Beware of the UPA-III
While the recent biennial Rajya Sabha elections have dented its strength, they have also increased the Congress party’s argumentative capacities which should enable it corner the government in the Upper House. This would also mean a change of tactics and shouting, rushing to the well of the house and other forms of disruptive behaviours might give way to a volley of sharpened criticisms. One can’t imagine P Chidambaram resorting to sloganeering to silence the ruling benches. At the same time, government would be under increased and coordinated attacks from the likes of Kapil Sibal, Jayaram Ramesh and of course, Chidambaram.
Thus, until the next round elections due in two years’ time, each day in Parliament would be a testing time for the government. The Venkaiah Naidu-Rajiv Pratap Rudy-Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi trio would have to work on a grueling schedule if the government has to avoid embarrassments and possible setbacks. Interestingly for all the three ministers, Parliamentary Affairs is an additional responsibility where as it should be a fulltime job if they are to avoid any surprises, ambushes and desertions.
The Rajya Sabha elections also indicate the prospects for a new form of opposition alliances, cooperation or tactical understanding and hence a warning sign to the NDA government. The UPA was formed after the 2004 elections with the explicit (subsequently turned out to be the only) purpose of preventing the BJP from coming to power. This agenda successfully worked in 2009 when the Congress was able to convince a number of opposition parties that the BJP was a far greater threat than the political and ideological issues that they have with the Congress.
For differing reasons, both Congress and the Left parties would be seeking formal and informal grand coalitions to challenge Modi. Since the 2014 the Congress party has been unable to arrest the freefall of its popularity and its political control in a major state is confined to Karnataka. The party could partly freeze this trend only by depending upon and settling for electoral understanding on less attractive terms and conditions as was the case in Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Otherwise, there was a real chance that the Congress might have been wiped out at least in Bihar and Tamil Nadu assemblies. One should expect the same Congress strategy not only in Uttar Pradesh but also in Punjab as well. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) could be the possible electoral ally as fighting alone might diminish the electoral prospects of both the parties in these states.
The Left parties, especially the CPM, face a different kind of an existential threat. Its vocal presence in the social media and oratory skills in the Rajya Sabha are inversely proportionate to its popular mandate and mass support. Party’s return to power in Kerala came against the backdrop of alarming news from West Bengal where its popular vote dropped to 23 per cent from 30 per cent five years ago. Hence, with its dwindling representations both in Parliament and in various state assemblies and dropping vote shares, the largest Left party faces the prospects of losing its ‘national’ tag and would soon has to settle for the regional status.
The situation is far worse for its allies as highlighted by the recent elections in West Bengal, once the stronghold of the Left. If the CPM secured 26 seats as against 40 in 2011, the performance of its allies is dismal. The CPI got only one seat (down from 2 in 2011), Revolutionary Socialist Party 7 (from 3 in 2011) and the Forward Bloc, incidentally founded by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, was wiped out. Thus, one should expect the CPM, especially Sitaram Yachury, to work overtime towards the unity of the Left parties. This is necessary to keep CPM (any new nomenclature for the united party), as a national entity and in the process increase the bargaining strength vis-à-vis Congress and other regional parties. The ‘national’ status of other parties like BSP and NCP are also under threat due to their poor electoral performance. Hence, in the months to come opposition ‘unity’ will be the dominant political theme for many leaders.
Therefore, allowing some form of opposition unity or worse UPA-3 would be Narendra Modi’s gravest mistake. He had erred by expecting that the opposition would unquestionably recognise his popular mandate and thereby would cooperate with his developmental agenda. His successes would imply the failure of the decade-long UPA government. No political party, let along the Congress, would be willing to commit a political hara-kiri by working towards Modi’s success.
In the light of the electoral debacles in West Bengal, at least in the legal sense of the term, India is moving towards a two-party system. Thus, in the short run, both BJP as well as Congress will have to coexist and negotiate with many regional satraps. As the ruling party in the centre, Modi is better placed than the Gandhis. Looking for a grand coalition with the regional parties does not serve Modi’s game plan but he could work towards establishing tactical understanding with them on key economic policies like the much-delayed GST. His approach towards decentralisation of financial power and authority is more forthcoming than previous governments. Thus, his economic agenda let alone his political agenda for 2019 will not be possible without Modi reaching out to various regional leaders and parties.
Therefore, a change of strategy is a precondition for Modi. Politicians are primarily individuals who also need recognition, some respect, little indulgence and lots of ego massaging. Most often such exercises do not require compromises on values, interests or demand high political price. They do require some skillful efforts and time management but are worth pursuing since it is Modi who will be calling the shots and not his interlocutors. The two years in office and widespread international exposure should give Modi the confidence to change his style of function.
Modi should reach out to key members across the aisle if he wants to pursue his economic agenda. If necessary, let him often quote Nehru, periodically update the Congress President of his initiatives or brief various opposition leaders of the successes of his foreign trips but all costs let him prevent the formation of UPA-III.
(The author is a Professor at JNU)
By R. Kumaraswamy