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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 8 February 24, 2024

NDA, India and The Coalition Conundrum | Ajay K. Mehra

Saturday 24 February 2024, by Ajay K. Mehra


Prime Minister Narendra Modi has strongly pitched the coming the nineteenth general election in April-May 2024 in terms of a performing leadership (himself) and government and the Congress that has never done anything right since independence. He always criticizes, almost condemns, Nehru in the same breath to highlight his own image. Before that, he pocketed Bihar and Nitish Kumar to kill the perception of an opposition. Even as Rahul Gandhi enters Chhatisgarh on his Bharat Jodo Nyaya Yatra raising several questions of equity and justice, the perception, if not the possibility, of a coalition of opposition parties to give a fight to the BJP gets weak.

Since the BJP under Modi has retained the National Democratic Alliance, a coalition with 39 regional/state parties, several of them do not contribute any MP but some of them have state presence, and has given some of them a share in the government even after getting an absolute majority since the 2014 elections and is in coalition rules several states, India continues to be in the era of coalition politics, which began in India from the first general election. The Congress led United Progressive Alliance does not have the glue of power in New Delhi, but it has in some states, consists of seventeen parties aside from the Congress. Alliances in states have their own character and composition. It is important to chart its emergence and to analyze as to how it will work out now to assess the future scenario.

Coalitions in India

Even as the grand social coalition worked out during the national movement was still alive, political coalitions emerged in the Indian states at the very outset of the election process under the new Constitution in 1952. Madras (Tamil Nadu), Orissa (Odisha), Travancore-Cochin (Kerala) did not return the Congress with absolute majority. Kerala eventually emerged as a model of political coalition as the communist-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front alternated election after election. The decline of the Congress system with the fourth general election (1967) witnessed the party losing power in eight out of sixteen states, which experienced unstable non-programmatic political coalitions with frequent mid-term polls and President’s rule.

We should also factor in the Janata Party, which could not go beyond 29 months due to internal contradictions of the constituent parties, which never merged in spirit and formed a united party only in form to defeat the Congress (I) and Indira Gandhi. So, the contestations for ideology, space and leadership were always on the boil. Eventually, the contradictions, particularly relating to ideology of the RSS, led to its disintegration.

Similarly, the Charan Singh government also was a minority coalition with Congress (S) and it was given ‘outside support’, first time in the history of coalition politics in India, by the Congress (I). Since Prime Minister Charan Singh could not comply with Indira Gandhi’s condition of writing off all the charges against her, the Congress (I) withdrew the support in 23 days only and he resigned. Of course, his government lasted for six more months, without facing parliament even for a day, because President Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy declined the claim of the Janata Party leader Jagjivan Ram and dissolved the Lok Sabha and ordered fresh elections.

V.P. Singh, once a close confidant of Rajiv Gandhi, fell out with him on issues relating to raids on industrialists (he was the Finance Minister then) and the Bofors Gun deal (he was the Defence Minister then) and made a big issue of corruption in high places. He left the government and the Congress on 12 April 1987. He formed Jan Morcha, which later grew into Janata Dal with its merger with Janata Party and Lok Dal. The coalition National Front with DMK, TDP and AGP won the 1989 general election. Singh formed the government with a right (BJP) and a left (the Left Front) crutch. A collapse was writ large in this paradox. Eventually, the Mandal (Commission) and kamandal (L.K. Advani’s rath yatra that became the axis of the Hindutva politics since then) led to the end of this experiment on 10 November 1990, in just eleven months. Frustrated in 1989 with the manner of V.P. Singh’s election as the leader of the coalition, Chandra Shekhar formed the next government with the ‘outside support’ of the Congress, only to resign after seven months as he was exasperated with the way the Congress treated him, particularly when the party agitated on the issue of two cops posted outside the house of Rajiv Gandhi.

With a hindsight, in the unique 1996-98 two H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral United Front governments, the absence of the BJP (161), or the Congress (140), as the axis became the problem as these two were coalitions of regional/state parties supported by the Congress from outside. The three national parties Janata Dal (46) and CPM (32) were in the forefront with an assortment of regional/state parties. A group of satraps decided the prime ministerial candidate in both the cases, in the wee hours of morning in case of Gujral, and the Congress once again provided ‘outside support’, which turned out to be as fickle as ever. Henceforward, the emergence of regional/state parties as a crucial component of coalition politics in India impacted the future coalitions.

With the stepping in of the BJP in 1998 (182) as the axis of coalition making brought in stability in coalition politics. This also did away with the phenomenon of ‘outside support’ that was responsible for the instability of the Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral governments. However, the first post-poll NDA failed and fell due to one vote of the AIADMK. The post-poll NDA in 1999 survived a full term and remained intact despite the 2004 and 2009 losses, which paid dividends in 2014 with the identification of then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as a national leader. Henceforward, the two Dravida parties – DMK and AIADMK – kept hopping between the BJP and the Congress depending on their own political and power priorities.

