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Indian general elections: Modi’s fate hinges on durability of opposition coalition

  • Published at 06:53 pm January 25th, 2019
Mamata Banerjee-India
Leaders of India's main opposition parties join their hands together during 'United India' rally ahead of the general election, in Kolkata, India, January 19, 2019 Reuters

The 2019 poll is a litmus test for Bharatiya Janata Party’s performance  

India’s regional political parties challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 19; they raised their entwined hands, signalling unity among the opposition that they forged to bring down the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. 

Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal, was the venue chosen by Mamata Banerjee – one of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fiercest critics – who attempted to cobble up unity. 

This display of unity harks back to the late 1980s where two legendary political rivals – Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jyoti Basu – in Kolkata, raised their entwined hands to ensure the downfall of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. 

Their efforts bore fruit as Rajiv Gandhi was defeated in the 1989 Indian general elections and a United Front government was formed that prominently included Vajpayee’s BJP and Basu’s CPI-(M). 

The deceased Jyoti Basu’s proteges, CPI-(M), did not participate in Mamata’s rally despite her having invited them. 

Mamata Banerjee belonged to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government – headed by the deceased Atal Bihari Vajpayee – at the beginning of this century. Basu and his party were instrumental in installing the first Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2004, headed by then chairperson Sonia Gandhi. The primary objective of this alliance was to defeat Vajpayee’s government, and it efforts bore fruit.

At one point, Vajpayee and Basu united to defeat Rajiv Gandhi. When the duo parted ways, one of them allied with Rajiv’s widow, Sonia. Mamata was an ardent admirer of Vajpayee and was instrumental in bringing down the 34-year-old CPI-(M)-led Left Front government, in West Bengal, which was once held by Basu, and later his successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Now, Mamata is struggling to bring down Narendra Modi, one of Vajpayee’s political proteges.

Time and tide changes; as do friends and foes in politics.

The opposition’s potential

Now it is time to look at the broader picture. What ramifications or repercussions would Mamata’s efforts have over the forthcoming elections in the world’s largest democracy?

Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, veteran journalist Sanjib Deb said: “It depends on whether the opposition parties remain united till the end. Their unity will be tested during seat adjustments. 

“Precisely, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, and Samajwadi Party (SP), led by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Singh Yadav, forged an alliance. Till then, they were political rivals. However, if they display maturity and circumspection, while fielding candidates by minding their coalition, their unity will continue.

“Likewise, if all the opposition parties in their respective states remain united till the end, they will be a force to reckon with for the Narendra Modi-led BJP government,” Deb added.

The journalist also said the anti-Modi rally in Kolkata would not have an impact on Northeast India because major leaders from this region did not participate – with the minor exception of Badruddin Ajmal of Assam, Lalduhawma of Mizoram, and Gegong Apang of Arunachal Pradesh.

Badruddin Ajmal heads the All India United Democratic Front, one of the principal opposition parties of Assam. Lalduhawma is leader of the opposition of the Mizoram Legislative Assembly, and is the chief of the Zoram People’s Movement. Gegong Apang was the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh for five terms and quit the BJP a few days ago.

Yet, the BJP is at a disadvantage in Assam, owing to tensions emanating from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) update and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which were passed by India’s Lok Sabha on January 8.

The bill has yet to be approved by the Rajya Sabha to become an act.

Assam is clearly divided on this issue with the Brahmaputra Valley standing against it and Barak Valley standing by it.

Apart from this, Assam’s counterparts in the northeast are against the bill, as well as the Meghalaya government which passed a cabinet resolution against the bill on January 11.

It is a coalition government led by Chief Minister Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP) and has the support of two BJP ministers, both of whom supported the resolution.

The BJP is in power in all the northeastern states – with the exception of Mizoram and Sikkim. Thus, the party has an advantage there.

Overall, the political situation in Northeast India is in disarray.

Testing coalitions

West Bengal, which was the political cynosure for the opposition’s unity, or anti-Modi rally, has a different story.

The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) is an organizationally-robust party in the state. The CPI-(M) and Congress have been enfeebled over the years. This factor has come as a stimulus for the BJP which clearly has the potential to fill the opposition’s vacuum.

However, the BJP has yet to strengthen its organizational structure if it desperately seeks to provide a viable alternative to the TMC.

Meanwhile, the regional parties need to forge an electoral understanding with the Congress political party if it wants to dislodge the Modi-led BJP government, which is now a formidable force.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi expressed his support for the Kolkata rally and sent two of his party’s representatives. Leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, was the most prominent of the two.

However, none of the regional party leaders mentioned the Congress.

They have a bitter experience with the Congress. In 1979, the Congress, led by former prime minister Indira Gandhi, pledged support for the Janata Party government which was led by then prime minister Charan Singh, the man who succeeded Morarji Desai. 

However, the Congress unceremoniously pulled out their support barely two days before Charan Singh was scheduled to prove his majority on the floor of the Lok Sabha. Therefore, Charan Singh hitherto remains the only Indian prime minister who never faced the Lok Sabha, not even once.

In 1991, Congress effected the dismissal of then prime minister Chandrashekhar’s government. From 1996-1998, Congress ensured the downfall of prime ministers HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral. Thus, Congress was responsible for the collapse of four coalition governments at India’s centre. This history has not faded away from Indian politicians’ memories.

As current trends suggest, BJP is not going to have it easy next year, as it had in 2014, because it lost some crucial Legislative Assembly polls in some Indian states over the past couple of years.

The 2014 election was actually a verdict against the 10-year-old Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s performance. Modi won. Nay, the Congress lost. 

Now, 2019 will be an acid test for Modi and his party, because the public will issue a report card on his performance of the past five years.