The kinetics of karma essentially rests on belief in the principle of causality, in action and reaction, and is Newtonian in concept. The kinetics of politics is also Newtonian in its construct, delivering the cycle of inevitabilities, of cause and consequence. Consolidation of power causes catharsis and catalyzes the unity of those otherwise divided.
The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, from six to 20 states on its own and with allies, has triggered political realignments. On Friday, during the celebration of the party’s foundation day in Mumbai, BJP President Amit Shah deployed a mixed metaphor to define the aggregation of political voices and said that when there is a great flood, all kinds of creatures—snakes, mongooses, cats and dogs—find a big tree to climb on to.
The cacophony in the political discourse is fueled by the much-prophesied earlier-than-May 2019 general election. And parties have staked their identity for survival and relevance. The budget session of Parliament, which was reduced to an adjournments session, provided the perfect backdrop for political action– dinner diplomacy by the Congress, meetings by Mamata Banerjee, mediation by Pawar, networking by Naidu, and evangelism of regionalism by K Chandrashekar Rao.
Shah’s use of the metaphor of the ark of the dispossessed was not unusual given the current dispensation’s yield-no-room doctrine. The tactical use of imagery was rich considering that the import policy of the BJP has resulted in many of the species mentioned finding refuge in the party—a Sukh Ram here and a Tiwari there, and more recently the induction of Naresh Aggarwal and the co-option of Narayan Rane. Be that as it may, the point about the competing contradictions of the cooperators and confabulators is valid—but so would be questions about the BJP’s relationship with Shiv Sena and the alliance with PDP, which is not without contradictions.
The fact is that regional parties–AIADMK, DMK, NC, PDP, TMC, BJD, JD (U), JD(S) – have all partnered the Congress and the BJP sometimes at the Centre, sometimes at the state level and sometimes, as with SP and BSP, in reciprocal arrangements. And all the parties have lived with the contradictions to tell the tale. Indeed, in 1989, the BJP partnered the Left Front to prop up the V P Singh-led National Front government.
No matter the bonhomie of the beginning, all arrangements in coalitions are subject to the maxim of the scorpion and frog fable—where the scorpion takes a ride on a frog to cross the river and then stings it. In politics, who stings whom depends on expediency and context—an assessment of events and eventualities. To be sure, there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics—only permanent interests.
It is not the first instance of the coming together of disparate forces. It happened in the 1970s, triggered by the Emergency and the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi, in the eighties after Rajiv Gandhi’s historic 400-plus seat victory, and following the rout of the Congress in 1996. More recently, in 2004, the presumptuous India Shining slogan triggered anti-BJP sentiments and the return of the Congress, and the victory of NDA II in 2014 was fuelled by arrogance, the implosion of contradictions, and rent seeking by coalition partners. The common factor across the regimes was hubris.
The problem with the quest for the formation of national, united or federal fronts is the missing ‘for’ in the ‘anti’ front. Simply, what do the parties or the front stand for? History has some valuable lessons. The Swatantra Party was perhaps the only party which had a credible ‘for’ agenda in India’s electoral history. In 1967, it argued for economic freedom and won 44 seats. Then, in 1971, it entered the “grand alliance” which had no grand idea. Indira Congress swept the polls, winning 352 seats.
In 1977, the Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal, Socialist Party and Congress (O) came together to form the Janata Party. Indira Gandhi was ousted from power and Morarji Desai became prime minister. The formation won 345 seats but had no formulation to sustain power. It collapsed by 1979. In 1988, V P Singh’s Jan Morcha, formed to take on Rajiv Gandhi, morphed into the Janata Dal. In 1989, it won 143 seats and came to power propped up on the left and the right. Without a sustainable agenda, having failed on its anti-corruption promise, it crumbled by November 1990. In 1996, regional parties, as now, came together to form the United Front. Its lasting legacy was contribution of the phrase, "11-month lease regime", to the political lexicon.
The latest front is yet in the making. Thus far the parties have articulated their own angst and the anger of sections of the populace. The issues of job creation, agrarian distress, the rights of Dalits and tribals, federalism and the spectre of a north-south schism are all real. But what about answers? The median age of India’s population is 29, and 100 million new voters will join the voters list. They are impatient. It is not enough to rant about the problems without providing a template of solutions. Without an agenda that tells the voters what is in it ‘for’ them, the ‘anti’ front will flail and fail.
The quest to defeat the BJP needs a plan that has more than just ‘let’s defeat the BJP’ on the agenda. In 2004, the Congress, despite winning only 145 seats, cobbled together a coalition on a common minimum programme promising inclusion and a new deal to the weakest. In 2014, Narendra Modi presented the Gujarat model as the road to the future and engineered victory for a Parivar till then perpetually at war.
Competitive politics calls for more than just conflict rhetoric. Parties must present alternative narratives of development. Electoral victories need more than just another call-me-by-your-name coalition.
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric
History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India