Mamata Banerjee was fully entitled to enjoy her spectacular second-term victory by organising a grand swearing-in ceremony on the grand Red Road in Kolkata on Friday. It was by all accounts a difficult election campaign with a wide array of forces ranged against her. That she defied pre-existing electoral arithmetic and a vicious campaign launched against her by not only the CPI (M)-Congress combine, the intelligentsia and the biggest media house of the State made her victory all the more creditable.
Yet, while basking in her triumph, the Chief Minister of West Bengal was guilty of over-reading the significance of her conclusive victory against her old foes. Within minutes of it becoming apparent that she was sweeping the polls on May 19, her Trinamool Congress spokesman Derek O’Brien said on TV that it was but a small two-hour aeroplane ride from Kolkata to Delhi. Her Finance Minister Amit Mitra who resurrected the idea of a Federal Front echoed this sentiment. On her part, Mamata has not been so explicit but it was clear that she revelled at the fact that Friday’s swearing-in was attended by, among others, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. Apart from this, Arun Jaitley, Babul Supriyo and Ashok Gajapati Raju represented the Central Government.
True, there were important absentees. The Congress and Communists stayed away and even the Chief Ministers of neighbouring Orissa and Sikkim weren’t seen. And the formidable Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was probably too busy with her own ministry-making in Chennai to make a short flying visit to Kolkata.
Notwithstanding those who weren’t present — and there may be innocent explanations — the galaxy of State leaders present in Kolkata has certainly fuelled speculation that following the elections in Delhi, Bihar and West Bengal, something interesting may be happening in all-India politics to build a viable national alternative to the BJP.
Before rushing to conclusions, it is pertinent to note that there are at least three models that are being experimented with —and almost simultaneously.
Sunday Pioneer, May 29, 2016
The first, preferred by the Congress, is the old United Progressive Alliance model with the Congress as the dominant player and other regional parties, ranging from the DMK, the Left and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) playing a supporting role. This approach acknowledges the diminished stature of the Congress but still accords it a role as a distinctive pole of national politics.
The second model that seems to have caught the fascination of Nitish Kumar attaches primary importance to alliances at the regional level where the dominant partner varies depending on circumstances. Thus, the RJD and his Janata Dal (U) that were the joint senior partners in Bihar, with the Congress playing a clear subordinate role. Nitish hopes that the experiment will be successfully replicated in Uttar Pradesh with the Samajwadi Party as the senior partner and maybe even in Punjab with a Congress-Aaam Aadmi Party alliance. For Nitish, the important thing is to ensure that the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance are defeated in the State elections. This will set the stage for the 2019 elections that could see the aggregate of State elections defeating the Narendra Modi Government. The nature of the central coalition and the choice of a leader can be negotiated subsequently. But Nitish, whose hatred for the BJP has assumed a somewhat strident proportion, clearly sees himself as a future Prime Minister, a project endorsed by Lalu Prasad who would love to be the last word in Bihar.
Finally, there is the Mamata model of the Federal Front. According to this model, a national coalition of regional parties that excludes the Congress, BJP and Left is the way forward in national politics. For Mamata’s Federal Front, the point of inspiration is the 2014 general election results in West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana where the regional parties prevailed and prevented the encroachment of the national parties. If 2019 results in the regional parties also prevailing in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi, there is a possibility of a patchwork coalition of regional parties prevailing at the Centre. Whereas Nitish sees the coalition being bound by secularism and anti-BJPism, Mamata sees the federal principle as the basis of unity.
On paper, each of these three alliances have a measure of electoral viability. However, there are two imponderables.
To begin with, their success depends on the Congress reconciling itself to the present 45 seats in the Lok Sabha and shedding all hopes of a national revival. It also presumes that all intra-regional rivalries being set aside for the sake of a larger national cause. However as the still-born Janata parivar unity demonstrated last year, this is easier said than done.
Above all, however, there is the vexed question of arithmetic and chemistry. The patchwork coalition works best in national politics when the dominant party is in decline and another national alternative hasn’t acquired sufficient momentum. This happened in 1996 and witnessed two fragile governments led by HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral. By 1998, the pendulum had started swinging once again in favour of national parties. Experience suggests that federal and unitary impulses go hand in hand in India. While the region is all-important in Assembly polls, the nation becomes the point of concern during parliamentary polls.
Whether India will want a khichdi sarkar in 2019 is a moot point. Instead of focussing her energies on such a pipedream, Mamata should be better advised to address the pressing issues of West Bengal first and look to Delhi later. That is also an advice that should serve Nitish too.