The consensus among political parties, in opposition to each other or in partnerships, is that “democracy is in danger”. The content of the danger varies on the perspective. To BSP supremo Mayawati, the false cases against innocent dalit and Scheduled Caste protesters in the farmers agitations in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh that contributed to the democratic uprising against the BJP governments is a measure of the crisis. To Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is Mamata Banerjee’s ban on the rathyatra to save democracy that is the measure of the problem.
As the champions of democracy prepare to defend the spirit of the endangered idea in the 2019 elections, the content as well as the interpretation of the spirit of democracy will go through multiple revisions. With as many critics as there are parties, the intensity of the confrontation is likely to be greater than ever before, as the polity is divided between those who seek a mandate to change the basic character of the diverse, secular institutions and system and those who defend the Constitution and its commitment to tolerance and accommodation of differences.
The parallel dynamic is regional parties working collaboratively to defeat the absolutely undemocratic desire of a homogenised polity and society that threatens the very existence of these representatives of fragments of interests that constitute the republic is a plan; it has made some progress, but it needs to be taken off the drawing board and implemented in every state and constituency. The task is horribly difficult as cross-cutting interests intervene to tweak and change the shape the elegant simplicity of the idea.
The difficulties are beginning to surface. The Congress is being called out by Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, who is allegedly miffed at being left out in Madhya Pradesh, on its commitments to the idea of Opposition unity on the one hand and the right to dissent on the other. The move is a complicated manoeuvre in measuring the Congress and cautioning it against taking any political party for granted. The exercise of regional parties weighing up each other and the Congress as a partner in the race to defeat the BJP and undo the design of a homogenised and unified India under the SanghParivar’s reign is just beginning. The bypolls in Uttar Pradesh where the Samajwadi Party and BahujanSamaj Party combined to humiliate Yogi Adityanath and the SanghParivar was a small-scale pilot of a complex experiment in the politics of regional parties and national behemoths. While the SP-BSP partnership will probably endure as it has the capacity to overcome the entirely expected crises over seat-sharing closer to the election date, the relationship with the Congress is still in the making.
In other states, like West Bengal, there is little chance that the Trinamul Congress will sacrifice and compromise to accommodate any other party under the formula floated by TMC boss Mamata Banerjee of one candidate-one constituency as she goes into an election where the BJP is presenting itself as the challenger. For the Trinamul Congress, no other party can mobilise as well as it can against the BJP. Effectively, this will overturn the formula, because there is only a slim chance that the Congress will withdraw itself from a serious contest for seats and the CPI(M)-led Left Front is too implacable an enemy of the Trinamul Congress to leave it all to Ms Banerjee.
Enmities of the past and the present will certainly influence the shape and size of the idea of a Federal Front. It will also influence the relationship of the federating units with the Congress. The regional parties were born as anti-Congress formations, representing caste, region and local interests and aspirations. By identifying the BJP as the common enemy and uniting against it is a powerful glue to keep the idea going. Making it robust and durable is a different matter.
The Federal Front is not a chaotic mix of parties cooked up as an inedible mess. Nor is the Federal Front a coalition in the sense in which coalitions were brokered before 2004. This is a new dynamic, and has yet to shape itself. There are leaders currently exuding bonhomie by exchanging visits and the optics of collaboration, like N. Chandrababu Naidu and K. Chandrashekar Rao. There are preparations afoot for grand-standing as a collective on Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground on January 19. The choice of place is significant as it was also the location of a similar show of anti-Congress regional (including then powerful CPI-M under JyotiBasu) party unity. It has resonance; but it has not acquired the substance that would make it a coalition.
Without a structured coalition, the post-poll scenario becomes difficult to imagine. Perhaps no coalition in the old-fashioned sense is possible and the idea of the Federal Front, where each party negotiates with its competitor to defeat the BJP, is the sort of open-ended partnership that Indian politics has thrown up as an alternative way of maximising its strength by pooling together.
But something is needed in terms of a formulation to make the act of establishing an anti-BJP front a working model. The Federal Front is a name, and it has yet to be formally launched. No matter how many times Mamata Banerjee, N. Chandrababu Naidu and others iterate a Federal Front and Rahul Gandhi talks about a “Mahagatbandhan”, nothing has been established as yet. It is still an impromptu reaction to the BJP’s overweening ambitions of one party-one country desire and the hangover of anti-Congress politics.
The January 19 Brigade Parade Ground rally may put more substance into it. It may also trigger contention, as parties like the Trinamul Congress demand that its current domination of West Bengal’s parliamentary seats be extended with the support of other parties. The crux of the matter is that every regional party wants enough seats in Parliament to make its position better when bargains are struck over cutting up the pie, if the BJP is defeated. As the regional party with the most number of seats, Ms Banerjee will not give up an inch of the advantage she has in national politics. The same is true for all the regional leaders, for whom a role in national politics is a necessary part of the dynamics of dominating the politics within their states.