Chennai: While the Indian National Congress (INC), as a party of the freedom movement has all along been an ‘implicit coalition’ of various class, caste, religious and linguistic interests, ‘explicit coalition’- different parties with ideological differences coming together in a broad alliance either pre-poll or post-poll- saw its first ‘avatar’ in the V P Singh-led National Front government in 1989.
Three decades hence, in the midst of crucial general elections to the Lok Sabha (LS), to be able to revisit the history of how ‘coalition governments’ has evolved, its nuanced assimilative shades in the people’s quest to ward off political instability at the Centre, until the 2014 LS polls, which by giving a simple majority to the BJP virtually ended the coalition era, is an unenviable task.
Well known Delhi-based journalist and author Saba Naqvi has precisely attempted such a task as several imponderables, seems to make the ongoing 2019 Lok Sabha polls much more than what the author sees as BJP’s ‘conventional calculations’. Saba’s latest work under review, ‘Politics of Jugaad - The Coalition Handbook’, is not any spark plug narrative ahead of the May 23, 2019 votes counting date. Rather, to the author’s credit, it points to what possibly is in store, based on a quick, psephologist’s analysis of the broad voting patterns of the coalition era.
Saba, in refreshing prose, drives the reader through a perceptive snapshot of the coalition era in Indian politics. The challenge to Congress’ hegemony began as early as 1967 when a series of ‘Samyuktha Vidaan Dal (SVD)’ governments came to power in several Hindi-speaking states and a phenomenon like DMK in Tamil Nadu; they all drew on a medley of ideological supports. From erstwhile Jan Sangh, Lohia Socialists to Rajaji’s Swatantra Party, the Left and the Muslim League, the author lays bare the roots of ‘anti-Congressism’ that first concretised as ‘Janata party’, the first ambitious political ‘coalesce’ under JP’s leadership, which drew elements even from Congress (O) opposed to late Mrs. Indira Gandhi.
The point is today’s ‘Hindutva’ is the Jan Sangh, a legacy of the Hindu Mahasabha, plus the gains of the polarising Ram Temple movement. They played hide and seek when late VP Singh played the ‘Mandal’ card, but the BJP’s new brand of the old identity politics- a militaristic-patriotism-driven Hindu religion as supervening all caste, linguistic, cultural differences- came alive with bricks for the ‘Ram Mandir Movement’ under LK Advani’s leadership. Eventually, Bihar’s Lalu Prasad Yadav, a Lohia socialist himself, paid the highest price for it on hindsight.
That movement gave rise to a pragmatic and seemingly moderate poet-Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, the first leader to successfully complete a full term in office as one heading a non-Congress coalition at the Centre (1999-2004). But the right-wing turn to the polity was virtually unstoppable on its tracks. Despite the Godhra violent incidents in 2002, two subsequent phases of Congress-led UPA coalitions, led by a distinguished economist-Prime Minister in Dr Manmohan Singh, ideologically, ‘Hindutva’ got sharper with the rise of Narendra Modi, first as Chief Minister of Gujarat for 12 years and then a ‘cult figure’ post 2014-polls.
What do these recent historical developments mean to the shape and substance of coalitions? A very significant point the author makes is till 1999, the earlier coalitions, propped up with either Congress or BJP plus Left parties support , were all relatively brief, barring the P V Narasimha Rao-led Congress government with support of AIADMK and a few other parties outside; though until then regional parties were already beginning to play a key role in government formations at the Centre, Saba argues that it was the NDA under Vajpayee’s six-year reign, which was “truly representative of the federal nature of India.”
Vajpayee presided over “that significant time in contemporary Indian history when the BJP ended what was called its ‘untouchability’ and it was Vajpayee’s reputation and personal conduct that made it possible for regional parties to flock to the BJP,” says the author. Under Vajpayee, the national partner (BJP) was not threatening to take over the voter bases of the regional parties.
But after 2014, the BJP became a “very different party”. The NDA it heads is only a coalition by name. It was actually “an assertion of single party rule, although technically it was still an alliance.” And the aggressive brand Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine had no qualms about cutting into the social base of regional parties, which has made a big difference to the ‘coalition’ concept.
It explains, for instance why regional parties like the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, after the party supremo J Jayalalithaa passed away in December 2016, has been an easy grab for the BJP. At the other end, other stronger regional parties like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and AGP in Assam have been blowing hot and cold, while TDP led by Chandrababu Naidu had even the quit the NDA last year. All these, the author suggests stems from the apprehension that the BJP under the Modi-Shah dispensation is “eating into the bases of its alliance partners.”
Perceptions of federal character of the Indian polity getting undermined become real when coalitions do not give that space for regional parties interests and their aspirations, irrespective of whether it is Trinamool Congress in Bengal or BJD in Odisha. As the author explains the new trend, “the BJP in the age of PM Modi and Shah is vastly different. It tries to influence the mainstream media narrative and does not lean on allies, but gradually takes over their space. Regional forces have therefore learnt to be wary of the new muscular BJP.”
It is in this larger historical backdrop that author seeks to get rid of “exaggerated fears” about coalitions, for the “extraordinary social composition of India” by itself gives a foothold to political coalitions one way or the other. There is a “great legitimacy to our search for a coalition,” Saba underscores even in the beginning of her book. However, there is a whole range of other concerns that do not make the ‘politics of Juggad’ easy in the Indian context, amid ego clashes of leaders and the way the regional mosaics in terms of number of seats make the big picture.
Saba Naqvi has touched on some of these issues, including the impact of the demonetisation, particularly on specific regional parties like Mayawati’s BSP, the opaque process of funding to political parties, among others. She devotes a full chapter to the ‘coalition conundrum’ in Uttar Pradesh, a very complex state where upper castes constitute 20 per cent of the population and how the political asymmetry vis-a-vis New Delhi and U.P. have played out, as it still has the highest number of 80 Lok Sabha seats and 403 Assembly seats for any single state. But she also raises the question whether ‘national leadership’ should only emerge from U.P. - even Modi had to shift base from Gujarat to Varanasi!
However, there are more imponderables now. “We are on the cusp of events that we cannot fully foresee,” the author writes. Several questions linger like whether Rahul Gandhi would revive the Congress, how the recent Pulwama terror attack would play out, and even whether Nitin Gadkari could be the next Vajpayee!
Saba concludes an eminently readable and perceptive work on a note of revelatory wisdom: “Only a fool would say they know what is coming.”
A few minor errors in expressing the differences in percentage of votes polled across elections would hopefully be corrected in the next edition....