Noted economist John Kenneth Galbraith had once remarked, “Nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.” So, when the Prime Minister lashed out at the supposed “Mahagathbandhan”, or the “Grand Alliance”, of the opposition for being “a club of rich dynasties”, “opportunist” and an “unholy alliance of various political parties for personal survival”, the history of Indian politics may serve as a ready tutorial for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Most of the non-Congress political parties that exist in India today have been the forbearers of coalition governments in India — the “Samyukta Vidhayak Dal” and the “Janata” experiment of the 1960s and ’70s. The political ancestors of the BJP have been active participants in such political formations. Based on Ram Manohar Lohia’s idea of consolidating all non-Congress votes, the Jan Sangh (earlier political version of the BJP), the Swatantra Party, and the socialist parties formed government in nine states in 1967, and later in 1977 and 1989, toppled the Congress party by forming a coalition of oddly defined ideological entities. The Jana Sangh and later the BJP were a significant party to these developments. The National Front government of V.P. Singh was supported by both the BJP and the Left parties in 1989–90.
These were formed not just to oppose the hegemony of the Congress, but often acted as representatives of the growing caste-based, regional and linguistic interests against the autocratic, top-down rule of New Delhi. Consequently, these weaker democratic entities, irrespective of their ideologies, coalesced together time and again to form coalitions and gain power in states and at the Centre. In the past, such alliances were formed to defeat Congress. In a reversal of state of affairs, the weaker parties now seek to balance the scales against the now dominant BJP.
When Prime Minister Modi hits out at these parties, he ends up alienating a significant portion of India’s electorally strong constituencies and denying BJP’s own culpability in the history of “interest-driven” coalition politics in India. The so-called club of rich dynasties, according to the current political scenario, include the non-BJP, non-NDA constituents. It comprises of the Congress-led UPA and several regional satraps who have yet to decide between a coalition led by the Congress party or a loosely stitched federal front.
The constituents of the UPA include the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) of Upendra Kushwaha in Bihar, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu. Congress is part of a coalition government in Karnataka with the Janata Dal (Secular). In the recent assembly elections, Congress aligned with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) of Chandrababu Naidu in Telangana. It is important to keep in mind that not long ago, TDP, HAM and RLSP were members of the BJP-led NDA.
While talks of pre-poll coalition are still on, there are a number of political parties who are yet undecided, apprehensive of both the Congress and the BJP, and more inclined to wait and watch the long race to 2019. There has been a clamour for bringing together these parties. Whether or not they align under the umbrella leadership of the Congress, these parties form a major chunk of the electoral discourse in India.
The yet undecided parties include the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana, the Left front and many others. Most of these parties are in states where the BJP could not make much headway in 2014, and wishes to gain in 2019. Probably, it is best that the Prime Minister and the BJP pay attention to what their patriarch L.K. Advani believed in, “There are five parties (Congress, Left, SP, RJD and the Muslim League parties) that think we are anti-national. Besides these, we are open to aligning with anybody.”
It benefits the Prime Minister to turn the entire political discourse into a “one man vs all” war of a presidential form, but recent analyses suggest that the Prime Minister may not be able to repeat his electoral feat of 2014. Under such circumstances, the BJP, in order to form government in 2019, may need coalition partners. It is more than likely that the club of rich dynasties and opportunists may be the only “Janata” that lead him to a second term.
Avishek Jha is a 2018 Young India Fellow, and is currently a Programme Fellow with Academe India.