Coalition pangs and stuttering unity efforts are staring at India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition parties as they brace for fresh national elections due early next year. Less than two months into 2018, election fever in India has begun showing signs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sounded the poll bugle with a stirring speech in parliament on February 7 and two days later former Congress Party Chief Sonia Gandhi told her party lawmakers to be ready for the national elections which she said might well be called earlier than schedule.
But both BJP and Congress are facing challenges typical of India's coalition politics. While the saffron party is trying to keep its National Democratic Alliance intact, Congress is struggling to bring major opposition parties on one platform to take on BJP in the electoral battle.
Although BJP is not dependent on the support of any alliance partner for its survival in government at the Centre, it could still need all the help it can get from its allies for the next Lok Sabha election. 2018 began on a sour note for BJP when its oldest right-wing ally Shiv Sena announced its decision to contest the coming poll without a tie-up with the former. Shiv Sena has been on a collision course with BJP for the last several months. In the southern region of India where BJP requires electoral partners the most because of its weak presence in most parts, the Hindutva party counts only on the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh. But even there, the strains are beginning to show on the alliance between BJP and TDP on the issue of allocation of federal funds. BJP today finds itself having to deal with a combative TDP which is facing the political heat to get the best financial deal for the state from the Modi government.
What has further complicated the scenario for BJP-TDP friendship is that a key plank that has bound the two parties together in the past—anti-Congressism—is being eroded because after the carving out of the new state of Telangana, Congress is no longer TDP's main political rival in Andhra Pradesh where YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) under the leadership of YS Jaganmohan Reddy has emerged as a powerful political force. TDP is also aware that BJP could find in YSRCP a potential ally if the circumstances so demand. TDP chief and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu has not taken kindly the criticism of his state government by state BJP leaders. While BJP may not need to rethink all its alliances, it must have a fresh look at the relationships with its allies if it intends to lead a powerful political umbrella in 2019. Keeping its NDA flock together is proving to be quite a task for BJP.
The task is more arduous for the opposition parties. In the space of six days from February 2 this year, Sonia Gandhi twice made a strong pitch for like-minded parties to sink differences and join hands against BJP. It all began on January 26, India's Republic Day, when Nationalist Congress Party head Sharad Pawar led a street march of opposition parties in India's financial capital Mumbai. The event was attended among others by senior leaders of Congress, top leaders of the two Communist parties, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah and a representative of Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress. This was followed up by a meeting of 17 parties on February 1 after Sonia Gandhi stressed on the need for opposition unity. On February 7, Sonia, addressing a meeting of Congress parliamentary party, reiterated her party's desire to work with “like-minded” parties to ensure the defeat of BJP in parliamentary elections.
The two planks of opposition unity are: retaining the “secular” vote base and “threat” to the Constitution. Both Sonia and Pawar have stressed on these planks.
However, the opposition camp too has its own set of problems in putting up a united front against BJP. First, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is split down the middle on the issue of alliance with Congress to counter BJP. The party general secretary Sitaram Yechury, a champion of alliance with Congress, has been defeated convincingly in the party's powerful central committee which shot down any tie-up with Rahul Gandhi-led Congress.
Secondly, the opposition camp is divided on who will anchor the alliance given that various parties in the camp have divergent political agendas and local interests across 29 states of India. This was most tellingly brought out when Janata Dal (United) leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar broke ranks with the opposition and joined hands with BJP.
Thirdly, many senior leaders in the opposition camp like Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh Yadav and Janata Dal (United) breakaway faction chief Sharad Yadav are not comfortable with or under the leadership of a much younger Rahul Gandhi who took over as president of Congress after his mother Sonia.
It was Sonia's stewardship as the head of United Progressive Alliance that had kept the coalition glued to rule India for a decade since 2004. Mamata has conveyed to Congress leadership that she was ready to accept Sonia as the anchor of opposition unity but is loath to the idea of Rahul at the helm of an opposition alliance.
In fact, ever since Rahul became the president of Congress in December last year, the opposition parties have had difficulty in putting together a united face whether it came to aligning the strategy in parliament or holding joint protests outside. After Sonia stepped down as party chief and retreated for a few weeks from the forefront, senior opposition leaders had become hesitant to deal with Rahul. It is for this reason that Sonia made it clear that she would remain engaged with opposition parties in the run-up to the national elections.
That Sonia continues as the leader of Congress parliamentary party allows her to play a role in engaging other opposition parties. She convened a meeting of 17 opposition parties to push for opposition unity on issues of national importance in and outside parliament. That was the first time Sonia spearheaded a joint opposition meeting since handing over the reins of Congress to her son. At the same time, she also sent a signal to other opposition leaders that they will have to deal with Rahul at some stage and declared that her son is now her “boss” by virtue of being the party president.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star.