of the state.”
Kumaraswamy’s statement came within days of his oath-taking ceremony that had in attendance a host of political leader such as Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Yadav and Sitaram Yechury. As if to make a larger point of opposition unity, West Bengal Chief Minister Banerjee had even tweeted birthday greetings to the CPM Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan a few days later—in spite of the bitter rivalry between the CPM and Banerjee’s TMC, heightened by recently held panchayat polls in Bengal. Many political commentators drew analogies with the coming together of the BSP and SP in Uttar Pradesh—as seen in the recent bypolls of Gorakhpur and Phulpur—to check the electoral gains of the BJP. Opposition forces did seem to be joining hands. Banerjee greeted Yechury with a smile, the SP chief Akhilesh Yadav sat next to the BSP’s Mayawati, who had a friendly chat with Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, the RLD’s Ajit Singh—whose candidate was supported by the joint opposition in UP in the recent Kairana polls—rubbed shoulders with other UP leaders, and Chandrababu Naidu, until recently an ally of the BJP, made a point of cosying up with opposition leaders. Among prominent non-BJP leaders, missing were the TRS’s Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao and the BJD Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
Yet, it was Kumaraswamy’s revelations of differences between him and the Congress leadership that serves as a pointer to the prospects of the opposition ahead of the General Election next year. Whether he had a mandate as its leader was doubtful anyway, with his party’s candidates having lost their deposits in as many as 100 constituencies in the recent polls. But he announced he would resign if he could not push through his campaign promise of a farm loan waiver. The implications were clear. Fissures were already surfacing in the new alliance, a suspicion confirmed by a tug-of-war over ministerial portfolios. The Congress reportedly staked its claim to 22 of them, apart from the Deputy Chief Minister’s post. The JD-S had to settle for 12 departments, plus the top leadership.
The current scenario resembles efforts to overthrow the Indira Gandhi government in the 1970s. Opposition leaders are trying to drum up revulsion against Modi in an effort to repeat the old experiment
The Finance portfolio saw a full-blown battle between the partners. The Congress was keen to keep this portfolio. Since Congress President Rahul Gandhi was indisposed, the state party leadership could not thrash out an amicable settlement, and Kumaraswamy was able to mount pressure on his party’s ally with his public statements—issued just before his Delhi trip to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Union ministers.
There are other signs that opposition parties are on a weaker footing than they claim they are in taking on the BJP jointly. Consider Uttar Pradesh. BSP supremo Mayawati, who had supported SP candidates who won against the BJP in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, had spoken at that time of considering a similar alliance for 2019. But now she appears to be rethinking the idea. She recently said her party was in talks with others for tie-ups in various states, and any deal would depend on whether the BSP got a ‘respectable’ number of seats to contest in any such arrangement. Warning that the BJP would redouble its efforts to triumph in 2019 after its setback in Karnataka, she said the BSP would keep its options open on going it alone, should that prove a better political bet. To those who take an anti-BJP front for granted, these are sobering words.
In 2008, Yeddyurappa had garnered 110 seats for the BJP in Karnataka. Despite his government later running into a squall of corruption charges, the party won 103 seats this time round, with Modi’s final stretch campaign whirlwind of 21 rallies having boosted its appeal. The Prime Minister had lambasted the Siddaramaiah government of the Congress and its top leaders at the national level.
Karnataka was crucial to the opposition, which pinned hopes on this southern state to stop Modi’s advance deeper south into peninsular India, signalling a success against the BJP one year ahead of the next General Election. The Hindi-Hindutva centric BJP, many reckoned, would have to contend with an electorate ill disposed to the party’s typical approach. Accordingly, both the Congress and JD(S) tried to emphasise issues of regional identity and sentiments. The Congress drew out a series of cards to be played: pro-Kannada and anti-Hindi linguistic chauvinism, a state flag proposal, minority status for Lingayats (an attempt to split a big Hindu vote base of the BJP), the issuance of orders aimed at pleasing Muslims, and warnings for Dalits that the BJP was against them. Full use was also made of social media, which was awash with hashtags put out by former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.
At the national level, various opposition leaders watched keenly for Karnataka to form a fulcrum of unity around which the scales could be tipped against the BJP in 2019. Congress leaders were hopeful that the outcome would signal that the party was in recovery mode.
Once the results were out, it was clear that the Congress had suffered significant reversals. Not only did ten ministers of the Siddaramaiah government lose their seats, he himself lost his Chamundeshwari seat and just about managed to scrape through in Badami. In contrast, the BJP had more than doubled its tally from its 40 seats of 2013, an Assembly election that it fought without Yeddyurappa, who had formed a separate party called the Karnataka Janata Paksha a year earlier after being forced out of chief ministership on corruption charges in favour of Jagadish Shettar.