The UPA (2004) was a post-poll alliance and 2009 was a pre-poll with the Congress as the axis. But the Congress turned stiff and spurned the Samajwadi and RJD offers to join the alliance after the poll. Obviously, the Congress was both arrogant considering its past dominant status and not open to the compulsions of the coalition politics that demands flexibility for cohabitation and power sharing. Unlike the BJP, the Congress has been unable to keep smaller parties with it with a long-term perspective.

Complexities Today

The first factor that must be taken into consideration in the analysis of the coalition scenario for 2024 is the status of the regional/state parties. The parties with their bases restricted in states and regions, smaller than the national parties but many of them capable of winning more seats in their spheres than the national parties, have been a major component of India’s political scenario. The presence of the regional parties in Lok Sabha witnessed a rise since the 1990s, but plateaued at nearly one-third of the votes and seat shares at the national level since 1999. While they still command influence in some states, including in the south and the north-east, they remain constrained in the rest of the country. The decline of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (technically it claimed the status of a national party for a few years) in UP and fickleness of the party system in Bihar also impacted the overall strength of the regional parties in national politics.

As we look at the coalition confusion of the INDIA, two facts are clear at the outset. First, as the NDA leader, the BJP begins on a solid turf with power-glue on its side. Aside from the settled leadership question, it has a good record of keeping coalitions for a decade despite an absolute majority, despite an impression that the party has been not very ally-friendly – the Shiromani Akali Dal left the NDA in 2020 on the government’s neglect of the farmers fearing the loss of farmers support in Punjab. Being in power as the largest party in the polity, the BJP has the glue to attract parties to the NDA. The Modi government has made shrewd move by conferring the Bharat Ratna en masse to four leaders to lure away not only individual leaders of Congress but the socialists and smaller parties. The Rashtriya Janata Dal led by former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh’s grandson Jayant Choudhary has expressed intention to come to NDA. The SAD is also inclined. Nitish Kumar is already in the fold with his JD (U). We have to watch if more get attracted as the election draws closer. As the party begins scouting for partners in the south, JD (S) is already on board in Karnataka, it is attempting to target TDP and YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh. The two Andhra Pradesh leaders – Chandrababu Naidu and chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, though rivals in the state, are already knocking at the door of Prime Minister Modi. There are attempts to go beyond AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. It is also playing its politics deftly. With the conferring of the Bharat Ratna on former Prime Minister and Jat leader of UP Chaudhary Charan Singh, the BJP has created the possibility of the Rashtriya Lok Dal to join its alliance. We have to see how it takes shape closer to the election.

The INDIA alliance still appears to be in a bind. First, even though the Congress is the only second party, aside from the ruling BJP, that has an all-India appeal, it lacks both the trust and the appeal to act as a glue for a coalition as it did not nurture the regional party partners in the manner of the BJP. Second, being a pan Indian political idea and organizational appeal, the Congress appears to evoke apprehension of possible absorption and submergence among the smaller parties. The leadership question also raises discomfort among the regional/state parties that control a state. Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Arvind Kejriwal have already made their leadership claims clear. Though neither Rahul Gandhi nor the Congress has pressed any claim, trepidations amongst partners and prospective partners are strong, because some of the satraps see themselves as better placed and grounded than anyone – and particularly Rahul Gandhi – in the Congress. No wonder, each of the prospective INDIA component is either allotting Congress limited seats even before the partners sit together to decide the matter. While Mamata Banerjee has not only declared her intention to go solo in the 2024 election, she has also strongly stated a major loss for the Congress, finding itself well-settled in Punjab, Kejriwal has declared its solo run in the state. Only the time will determine if the not only the coalition, but also the individual components would suffer losses, or the BJP will make massive gains as they have been declaring. One thing, however, is clear that in case of an unlikely prospect of a post-poll agreement emerges, the parties will spoil their chances and public image with an avoidable slugfest.

Looking Ahead

There are several steps that INDIA cannot take now as they are still behind the schedule to act together and act fast, but there are steps that they must take immediately to retrieve the situation from completely out of hands. The BJNY, for example, should have been planned as an INDIA project. Even if Rahul Gandhi led it, there should have been as many as possible smaller yatras consisting of the INDIA partners, from several district headquarters coming and joining the main yatra at designated points, and should have moved together from those points talking of the weaknesses of the Modi government and about their own governance agenda. There should have been a common programme/manifesto/agenda announced before the yatra commenced. Contrary statements should have been completely avoided. The seat sharing should have been done by a collective leadership sitting in camera with pragmatism and announced without letting cracks be visible. A common governance agenda collectively prepared should have been announced. A common campaign committee should have been going door to door by now with their agenda for governance or a common minimum programme.

Ayodhya inauguration has given the BJP and Modi a head start. The INDIA is trapped in its paradoxes. The components can retrieve some ground even now by returning to the table and avoiding self-injuries in order to damage the Congress to strengthen themselves. They may be sitting in their perceived fortresses, but there are too many Achilles’ heels and the BJP has never been shy of displaying and operationalizing its predatory strategies.

(Author: Prof. Ajay K. Mehra is a political scientist. He was Atal Bihari Vajpayee Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, 2019-21 and Principal, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Evening College, Delhi University (2018))

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