Telangana chief minister and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) supremo K. Chandrasekhar Rao, flush with his impressive victory in the state Assembly elections on December 11, got back to his coalition-building exercise which he began earlier and gave the tentative name of “Federal Front”. It included at that time West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress (TMC) and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD). He was supposed to have met Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati and Samajwadi Party (SP) president Akhilesh Yadav. His fellow Telugu rival, Andhra Pradesh chief minister and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chairman N. Chandrababu Naidu, has allied with arch-rival Congress Party, though it is not yet clear whether he has become a part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. Mamata Banerjee is looking out for an option of a coalition where she does not have to go with the Congress and the UPA.
It is that time when alliances are re-alliances are being reworked. Mr Rao’s coalition will not have a place for the Congress and the TDP because then he would lose his own pre-eminence. In the Banerjee-Patnaik-Mayawati-Yadav tieup, Mr Rao will be on an equal footing with the others. If the Congress is to be accommodated, then all of them will take the second place, which they would not want to do. It appears that he wants to build a “Third Front”, which could subsequently deal with the UPA from a position of strength if the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) were to lose its majority in May 2019. There is also the distinct possibility that Mr Rao’s so-called Federal Front could do a deal with the NDA as well. Like Mr Naidu, Mr Rao too is an extreme pragmatist and he would not hesitate to deal with the BJP. Mr Rao and Mr Naidu are not uncompromising ideological opponents of the BJP.
This would mean that there will be no grand coalition against the BJP. There will be at least two anti-BJP groupings. The BJP will be tempted to feel satisfied that there is a scope for winning over some of the regional parties to its side after the election.
Many political pundits are looking at a polarised 2019 election where the BJP would play the Hindutva card more aggressively than ever before, and it is assumed that all the other parties would then have to be on the other side. The argument will then be put forward that the only way to defeat Hindutva politics for the others is to form a united front against the BJP. The Congress and the BJP, the two big parties, would want to make it an ideological war between Hindutva and secularism. There are complications here too. The BJP would chant secularism even as it mobilises its Hindutva forces. The Congress will harp the loudest on secularism and at the same time make the necessary overtures to Hindutva sentiments. The presence of the many regional parties with their undisputed electoral strengths would make ideological dichotomy an impossibility.
The BJP has been trying hard to break the strongholds of the regional parties, but this has not proved successful so far. The right-wing party did taste success in Tripura, and it is emboldened to believe that it could gain ground in neighbouring West Bengal as well. And it is looking to take advantage of the political vacuum in Odisha, with the BJD holding the fort there even as its strength becomes tenuous with a frail Naveen Patnaik at the top. But the BJP’s utter rout in the Telangana Assembly elections reveals that it cannot dream of an easy success on the regional front. Hindutva might be the BJP’s calling card, but it is not necessarily a winning card. The regional parties, which represent local interests, provide the perfect foil to the ideologically-minded BJP, Congress and the Communists, now confined primarily to Kerala, with enclaves left in West Bengal and Tripura.
The regional parties and their coming together is likely to force the BJP to rethink its 2019 election strategy. The party is under tremendous pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and others to take the initiative on the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, but this would not give the BJP the electoral advantage that it is seeking. The anxiety of the RSS and VHP is that the BJP may not be able to fulfil the temple promise after the election because then it would not have the numbers. More than its main ideological rival, the Congress, it is the regional parties with their specific local agendas and strengths that appear to be the stumbling block for the BJP.
The third force that Mr Rao is trying to forge is sure to be frustrating for the NDA and for the UPA, but it is this force that would make the Indian polity less toxic in ideological terms. It will force Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi to speak in terms of development rather than in terms of Hindutva vs secularism. If the BJP wants to wean away some of the regional parties to its side, then it will have to put aside its Hindutva, and if the Congress seeks the support of the regional parties, it will have to give up its imperious attitude of being the so-called Grand Old Party of India. Mr Rao, Ms Banerjee, Mr Patnaik, Ms Mayawati and Mr Akhilesh Yadav are not going to play second fiddle either to the BJP or the Congress. It is good news for Indian democracy. The old idea that regionalism represents the fissiparous tendencies in the country does not hold good any longer. It is regionalism that lends glory to nationalism.