It was an occasion of great personal happiness for me when Harivansh Narayan Singh was elected as the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha. He is not only a close friend, but also a colleague in the Janata Dal (United), and in Parliament. Frankly, a person of his temperament, innate humility, and many achievements in the field of journalism and creative writing, should have been elected by consensus. Those who only read English newspapers would not know of the decades of courageous effort he invested in making Prabhat Khabar, a Hindi newspaper with a circulation in hundreds, to a leading daily with a circulation of over a million copies daily, for which I am proud to write for.
His election prompts several interesting aspects. How did a person from the NDA, which lacks a majority in the Upper House, manage to win? No doubt it was a consequence of far better coordination and planning. Apart from the efforts of the BJP, much of the credit must go to Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, for his political acumen and operational dexterity. He achieved first mover advantage by talking well in advance to Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, and to Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telengana. He was also in touch with key players in the NDA, and with fence sitters across party lines, so as to notch up a winning tally of numbers. I can vouch from my own election to the Rajya Sabha, which was fought under unexpectedly difficult circumstances, that at such moments, Mr Kumar is veritably a general in command.
By contrast, the Opposition was transparently lacking in both strategy and planning. Nothing else can explain the defeat of the Congress candidate when the non-NDA parties had greater numbers. Even an agreement on who the candidate would be was taken at the last minute. There was no central coordinating agency, talking to those who could be persuaded, or cajoling those who were disinclined. The entire effort seemed to be mired in drift, with perfunctory consultations, and absence of either proactive energy or pre-emptive initiative. By the day of voting the result was a foregone conclusion.
The key question is: how do a collection of parties, who have the numbers, lose an election? I think the Opposition, as a whole, needs to introspect on this. Perhaps, it is time to convert periodical meetings over lunches and tea, or photo-ops on stage, to the rigour of demonstrably effective strategic coordination, not only at local levels, but nationally. Ultimately, ideological agreement on certain issues needs to be buttressed by an organisational underpinning that focuses on micro detailing. The BJP has converted itself into an electoral machine. Maybe, the Opposition needs to try a little harder to emulate it.
There are some other interesting takeaways from this election. First, there are many leaders of different parties that I have interacted with who said that the result may have been different had the BJP put up its own candidate, or conversely, if the Congress had not. In other words, more parties joined hands with the NDA — and could justify doing so on ideological grounds — precisely because the coalition’s candidate was from the JD(U) and not the BJP. Equally, many parties that may have supported the Opposition did not do so because the candidate was from the Congress. This is not necessarily a reflection on the legitimacy of these parties, or their indispensability in forging a winning coalition on either side of the political spectrum. What it is a pointer to is that, within a coalition, smaller parties cannot be ignored, and that there may arise several occasions, when it is, in fact, in the interest of the larger party, to accept this fact.
Any action as a consequence of such an acceptance should not be viewed as charity, largesse or concession. Coalition politics is about treating all constituents as equals, irrespective of their size. That is precisely why Atal Behari Vajpayee coined the phrase “coalition dharma”. As the 2019 national elections approach, this is the right time to ruminate on what coalition dharma actually means. This dharma recognises that smaller constituents within a coalition may be small in terms of their national footprint, but they represent, in their own regions, and beyond, a significant ideology, mass support, and, very often, towering leaders who have genuinely impacted the lives of vast numbers of people. True coalition dharma must accept this.
It follows then that coalition dharma must eschew politics of domination or imposition by the bigger partner. When that happens, coalitions begin to unravel. Coalition dharma must also accept that India is a land of diversities, and that a one shoe fits all policy may be, for very valid reasons, unacceptable to some of the other constituents. This dharma, therefore, requires the ability of all constituents to have a civilised dialogue with each other. Such a dialogue cannot be dogmatic. It must not compel compromise where comprise is contrary to the core beliefs of any one party, but it must foster, whenever necessary, strategic flexibility and accommodation in the larger interest of the coalition as a whole. One modality to achieve this is for coalitions to agree to a common programme; a charter of minimum goals to which all constituents must commit to. But this charter too must be negotiated, not revealed as fiat. And once agreed upon, it must promise cohesive functioning, and not only good, but democratic governance.
Ultimately, coalition dharma is about human management. Political parties consist, after all, of people, and of leaders, who need to be deftly managed. This may require — especially by the larger party — humility, sacrifice, conversation, the willingness to listen and not to dictate, respect for opposing opinions, and the ability to build a consensus. To all of this, Mr Vajpayee added something, which was his especial trademark: a sense of humour that could disarm the most hostile interlocutor.
My good friend, Harivanshji, may not realise that his election could prompt a great deal of introspection and rethink, both in the NDA and the UPA, and across the political spectrum.