In the mid-1990s, as VP Singh was scrambling to help form a non-BJP, non-Cong ‘Third Front’ government, we asked the former prime minister if such a ‘khichdi’ government was good for the country. “I don’t know about being desirable, but it is inevitable,” was his sharp response. Singh was seen as the original mascot of third front politics: in 1989, he became prime minister by forging a coalition with, quite miraculously, the outside support of the BJP and the left. The single point agenda then was to remove the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government. The question that is now blowing in the political wind: will a similar anti-Narendra Modi coalition be forged in 2019?
The remarkably successful alliance between the Samajwadi party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in the recent UP by elections is being seen as a pointer to the future: sworn enemies with a history of violence and vendetta now seeking to somehow stop the Modi juggernaut in India’s most populous state. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has already announced her desire to forge a ‘Federal Front’ of regional parties, including Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal. In Telangana, K Chandrashekhar Rao, is also dreaming of a similar regional alliance. In neighbouring Andhra, Chandrababu Naidu, one time flagbearer of Third Front politics, is weighing his options after withdrawing his ministers from the NDA government. Fishing in troubled waters, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi has held a dinner for potential anti-Modi allies as indeed has another perennial prime ministerial contender, Sharad Pawar.
If in 1989, it was out and out anti-Congressism that brought right and left together on one platform, this time it is not even anti-BJPism but an unambiguous anti-Modiism which is seen as the sole unifying factor. The distinction is important: the push towards forging a grand opposition coalition is not driven by hostility towards the BJP as much as the fear of a larger than life figure like Mr Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah, monopolising the entire political space. In 1996, the 13 day old Vajpayee government was toppled because many smaller parties were hesitant to associate with the ‘communal’ politics of the BJP in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. Today, it isn’t the Hindutva tag of the BJP which is leading to its isolation but the anxiety in the opposition (and even in BJP allies) that a Modi-Shah-led BJP is an election machine that will eventually devour every other political party.
That the Shiv Sena, the original BJP Hindutva ally, has perhaps been the most vociferous in its criticism of the BJP leadership, is evidence of the fact that battle-lines are being drawn this time over personalities more than ideology. Lets not forget that Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and KCR have all been BJP allies in the past so the ‘untouchability’ factor of the 1990s is no longer a cross the sangh parivar must bear. Instead, each of these regional party chief ministers feels threatened by the electoral muscle and vaulting ambition shown by the Modi-Shah combine which has seen the BJP conquer as many as 21 states. In UP too, it is an increasingly desperate quest for survival that has almost forced Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati to bury the past.
But can this obsessive urge to somehow defeat Mr Modi become a game-changer? In terms of pure arithmetic, the answer has to be in the affirmative. In 2014, at the height of the Modi wave, the BJP got 31 per cent of the vote, largely concentrated around north and western India, while the main opposition Congress won around 19 percent of the vote. In effect, the BJP and the Congress between them won half the popular vote. This leaves a substantial vote share to the ‘others’ which can potentially translate into seats with the help of strategic alliances: based on 2014 figures, an SP-BSP alliance, for example, could bring the BJP down by as many as 35 seats in UP, a state which the saffron forces had swept then.
But elections are as much about chemistry as they are about simply adding up the numbers. Forging despairing alliances of convenience may make arithmetic sense but they carry the risk of conferring on Mr Modi the halo of political ‘victimhood’. In 1971, Indira Gandhi had artfully used the gathering coalition of disparate forces against her to send out a powerful slogan: ‘Woh kehte hain Indira Hatao, mein kehtee hoon Garibi Hatao.” Mrs Gandhi swept to power amidst an emotional upsurge and there is every possibility that Mr Modi, in some ways the true inheritor of the Indira political playbook, will pose the options before the Indian voter in similar stark terms.
Moreover, while the anti-Modi opposition may dread the prime minister’s authoritarian instincts, they do not trust the Congress’s electoral preparedness either. Which is why a Congress under Rahul Gandhi may find it difficult to become a magnet for a nationwide coalition: a Mamata or a Sharad Pawar, for example, are highly unlikely to accept Rahul’s leadership. A Modi versus all presidential style contest where the opposition cannot agree on a single credible leader as its prime ministerial candidate is a risky proposition: the prime minister's personal popularity remains high. The more logical option for a disparate opposition is to have a series of regional match-ups where each player seeks to take on the BJP and Mr Modi on their home turf and the Congress too focusses on a limited number of states. Since the IPL is around the corner, expect then the 2019 Indian Political League to be also played on the lines of a regional franchisee model: the BJP remains the dominant ‘national’ player, but the principle political contestation could well revolve around who wins their home ground matches!
Post-script: At a recent corporate gathering, a leading industrialist was overheard whispering: ‘We can accept any government but not a third front leadership please. That would be the end of the India growth story!” Interestingly, the same corporate leader had been spotted at Ms Banerjee’s Bengal investment summit a few weeks earlier extolling her virtues as a national leader for the future!