What Congress needs to do to build an anti-BJP front for the 2019 general elections

The history of India’s coalition politics since the 1980s has valuable lessons for the Congress to build an anti-BJP front for 2019

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The Congress had surprised itself by defeating Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004. Sonia Gandhi admitted as much at a Hindustan Times event she attended as chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The 140-odd Lok Sabha seats the Congress won made it the single-largest party — and the sheet anchor of the UPA that ruled for 10 years.

Subject to clause force majeure, the Congress has a good chance to be the largest legislative entity on the anti-BJP side of the political divide. But in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, it will need wisdom and a sense of accommodation to gain acceptability as the kernel of the Opposition alternative to the Narendra Modi dispensation.

The Congress must take its cue from the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav. He seemed to have got the formula right when he said: “Our alliance [with the BSP] will be limited to UP, but if we have to do it at the national level, then perhaps only in seats and states where we have an active organisation…”

The improvised model for the Congress could be: primacy in states where there is a straight fight; a combo approach where tie-ups with regional parties could bolster the anti-BJP challenge; and a realistically junior status where region-centric, caste-based parties are bigger. This could work in UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

Yet, the task of bringing together disparate groups with individual angularities and agendas won’t be easy. The first question the prospective alliance will face is the one the BJP is already asking: Who’s your leader?

The query, though legitimate, is mistimed. Alliances take formal shape after elections, when the party with the largest number of seats gets the first shot at leadership. Broader political acceptance at that stage is in classic bandwagon mode. Everybody wants a seat on the bus!

Having seen the making of coalitions since the 1970s, I’ve reservations about hydra-headed fronts seeking power. Coroner reports of the time show that most such regimes were undone by palace intrigues. Call them leadership disputes if you like.

The Janata Party made possible by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was a confluence of ideologies. There was a grudging consensus in its top echelons on the leadership of Morarji Desai. He was a man too upright to keep strong personalities, including his own, under one roof. As MO Mathai wrote: “Place a Gandhi cap on the Ashoka Pillar and you’d have Morarji…”

Not surprising then that competing ambitions killed the experiment that almost gave India a two-party system — the ruse being the Jana Sangh component’s concurrent ties with RSS. The baby Morarji’s bête noire, Charan Singh, and the Congress surrogated thereafter, was born to an even shorter life.

The era of coalitions, in the sense we know it, began in the 1980s with VP Singh. The Left and the BJP supported his National Front (NF) from the outside. The trigger for the all Opposition line-up against the Congress was the Bofors scam.

But NF’s foundations were weak for three reasons: the atomic nature of its core party, the Janata Dal; the incompatible BJP-CPI(M) limbs that carried its torso; and Chandrashekhar’s refusal to accept VP as leader.

The BJP’s temple movement to counter the caste quota brought the government down. The outcome: a repeat of the 1970s with Chandrashekhar in Charan Singh’s role; the Congress doing an encore.

To his credit, Chandrashekhar quit rather than take dictation from the Congress for its outside support. The resultant 1991 polls were influenced by Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination; a tragedy that abetted a minority regime under PV Narasimha Rao. But he was a PM and the Congress president under whom the party became emaciated.

The die was cast for another round of coalitions when the Congress lost power again in 1996. The 13-day Vajpayee regime was followed by the Congress-supported 13-party United Front.

The UF gave two prime ministers in less than two years. Its failure helped Vajpayee bounce back in 1998, albeit for only 13 months. His second stint ended when Jayalalithaa walked out in the hope of a Congress-led substitute that did not materialise.

The Kargil war and the Opposition’s inability to provide an alternative gave Vajpayee a boost in the 1999 polls. His National Democratic Alliance returned to rule till 2004, when the unexpected that flummoxed Sonia happened.

Vajpayee was lucky the third time as there wasn’t a dispute over his leadership. His Nehruvian veneer made him acceptable. The National Conference was his ally; so was the TDP. They’re ranged now against Modi whose Hindutva makes him a face to reckon with.

That’s what the Opposition front needs: A strong core and a face that represents an option that resonates.

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