The first-past-the-post electoral system that India borrowed from Westminster and retained after Independence is unquestionably unfair to parties whose support base is dispersed across a wide area. This was the complaint of various notables who taunted the Bharatiya Janata Party for securing a majority in the Lok Sabha in 2014 with just 32 per cent of the popular vote — actually it was near 40 per cent if you add the votes secured by its allies in the National Democratic Alliance.
Responding to the argument then, the supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi shrugged their shoulders and quite rightly pointed to the prevailing rules of the game. Consequently, the argument proffered after the outcome of the Bihar Assembly poll, that the BJP lost conclusively because of the successful aggregation of anti-BJP votes is a bit lame. The electoral system is like plasticine: it can be moulded according to taste and necessity. After 2014, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Congress decided that fighting separately was no longer a viable option and chose to come together against a common foe. The results justify their expediency.
Whether or not this coming together of the anti-BJP parties is unprincipled or opportunistic is a largely academic debate. What matters is that the traditional supporters of the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress did not think so. Contrary to the BJP’s expectations that antagonistic caste groups wouldn’t transfer their votes to other alliance partners, the outcome suggests that — by and large — there was a social and arithmetical aggregation that led to the BJP being decisively overwhelmed. The lessons of the Bihar experience will not be lost on the parties that are not in government at the Centre. It is more than likely that in the coming months, the country is likely to witness attempts to replicate the Mahagathbandhan in other states and in Parliament — all in preparation for the 2019 general election.
This is not to suggest that the relative ease with which the triple alliance was negotiated in Bihar will be effortlessly reproduced in other states. The elephant in the room is undeniably the Congress, which chose (quite prudently) to keep its head down during the Bihar campaign, occupy a small corner of the alliance and reap a spectacular bonanza of victorious MLAs. On his part, Mr Kumar, who had once boasted of anti-Congressism being in his Lohia-ite DNA, didn’t feel too squeamish about allying with the Gandhi family party. As he explained in the course of a pre-election interview, the BJP has replaced the Congress as the dominant party and, consequently, the political focus has shifted with the Congress becoming much weaker than ever before.
The Congress, now energised after Bihar, isn’t likely to view such condescension too charitably. In the coming round of elections, the Congress is a player in Punjab, Kerala and Assam — states where outfits of the Janata Parivar are almost non-existent. This is fortuitous for those seeking a grand alliance of anti-BJP forces. The Congress is the main Opposition in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and it is in government in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand — all states where the fight is directly with the BJP. In West Bengal, where Mamata Banerjee seems poised for a second consecutive victory, the Congress has been reduced to a bit player. Its leadership at the Centre is more inclined to have an informal or unstated understanding with a Communist Party of India (Marxist) whose general secretary Sitaram Yechuri seems inclined to be a version of S.A. Dange and Mohit Sen — Communists with one foot in the “progressive” section of the Congress led, naturally, by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. But then, to complicate matters, there is the Congress versus CPI(M) battle in Kerala.
What this overview of state politics suggests is actually quite dramatic. An association with the Congress may be a source of existential anguish to those who now want Mr Kumar to be the face of the national alternative to Mr Modi. But there does not seem to be any hurdle to the process as long as the focus is confined to state elections in the coming days. The complications are likely to emerge at the national level if the Congress decides that it must play the leading role, with Rahul Gandhi at the helm. As of now the trends are by no means clear and there is a great deal of confidence-building initiatives required before local adjustments translate into a national alliance against the BJP.
The implications of this flurry of activity in anti-BJP circles are ominous for the BJP. For a start, sheer electoral logic must compel the party and the government to be in constant search for the incremental votes. In other words, the BJP cannot afford to prioritise ideological purity over alliance building. Confronted by the sheer force of arithmetic, Mr Modi has to be in constant search for new converts and this implies reaching out to people outside the echo chambers of the committed. The recent round of controversies over identity and attitudinal issues no doubt hardened the BJP’s core support but — as Bihar demonstrated — it failed to draw in the much-needed “soft” extras.
This is only partially a setback. That the vote secured in 2014 has been, by and large, retained and consolidated is a gain. It indicates that the BJP’s core vote has definitely increased way beyond 2004 and 2009. But the time for small steps was over the day the BJP secured a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha. Given the challenges, its political and social outreach has to be far more audacious and imaginative. It may even have to discard some of its inherited baggage. For Mr Modi, the approaching challenges are not merely in governance, they have a large political dimension as well.
The writer is a senior journalist
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