The alliances and adjustments within the front are crucial to the looming battle against the BJP in 2019.
Crafting an interlocking structure of regional parties to defeat the BJP, the principal enemy, and its web of Sangh organisations with their single-point ambition of establishing, ironically, one-party rule in India that would last longer than that of the Congress in its heyday, was never going to be easy. It seems to be getting both harder and easier, in the full glare where every blink and hiccup is monitored for hidden texts.
An absence or even a presence, where an investor in the Federal Front stands vis-a-vis someone else, how far they need to walk during a swearing-in — are all under scrutiny. When Mamata Banerjee didn’t show up at the oath-taking of the new Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh CMs, there was speculation: what made her stay away? The absence of Mayawati, who has underwritten both these new Congress governments by taking a stake in their formation, added to the speculation. The absence of Akhilesh Yadav heaped more fuel on the fire.
In this overheated political atmosphere, every action or non-action is open to multiple readings, for these are unsettled times. If Ms Banerjee stayed home to mourn her mother’s death, the next question is: was that the only reason? Probably yes and no. She would certainly need a very powerful incentive to leave Kolkata on a day that is intensely personal; but if it served to convey a message without words, she would certainly use it, killing two birds with one stone.
In the crafting of the Federal Front, as it’s now called, though this could change, each leader counts. Separately, they are dominant political players on their own turf; collectively they are powerful enough to challenge the BJP now, and if circumstances require the Congress as well. The maturing of the idea of the federal structure, where power is shared, not delegated, between the states and the Centre, is beginning to gain the muscle it lacked earlier. A leader missing from the dais is therefore of consequence; for the BJP and the Congress, and by default the front’s creators.
The alliances and adjustments within the front are crucial to the looming battle against the BJP in 2019.The one seat-one candidate from the Opposition formulation as a winning strategy against the BJP by Ms Banerjee was designed to prevent anti-BJP votes from splitting, and thus wasted. It’s a simple yet effective counter to the BJP, which in large parts of the country has a core constituency of less than 35 per cent votes (as seen in 2014 too). The Opposition’s combined strength, therefore, is more than the Sangh’s even after it mobilises all its votes.
The strategy is an effective counter to the BJP’s derisive references to regional party alliances as “khichri” partnerships, that are opportunistic combines to seize and grab power. It confirms the strength, maturity and capability of the Opposition to work smoothly as a collective on the basis of consensus. It also signals to voters that the Federal Front is worth voting for; it is not as domineering as the BJP, nor as arrogant and cannot by the very nature of its composition ride roughshod over the interests of farmers, the working class and youth and hope to get away with it.
Readjustments in the original strategy of one seat-one contestant formula are now needed. The remarkable turnaround of the Congress from a party that was better at losing elections to a party that has set up governments in three states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — has somewhat altered the dynamics. The Congress won in these three states effectively on its own; it did not enter into electoral alliances with the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party. The new governments in MP and Rajasthan may have won more seats if these alliances had been in place, but that is water under the bridge.
The re-emergence of the Congress as a major party capable of winning elections and leading the nation strengthens the fight to defeat the BJP. It also weakens the significance of the regional parties to some degree. A weaker Congress would have been the add-on to the Federal Front’s strategy; instead, the regional parties will have to reconsider how the one party-one contestant formula will work with the Congress as a serious contender for that one seat in several states, especially in the Hindi heartland.
It is obvious that leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Farooq Abdullah have gone back to the drawing board to find a new tactic that would be sufficient to tackle a stronger Congress. Reiterations like the one by Ms Banerjee, that the regional parties would collectively decide on who should be Prime Minister when they win, serves to highlight the problem on the one hand and offer a solution on the other.
In the very pointed welcome to the just-concluded SP-BSP-RJD electoral alliance in Uttar Pradesh, Ms Banerjee has signalled that the federalising regional parties are anti-Congress as well as being anti-BJP. The dilemma of a stronger Congress is that it affects the calculations of the regional parties on the number of seats they can win from their home states and use as leverage for government formation if the BJP bombs in 2019.
The collective of the Opposition regional parties was and is a work in progress. It has three principal issues to which it needs to find answers — What ought to be its relationship with the Congress? How should the constituent parties work out the one seat-one contestant formulation on the ground? And should the Congress win enough seats to lead a government at the Centre, what should the collective do?
Regional parties need the status of important ministries at the Centre; it adds to the aura of the party. Leaders like Ms Banerjee have sat at the high table even when her strength in West Bengal politics was much less than now. As the likeliest number two party in Parliament to the Congress as number one, the Trinamul Congress has serious stakes in the dynamics within the Federal Front and with the Congress. Before December 11, Ms Banerjee was under pressure from the BJP. Now she is much less so, even if the Sangh uses identity politics to stir up trouble in West Bengal. More pressing are concerns for the future; the hiccups of crafting the front and forming a government with the Congress.