Home to diverse political ideologies and multiple parties, the multi-dimensional Indian political system has manifested its inherent pluralism through Coalition governments for over four decades now. A result of pre-poll or post-poll political alliances, such governments have become a recent trend, be it in the states or at the national level.

As India awaits the 17TH Lok Sabha Elections, the ‘Mahagathbandhan’, a pre-poll partnership of major opposition parties to take down the present regime, seeks to make history. Until recently, such a grand alliance was being perceived by political scientists and even the common man as merely a rhetorical political stunt owing to its unfeasibility. However, the ‘United India’ rally organized by Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, has dispelled any such doubts.

A pompous display of opposition unity, this rally, which drew over two dozen political leaders from 20 different parties in the historic Brigade Parade Grounds, has received mixed reviews as to its true potential and impact. 

The “Mahagathbandhan”

Ahead of the 2019 General Elections, the distinct and diverse political players constituting the Opposition seem to have reached a compromise, burying their ideological differences they have agreed to unite against a common enemy in a pre-poll grand alliance. Spearheaded by the Congress, this political campaign to take down Prime Minister Modi and the ruling BJP has brought together erstwhile competitors in regional politics from across the country based on the realization of a hard truth – no party or political ideology is presently equipped to single-handedly defeat the leviathan (the ruling government).

The major regional parties featuring in this ‘rainbow alliance’ will be West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress, UP’s Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Bihar’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Tamil Nadu’s DMK and many more. Such pre-poll alliances are not a recent innovation and coalition governments have been in vogue for a long time. These alliances are necessary for ensuring that the Indian polity functions smoothly. 

Political alliances or partnerships first crystallized in the Indian political system almost two decades after independence. Until then, the colonial hangover and the legacy of the Indian National Movement had paved way for Indian politics to be dominated by a single national party – the Congress. Gradually, as the pluralist organizational structure that had ensured the Congress’s political sustainability began to rot, this single national party was eventually diffused into factions and regional parties began to play a decisive role 1967 onwards.

The Indira Gandhi regime sealed the fate of the Congress hegemony and the 1977 parliamentary elections saw for the first time a coalition experiment, bringing into power multiple factions under the Janata government that was united against a common enemy. Ever since, barring a few times, coalition governments have added a new flavor to Indian politics through pre-poll and post-poll alliances between major national and regional political parties.

The recent pre-poll Mahagathbandhan to take down Modi has been viewed by the political experts as the contemporary equivalent of the 1977 Janata alliance that had been constructed to take down a powerful hegemon. The latest rally in Kolkata displays power, but, will history repeat itself? 

Who attended the rally? 

The United India rally brought forth 25 political leaders from across the country representing 20 different political parties on a single dais. ‘Among those present were NCP leader Sharad Pawar, NC’s Omar Abdullah, Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, BSP leader Satish Mishra, Karnataka Chief Minister and JD(S) leader H D Kumaraswamy, former NDA ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, BJP rebel Shatrughan Sinha‘ to name a few. The Congress was represented by Mallikarjun Kharge, who read out a message by Sonia Gandhi during his address pledging the party’s support for the grand alliance.

What issues were raised?

Firstly, a common theme overriding the rally was a targeted attack on the present regime, specifically Prime Minister Modi and his ‘intolerant policies’ ranging from demonetization, the Goods and Services Tax (GST), corruption in the Rafale deal among the notable issues. While some leaders directly attacked PM Modi, others argued that ‘It’s not about removing one man, it’s about defeating an ideology’. Championing the slogan of ‘BJP hatao’, ‘Desh Bachao’, the West Bengal CM and Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, called for collective leadership to achieve the same.

“This gathbandhan (alliance) has been formed to save the people of the nation and give them justice. Everyone has to come together for the sake of the nation. Whichever party is powerful in a certain state should be allowed and strongly supported to fight the BJP there.”

Moreover, almost all the leaders at the rally dispelled the questions regarding the prime ministerial candidate clarifying that it would be decided only after the elections.

Secondly, many leaders like Arvind Kejriwal and Akhilesh Yadav brought into discussion the issue of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) calling for their discontinuation. They along with Congress’s Abhishek Manu Singhvi and BSP’s Satish Mishra were constituted into a four-member committee that would investigate the alleged vulnerability of the EVM’s to tampering, to make a case for a reversal to the ballot papers.

