After the success of the mahagathbandhan, or the Grand Alliance, in the Bihar Assembly elections in 2015, the non-BJP parties had set their sight on the forming a similar alliance for the general elections scheduled in 2019 to challenge Narendra Modi led government. Given the rise and rise of BJP and the continued disarray among the other parties, that’s indeed an uphill task.
But, as politicians love to point out, one week is a long time in politics and circumstances can change dramatically. In the case of the proposed grand alliance, the current situation is bleak, to say the least, but there are still two years to go before the elections.
The lack of unity and arbitrary behaviour of some of the 20-odd political parties which are lined up to take BJP led NDA, was made obvious during the run up for presidential elections. These parties, led by Congress, took too much time to announce a joint candidate. The BJP seized the initiative and announced the name of Ram Nath Kovind, a non controversial figure with Dalit background. The opposition parties had been mulling to put up Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha speaker, also from Dalit background, but decided on her name too late. Had these parties announced her as the joint candidate, the BJP would have been put on the backfoot and Meira Kumar could have stood a good chance to win.
BJP and its allies may commit a major mistake if they think they are unassailable or that the public mood cannot turn against them
The presidential elections also exposed the chinks in the armour of the proposed mahagathbandhan. One of its leading lights, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, ditched the other parties and announced his party’s support for Kovind. This completely upset the applecart of the opposition parties. Credit must be given to the BJP for the selection of its candidate. Kovind was the Governor of Bihar and it was well known that he enjoyed cordial relationship with Nitish who has been often praising him. BJP was thus able to successfully drive a wedge in the opposition ranks.
Ironically, Nitish was being projected as the convenor of the mahagathbandhan at the national level with Congress president Sonia Gandhi as the chairperson of the Grand Alliance. Effectively this meant that Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi was to be sidelined and in the unlikely eventuality of non-BJP parties winning the next elections, Nitish as convenor would have been the automatic choice to be the leader and prime minister.
Yet the move by Nitish was neither rash nor without some future move. Former Railways and Defence minister, George Fernandes, himself an astute politician, used to say that there was one person whose mind he could never read. He would say that his party colleague Nitish Kumar plans several steps ahead and gives much thought to all his political moves.
No wonder his political graph has been steadily rising. After a successful stint at the Centre, where Nitish Kumar was Railway minister, he has been able to retain power in Bihar despite Modi led BJP wave sweeping across the country. Just before the elections he had disassociated himself with the NDA alliance and had forced his coalition partner BJP to quit government. Winning the state election only after a year of the 2014 BJP victory in general elections was indeed credible.
Undoubtedly wresting power from BJP in the 2019 is the most unlikely scenario as of now. And perhaps this may be one of the major reasons that Nitish Kumar does not seem too keen for a serious fight in the ensuing general elections. What Nitish may be eying is the next general elections in 2024.
Yet, true to his character, he is keeping doors open for opposition unity. Claiming that he had “no ambitions”, Nitish Kumar recently told his party leaders that the opposition parties must come together with “an alternative narrative and should not go for reactive narrative”.
Nitish Kumar, explaining his stand, said that the Opposition would need to come out with common ideology and would have to present an alternative credible agenda to take on the BJP. Asked to comment on his stand on the presidential elections, and support for the BJP candidate. he said that the opposition unity should not be hostage to a particular issue.
Elaborating, he said that 90 per cent of the agenda of the mahagathbandhan should be focussed on what they would do for the people and the country. “We should set the agenda rather than react to what the ruling coalition does”, he said addressing party workers.
What he said certainly makes sense for the opposition but with such a large number of parties it would be very difficult to evolve consensus. Also the fact that some of these parties hate each other and are daggers drawn in some states like West Bengal where Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress is at war with the Left Front.
A major difficulty would be to hold together the alliance. Nitish Kumar himself is in a dilemma over his relationship with coalition partner Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The central government agencies are probing shady deals during Yadav’s tenure as Railways minister. CBI and Enforcement Directorate recently raided properties of Yadav and his family members. Although Nitish has said he would not break the coalition despite demands that Yadav’s son steps down as the deputy chief minister. Bit it remains to be seen how long can he carry the baggage of Yadav family’s corruption baggage.
Another major stumbling block for the mahagathbandhan is the current status of the Congress and the situation within the party. A major section of the party continues to bank on the aura and legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Party Vice President and the heir apparent Rahul Gandhi has so far failed to make a mark despite being in active politics for over a decade. Partly due to the all-out campaign launched by the BJP and Modi Bhakts to lampoon him, he is seen in poor light.
There is no shortage of talent in the party but the traditional character of the party is pulling it down. Not many outside the Congress are willing to see him as the leader. While the reports of Nitish as the convenor of the proposed mahagathbandhan sideline him but the servile nature of top Congress leaders may cause serious problems.
Thus, the proposed mahagathbandhan is pitted against heavy odds. The BJP led NDA has little to fear unless it does something drastically wrong. So far Modi and his right hand, confidant and BJP chief Amit Shah, are ruling the roost and have made the opposition look like pigmies but Indian politics has remained unpredictable at times. If the voters could give a huge majority to Indira Gandhi’s Congress in 1971, they also voted her out in 1977 and again brought her back in 1980.
BJP and its allies may commit a major mistake if they think they are unassailable or that the public mood cannot turn against them. Some of the government’s actions in the recent past have evoked criticism and it need to particularly understand that communalism does not pay in the long run in the country. The spate of incidents involving lynching and violence against those who were alleged to be carrying or consuming beef has eroded the image of the government at least among the moderate Hindus who constitute the bulk of BJP supporters. The party would be mistaken if it thinks that majority of Hindus support its extreme Hindutva image. The party was voted to power, albeit with just 31 per cent of voters supporting it in 2014, not because of its Hindutva agenda but due to its promise for development and curbing corruption. If it thinks it enjoys support across the country, and without bothering to care for Muslim votes, it would be a fatal mistake. If the BJP led NDA government loses the 2019 general elections, it would be due to its own follies and not because what the ragtag opposition may have to offer.