The Kumbaya moment arrived in India’s political landscape this week. Kum-bah-yah is the phonological representation of the prayerful refrain ‘Come by Here’ sung by African Americans in the 1920s. It is also defined as a pejorative, slang for naïve idealism about rosy-eyed hope of unity by modern-day political lexicographers.
The good news is that a semblance of competition is visible on India’s political landscape. This week West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in Delhi after a historic victory, gave the clarion call of Khela Hobe 2024. The meetings with Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, and Arvind Kejriwal et al are for now at best Kodak moments. As yet, the ‘Unite to defeat Modi’ quest is an idea without a plan.
On the face of it, in 2019 the BJP led by Narendra Modi carved out nearly 230 million votes and over 37 percent of total votes polled. So, theoretically, a coalition of ‘others’ could be engineered to ensure the ouster of the BJP juggernaut and Modi. Politics, however, is not only about sum of pieces arithmetic — there is the geography of affiliation, the history of rivalry and the chemistry of leadership at play.
India’s political economy is no stranger to coalition governments – and contrary to popular perceptions, coalition regimes have even delivered on reforms and growth, whether it was the Rao regime, NDA under Vajpayee, or UPA-I. Historically, every ouster of an entrenched regime has been largely defined by events and by two essential conditions — the willingness of others to come together and the existence of a party in pole position holding a sway in the north or the south. And, the electoral history of India presents compelling validation — coalitions were built around parties which bagged at least 100 plus seats.
The first khichdi coalition was catalysed by the villainy of Emergency and the Janata alliance arrived under the symbol of Bharatiya Lok Dal. It swept 295 seats, mostly capturing the north but not the south. Its fall ushered in the Charan Singh regime which was propped up by the Congress which had 154 seats. Regime change in 1989 was triggered by the implosion within Congress led by V P Singh around the organisation of Janata Dal which bagged 143 seats.
NDA-I was founded on anti-Congressism of regional parties and built around the persona of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the 180-plus seats BJP bagged. It's fall was triggered by the fallout of arrogance in alliance management and the hype of ‘feel good economy’. UPA-I cashed in on the sentiments of those the India Shining slogan left in the dark. In January 2004, Sonia Gandhi walked over from 10 Janpath to 12 Janpath to meet Ram Vilas Paswan, the master of political meteorology, to cobble a coalition of all those who opposed the Congress. She could do so because even at its worst (till then) it had 114 MPs.
The primordial question before the opposition is the absence of a pole star around which the coalition can be built. In the 17th Lok Sabha, the BJP holds over 300 seats and the balance is controlled by the regional parties who like hedge funds have mastered the art of leveraging their limited capital for investment in derivative opportunities — support in Delhi for windfall returns in the state.
In the seventies and eighties, the Congress and Left parties mocked the Jan Sangh calling it a ‘parliamentary party’ with policy ideas and ideology but without a presence. The Congress in 2021 is worse off — the brand is national but is without a saleable product and without visible dealerships. In the 2019 polls, the BJP and the Congress were in a direct face off in 185 seats — nine of ten seats were won by the BJP. In the four states with the largest number of Lok Sabha seats totalling 210, the Congress tally is 5.
Politics, the cliché has it, is the art of the possible — effectively it is the art of painting real and illusory pontoon bridges to span ideological and political differences. The geography of context has altered significantly since 2014 — the rise of the BJP to power in 15 states and its stated goal of domination could arguably catalyse rethink among regional satraps, or trigger reverse mergers.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar, the master of ambiguity, has figured in many of the courtesy calls, meetings and private and public conclaves. Can he resolve the span of inconsistent political equations? Will the Congress dump the Left to go with the TMC? The SP-BSP conundrum will unravel soon enough before the UP polls. Will Naveen Patnaik take sides or stay neutral? What about TRS vs Congress or YSR vs TDP? And in Tamil Nadu, clearly the Kazhagam cousins can’t be under one roof.
Public discourse is riveted around who will be the face of the coalition. First off, the Congress will need to figure out who is its face before they weigh in on who will lead the coalition. The ‘who’ question is important but it is more important for parties to articulate what they stand for, not just who they are against. In the 2014 polls, Modi presented the Gujarat Model and himself as the alternative. Critically, what is the alternative model of governance if any that the aspiring coalition has to offer?
Kumbaya is a prayer of hope. But hope by itself is not a strategy.
Shankkar Aiyar, Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India