In the winter of 2013, at a dinner party hosted by a prominent Janata Dal (United) leader in the national capital, shortly after the Delhi Assembly elections, I was witness to an extraordinary conversation. Seated at a table on the lawns of a Lutyens’ bungalow, senior leaders from the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the JD (U) and the Samajwadi Party discussed the dramatic electoral debut of Arvind Kejriwal‘s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that stood a close second to the BJP in the State polls. The surprise?Despite their differing world views, they unanimously described Mr. Kejriwal’s politics as the most serious threat to the future of their own parties.
But 13 months later – a period that saw Mr. Kejriwal become Chief Minister, then quit and fade away, and Narendra Modi‘s BJP achieve spectacular success in the general election – many of those opposition parties including the JD (U), the Trinamool Congress and those from the Left declared solidarity with the AAP ahead of this year’s Delhi Assembly polls. When the results arrived, the significance of the barely two-year-old party’s victory sank in, and congratulations started pouring in from opposition parties including the Shiv Sena and the People’s Democratic Party, BJP allies, old and new. The message?Thank you for stopping the BJP.
So what does the AAP’s second coming in Delhi – a microcosm of India, with its privileged, powerful urban centre widening out into a hinterland of migrants – mean for the traditional opposition parties? Is it an opportunity or a challenge, as they read it in 2013?
Ending era of ‘anti-Congressism’
Last year, the BJP became the first party other than the Congress to win a majority at the Centre, ending the era of “anti-Congressism.” If the BJP was to be defeated, the message of the electorate was that as many non-BJP parties as could unite would have to come onto one platform, flipping the concept of “anti-Congressism” formulated by the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia over half a century ago.
It is, therefore, not surprising that those at the forefront of the emerging “anti-BJPism” in the country are Lohia’s disciples: Janata Parivar members who have, on several occasions, since the 1960s, worked closely with the BJP or the Jan Sangh against the Congress.
Today, the Janata Parivar’s constituents are struggling to merge their identities to form one party to protect their turf in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Haryana against the imminent BJP onslaught, their efforts slowed down by the crisis within the JD (U) in Bihar where they will face their first challenge in State elections later this year.
Challenging BJP in Parliament
Simultaneously, the Janata Parivar has also been playing a key role in challenging the BJP on the streets and in Parliament. The Janata Parivar-sponsored agitations questioning the government’s failure to act on the BJP’s electoral promises of bringing back black money, enhancing prices of farm produce, etc. may have gone largely unnoticed. But in Parliament, along with other opposition parties, they have caused serious discomfort to the ruling dispensation.
In the winter session, the opposition deployed its superior numbers to block the Modi government’s reforms agenda. Divided on economic issues, the opposition joined hands to demand a clarification on religious conversions and communal statements made by BJP MPs, before cooperating on legislative business. The government walked into the opposition trap, failing to clear the Insurance Bill and the Coal Mines Bill. Eventually, it issued a slew of ordinances, providing fresh fodder for the opposition, which accused the BJP government of bypassing Parliament.
This show of opposition solidarity (that saw nine parties including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the NCP working jointly) will be repeated in this month’s budget session of Parliament, with the AAP’s clean sweep in the capital only strengthening that unity. Indeed, the government will find it hard now to push the land acquisition ordinance, for it was on this issue that the AAP campaigned in Outer Delhi where it had failed to get even a single seat in 2013, thanks largely to its inability to crack the caste factor among the migrant population. In 2015, the AAP won 12 of the 14 seats here.
But replicating opposition unity outside Parliament will be far more difficult. The compulsions of State politics will ensure that regional parties such as West Bengal’s Trinamool and Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal will continue to work alone in their States, especially when it comes to electoral politics. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the DMK will remain the dominant parties in Tamil Nadu, joining hands with parties with smaller presence at election time. Of course, any of these parties might at some stage join a broader national opposition front, provided potential partners don’t encroach upon their own areas of influence.
For the steadily declining Left parties, which are in power in Tripura and have a notable presence in West Bengal and in Kerala, forging issue-based unity with other parties in Parliament is even less likely to translate into electoral solidarity. At best, it will participate in street agitations and its trade unions may make common cause with similar organisations on specific issues. The Left parties – the CPI(M), the CPI, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party – are currently engaged in trying “to broaden the Left” by including the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and the Socialist Unity Centre of India. But with its focus still on creating an alternative policy framework, one that still remains at odds with most other political parties, it is unlikely that it would have any meaningful electoral alliances.
That leaves us with the country’s largest opposition party, the Congress. If party president Sonia Gandhi had forged electoral alliances ahead of the 2004 general election to lead the United Progressive Alliance to victory, one that sustained for a decade, her successor is not cut from the same cloth. Rahul Gandhi, poised to become party president, has not yet demonstrated the leadership qualities necessary to revive the Congress that touched a historic electoral low last year. Worse, say despairing members of the Congress Working Committee, he is unwilling to work towards building electoral alliances to regain political ground.
Most opposition parties were looking to the Congress for revival of the opposition. But now with the party scoring a duck in a State that it had earlier ruled for 15 uninterrupted years, that hope will diminish further.
Where does the AAP now fit into the opposition? A quick check with some opposition leaders suggests that while they would like Mr. Kejriwal to endorse their dying brands, they are wary of entering into an alliance with him. They know that his David-like slaying of the Modi Goliath means he could only join such a platform in one capacity – as the leader.
The AAP’s historic win may have shattered the air of invincibility that Mr. Modi had acquired, but for traditional opposition parties to get another life outside Parliament, they must build a younger leadership, re-invent themselves or simply perish. The Delhi election reflected a change in the national mood and if they don’t adjust to it, their irrelevance will further grow. Arithmetic can only help up to a point.
The AAP, on its part, is in no hurry. It first wishes to make Delhi a model State, then build its unit in Punjab where it has four MPs, and then gradually grow in the rest of the country. Any success – or failure – in Delhi, the AAP knows, will get it nationwide attention. For the traditional parties, the threat they spotted in 2013 still looms large.