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After the by polls

The Bharatiya Janata Party president, Amit Shah, might cry himself hoarse saying that by-election defeats will have no bearing on the next general elections but even his own party faithful are no longer quite so sanguine.

In his media interactions to celebrate the Modi government’s fourth anniversary, Amit Shah was his usual confident self. The loss of Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh this March were dismissed as stray results with no larger political consequence. The coming together of the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka was decried as an “unholy alliance” that would prove to be short-lived.

And then came the by-election results on May 31. Of the four Lok Sabha and 10 assembly bypolls, the BJP managed to win just one Lok Sabha and one assembly seat. Its new ally in Nagaland won one Lok Sabha seat, but that could hardly offset the BJP’s humiliating losses in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. The loss of Kairana to the Opposition-backed Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate, Tabassum Hasan, showed that Phulpur and Gorakhpur had been no flash in the pan. Whether in western or eastern UP, the BJP was no match for a united Opposition.

In Maharashtra, the BJP lost a sitting seat and managed to retain the other. But that sole victory brought in its wake a new set of woes. The Shiv Sena, which had fought the Palghar seat in spite of the alliance with BJP, cried foul. It has not walked out of the alliance yet, but the tense ties between the two allies have become even more strained.

In keeping with Amit Shah’s diktat, party spokesmen have tried to be nonchalant about the May 31 results. Even though the BJP and its allies lost seats across the country – from Meghalaya to Maharashtra, Punjab to Karnataka – the official line is that the results were more of a “local” phenomenon and did not reflect a “national” trend.

But beneath that nonchalance there is a lurking fear that Narendra Modi is losing some of his sheen. In spite of the drum beating about “victory after victory” under Modi, BJP strategists are aware that the party did worse than expected in both Gujarat and Karnataka. In Gujarat, the BJP came down below the 100-seat mark and in Karnataka it won fewer seats than in 2008. So the Modi factor is no longer a guarantee for sweeping victories.

More worrying is the steady strides taken by Opposition parties in building unity from both below and above. The mere coming together of leaders for “opportunistic” reasons would not have led to the defeat of BJP candidates in Gorakhpur and Phulpur. Only a grass roots unity among followers of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party could have achieved that.

Similarly, the RLD nominee in Kairana managed to defeat the BJP because the erstwhile base of the RLD comprising Jats and Muslims once again joined hands. That Yogi Adityanath is increasingly seen not just as a Hindutva hothead but also as an aggressive champion of Rajputs, too, helped wean away the Jats (and the Dalits) who had gravitated to the BJP following concerted efforts at communal polarization in western UP after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.

In Bihar, the BJP may have succeeded in breaking the Mahagatbandhan, which swept to power in 2015. But the RJD’s back-to-back wins in by-elections show that Nitish Kumar’s treachery has not dented Lalu Prasad’s support base; rather, under the exuberant leadership of his son, Tejashwi Yadav, the RJD seems to have garnered more strength.

And in Karnataka, the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) have not only managed to form the government without too many hiccups, the two have also decided to fight the Lok Sabha elections together.

In light of this string of setbacks, the BJP seems to have decided on a new strategy: it will no longer bank on the “unprecedented” achievements of the Narendra Modi regime, but focus on the lack of a singular alternative.

Glimpses of this new narrative can already be seen in television discussions and magazine articles. Simply put, it is “Modi versus Who?”

As part of this narrative, the BJP and its supporters will seek to demonize Opposition leaders as a bunch of “opportunists” out to strike “unprincipled” alliances only in order to displace the wondrous rule of Narendra Modi, and plunge the country into chaos and instability.

The BJP, naturally, refuses to acknowledge that it is the party’s aggressive Hindutva, often a thinly disguised attempt to restore upper caste hegemony, which has alienated not just the minorities but also subaltern castes who had been lured by Modi’s “achchhe din” promise and voted for the BJP in 2014. That apart, the Modi-Shah machine is out to make the country not just “Congress- mukt” but also “Opposition-mukt”.

It is this twin offensive that has compelled a whole range of parties to sink their differences and come together. Far from being a case of opportunism, it reflects a deep realization that an unchecked BJP will not just destroy them but also put the essential ethos of India – pluralism, secularism, diversity – under peril.

The BJP’s attempts at demonizing this growing Opposition unity gets a fillip from sections of India’s dominant middle class and intelligentsia who have always hankered after an Anglo-American “two party system” and viewed coalition governments with fear and disdain.

Instead of getting defensive about their attempts at unity, the Opposition parties must underline that a vibrant coalition government comprising different parties but bound together by a common vision is much more in tune with the regional, social and linguistic diversity of India than a single party rule wedded to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s monolithic “One Nation, One People, One Culture” dogma.

For the first couple of decades after Independence, Congress was a coalition unto itself. But with the deepening of democracy, various regions and castes sought direct power for themselves, through outfits of their own, rather than the patronage offered by a dominant party.

Over the years, India has gained rich experience in the working of coalition governments. The first was the 1977 Janata experiment where parties “merged” to form one entity in spite of ideological – and not just political – differences.

Subsequently, we have had other forms of multi-party governments: the awkward National Front in 1990 supported from the outside by two ideologically disparate forces, the United Front in 1996-98 where the Congress, in spite of having more numbers, supported a front of regional parties from the outside, and then the National Democratic Alliance followed by the United Progressive Alliance, in which a larger party was the nucleus but which also included a number of allies.

The inclusion of smaller parties representing regions and social groupings has enriched governance. In fact, UPA-I performed far better than UPA-II, passing several landmark legislations, bestowing a range of rights to the people.

One reason was that during UPA-I, there was a common minimum programme and a mechanism of regular discussions with the Left and other allies. With the Congress increasing its numbers in 2009, that mechanism fell into disuse, and hubris as well as complacency crept in.

Far from being “disastrous”, even short-lived coalition governments have risen to the challenge of governance – something that is forgotten by those who hanker after single party rule. The V.P. Singh government organized the biggest ever airlift of Indians from Kuwait in 1990; it was under the United Front government that P. Chidambaram delivered his “dream budget” in 1996; and, again, it was the Deve Gowda government that took forward peace initiatives in Kashmir and Nagaland and signed a landmark water sharing treaty with Bangladesh.

Urban elites tend to snigger at the likes of Mayavati and Deve Gowda; Hemant Soren and M.K. Stalin. But these leaders have a great deal of experience in working at the state level and a hands-on understanding of people’s issues. When such grass roots leaders become part of a Central coalition, it deepens – not diminishes – India’s tryst with democracy.

The real challenge before the biggest party in such a coalition is how to hold it together without seeking to dominate it. Opposition parties, and particularly the Congress, must show both pragmatism and mutual magnanimity in working out pre-poll alliances for 2019. And offer a vibrant, multi-party alternative instead of falling into the trap of a “presidential” contest against Narendra Modi.

(The Telegraph, Kolkata)