The Congress may be the only anti-BJP party with all-India reach, but it is under pressure from potential regional allies on whose shoulders it hopes to gain numbers in its quest for power at the Centre
The opposition has celebrated Karnataka as a success of its project to join hands against India’s ruling party. Such an attempt to gang up on a highly popular leader in India does have a precedent. The current scenario resembles efforts to overthrow the Government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the height of her power in the 1970s. The common factor then was their animosity to her, and it became clear that anti-Congress leaders of the time lacked a cohesive vision for the country beyond what they saw as a need to oust her.
Anti-Modi leaders are now trying to drum up revulsion for the Prime Minister in an effort to repeat the old experiment. For the General Election of 1971, the opposition had joined forces and raised a war cry of ‘Indira Hatao’, but it was no match for Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ at the hustings. It was poverty that people wanted to be rid of, not her as their leader. She was re-elected. Likewise, today’s ‘Modi Hatao’ agenda that the opposition has forged seems unlikely to succeed.
The war with Pakistan later in 1971, which resulted in the formation of Bangladesh, led to a series of events that saw Indira Gandhi concentrate power in her hands. In June 1975, as opposition to her grew, she declared a State of Emergency that suspended the constitutional rights of citizens and jailed several opposition leaders to ‘restore order’. In the General Election of 1977 that followed that bleak phase, Indira Gandhi was defeated by an opposition newly united under the umbrella of the Janata Party, an experiment that fell flat not long afterwards on account of sharp differences within the anti-Congress Government that had taken office on the agenda of dethroning Gandhi. In a power tussle within the Janata Party, Morarji Desai was replaced by Charan Singh as Prime Minister, and the whole idea came apart well before the Lok Sabha’s five-year term was done. With the electorate fed up of the incoherence and instability, Indira Gandhi returned triumphant to power in the General Election of 1980.
The next big coming together of opposition parties to overthrow a government with a majority in Parliament was in the late 1980s, the event that Congress President Rahul Gandhi recently referred to. It was the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi, with over 400 Lok Sabha seats won after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, that was defeated in the General Election of 1989 by a joint effort of the Left and Right. VP Singh of the Janata Dal assumed charge as Prime Minister of a government propped up by the CPM as well as BJP, but this formation too collapsed. Among the reasons for its failure was the lack of a common policy vision. The Janata Dal itself has since splintered into several regional parties, Kumaraswamy’s JD(S) among them.
Modi seems attuned to the possible emergence of a grand opposition alliance for 2019. He appears armed for a battle that would pit him against the rest. In Baghpat, UP, on May 27th, the Prime Minister signalled that he would adapt a leaf from Indira Gandhi’s playbook of 1971, when she distinguished herself from her opponents thus: “Yeh kehte hain ‘Indira hatao’, main kehti hoon, garibi hatao.” The last two words are regarded as India’s most powerful electoral slogan ever, perhaps aside from Lal Bahadur Shastri’s earlier ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’. The extra layer that Modi has would be nationalism, as gleaned from his Baghpat speech. “To run down Modi,” he said, “they are running down India.”
While the BJP’s ‘Saaf Neeyat, Sahi Vikaas’ (Clear intent, correct development) advertising slogan has begun to play across various media platforms to mark four years of its governance, the Prime Minister’s own speeches look set to slam the opposition for their anti-Modi approach. This could serve Modi well in a presidential style campaign.
An anti-Modi stance taken by parties in Bihar, Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh could offer the BJP an opportunity to reach out to new sections of the electorate and eat into the main opposition’s areas of influence. The anti-Modi line-up has been claiming that electoral arithmetic is on their side. Not really. Quite aside from the fissures within their camp—as seen in Karnataka and UP—the opposition’s unity is unlikely to make a difference to poll outcomes in large tracts of India. The next General Election will see a direct fight between the BJP and Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Gujarat. So non-Congress anti-BJP parties will have almost no role to play. In Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the BJP is not among the dominant political forces, so an anti-BJP front has no electoral relevance. Also, there are leaders among the ‘united’ opposition who have done political business with Modi in the past and would likely do so again if the numbers in 2019 work out in favour of the BJP retaining power. Several regional parties may find they do not have much to gain politically from taking a rigid anti-BJP stance—the TRS, TDP, DMK, JKNC, BJD, INLD and BSP among them. While these parties may join an anti-BJP alliance for 2019, given their track record, there is no saying whether they will shift their loyalty to the BJP in a post-poll scenario.
The Congress may be the only anti-BJP party with all-India reach, but it is already under pressure from potential regional allies on whose shoulders it hopes to gain numbers in its quest for power at the Centre. This compounds the challenges of coalition management that Rahul Gandhi faces.
The Congress may believe that 2019 is a game wide open now and that what happened in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era will repeat. Maybe a ragtag opposition front is all that Narendra Modi needs, apart from his proven magic on the stump, for re-election.