Finally, all leaders emphasised the role of regional parties and called for the alliance to issue a joint policy statement regarding their common agenda and seat-sharing divisions. HD Deve Gowda, a former Prime Minister of the Janata Dal said,

“A small group of leaders must immediately be formed to draft an election manifesto and policy document. Leaders must work on seat sharing in every state. This is a Herculean task and there is little time left. BJP is saying that this alliance has no leader or agenda… we must come up with a clear-cut programme to instill confidence among the people,”.

The reactions

Drawing a crowd of around half a million people in the Parade Ground, this rally has caused cold feet among a few within the government. The PM dismissed the rally, calling the Mahagathbandhan ‘an alliance of corruption, negativity, and instability’. He further said that while the opposition has ‘dhan shakti’, they had ‘Jan Shakti’.

 

Similarly, BJP’s Rajiv Pratap Rudy called the Kolkata rally a ‘summit of contradicting and conflicting ideologies.’ The ruling government seems amused at the probable contest among the leading figures of the alliance for the Prime Ministerial candidate. Despite their calm demeanor, however, this formidable show of unity has definitely struck panic within the inner circles. Evidently, PM Modi’s rally scheduled for February 8th, at the same Brigade Parade Grounds has been postponed due to concerns over mobilizing a larger crowd than Mamata’s rally. 

Besides the government, Yogendra Yadav, president of Swaraj India also dismissed the United Rally, stating that this opposition does not give any hope and ‘the country needs an alternative, not just an opposition to PM Modi’.

Implications of the Grand Alliance

The Mahagathbandhan, a pan-India alliance to foil the current government in the upcoming elections, seems to be a feasible reality after the Kolkata rally. It has put to rest any apprehensions about the viability of a grand alliance in light of a recent pre-poll alliance between SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh that ruled out Congress in its seat-sharing partnership. Even leaders like Sharad Yadav have voiced their doubts regarding an all India partnership considering the diversity of parties and overlapping voter bases and have emphasized on forming state-specific agreements. 

Mamata’s rally has emerged as a ray of hope for such insecurities, presenting a united front, ready to take down the formidable enemy and save the Indian democracy, in their own words. However, there is a lot that needs to be done before this opposition can threaten the reign of BJP.

Firstly, as pointed out by skeptics, there isn’t an ideological coherence within the alliance. It seems to be a politically expedient solution that won’t be sustainable in the long run. While we can compare this ‘gathbandhan’ to the 1977 alliance that overthrew Indira Gandhi, we mustn’t forget the short-lived nature of the subsequent coalition government. After the satisfaction of the immediate goal there wasn’t and in today’s context, there isn’t any common agenda that can possibly hold these conflicting factions together in a successful coalition even if their government is formed.

Secondly, a Pan-India partnership seems a bleak possibility if the state-specific agreements create conflicts within the already fragile alliance. With the recent victory in the 2018 Legislative Assembly elections, the Congress seems to be on a high horse, unwilling to negotiate with the regional parties over the seat-sharing issues. Furthermore, the absence of Sonia Gandhi and the party president Rahul Gandhi from the Kolkata rally has raised many eyebrows. This can prove to be very detrimental to the success of the Mahagathbandhan. While the alliance direly needs Congress’s support to achieve electoral success, the Congress too cannot afford to alienate the allies at this critical juncture. A successful alliance could translate to a successful multi-party coalition and become a vehicle for political democratization.

The overwhelming success of Mamata’s rally has called for more such rallies in Andhra Pradesh and Delhi. These subsequent attempts at political mobilization might also be successful in the internal mobilization of the Mahagathbandhan making it a challenging electoral force. The rally may turn out to provide a roadmap to a successful partnership if the alliance comes out with a rock-solid manifesto and a common agenda over and beyond taking over the present regime. As Priyanka Gandhi ventures into active politics after being appointed as the general secretary in UP, what awaits is open to conjecture.  The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are going to be exciting. 

Sources: The Indian Express, The Hindu, ET, The Telegraph, HT
Image Credits: HT

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