Why it will take regional parties more than a united front to oust BJP

Why it will take regional parties more than a united front to oust BJP

Given the divergent aspirations of different regional parties to find a common ground, it often becomes an insurmountable challenge.

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In 2006, when hiring professional poll-strategists like Prashant Kishor by political parties was not yet in vogue, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) deputed one of its senior leaders, K Rama Mohana Rao, to “professionally manage” the campaigns of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) for the Assam assembly elections. Among others, it was at the behest of the TDP that a Hyderabad-based vaastu shastra expert...

In 2006, when hiring professional poll-strategists like Prashant Kishor by political parties was not yet in vogue, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) deputed one of its senior leaders, K Rama Mohana Rao, to “professionally manage” the campaigns of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) for the Assam assembly elections.

Among others, it was at the behest of the TDP that a Hyderabad-based vaastu shastra expert was roped in to make some structural changes in the AGP’s Guwahati headquarters.

All this was because TDP leader and former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu nurtured at that time an ambition of leading a grand alliance of regional parties. He was willing to go several extra miles to woo other regional parties to cobble together the ambitious front, which eventually failed to take off due to inherent contradictions among the potential constituents.

Regional satraps such as West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress Chief Mamata Banerjee and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had then severed ties with the BJP, too toyed with the idea of a grander alliance of secular forces to take on the saffron outfit in 2017.

That attempt too met the same fate as that of similar efforts in the past—the differences within these parties over leadership, seat sharing and other issues got the better of their common antagonism against the BJP.

Non-BJP front

The clamour for a broad non-BJP alliance gained momentum once again after results of the assembly elections to five states of Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry were announced last month.

Except for Assam, where the BJP’s main rival was the Congress, the saffron outfit could not come anywhere near the victory mark, rekindling the theory that regionalism could be a better bulwark against the surge of BJP’s Hindutva driven chest-thumping nationalism.

The argument in support of the theory is that the regional parties can best protect sub-national aspirations of a heterogeneous India based on cooperative federalism as against the BJP’s idea of a homogenous India governed by an omnipotent central government.

The TMC has announced that its supremo Mamata Banerjee will be the main challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP | PTI File Photo

Buoyed by its electoral success in the state assembly, the TMC set the ball rolling on Saturday (May 5) deciding to promote its supremo Mamata Banerjee as the main challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP.

Mamata’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee who was anointed as the TMC’s national general secretary with the prime objective of expanding the party’s presence beyond Bengal, said he would “leave no stone unturned” to take Mamata’s “message to every nook and corner in India in the days to come”.

The TMC also plans to organise a mega rally in Kolkata’s iconic Brigade Parade Ground inviting leaders of opposition parties after the Covid-19 pandemic subsides.

Trinamool strategists are looking at a 1989-like situation when all opposition parties rallied together to defeat the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government in the general elections held in November that year.

While the idea sounds great, the experience of the past coalitions shows that regional parties needed the support of national parties like Congress or BJP or even the Left.

But this time, with the BJP in power at the Centre, and the Congress and the Left looking ineffective—the Left was drubbed in Bengal where it once ruled the roost for three decades and the Congress failed to come back to power in Kerala, Assam or Puducherry—other regional parties such as Jharkhand Chief Minister and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Hemant Soren and Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party still insist that only regional parties can together derail the BJP government at the Centre.

“The concept is gaining ground as the Congress is not able to lead an opposition charge against the BJP from the front though there has been a growing resentment against the central government over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic,” observes Rama Mohana Rao of the TDP.

“Mamataji should now take the lead,” he adds.

BJP’s gameplan

In the changed dynamics of Indian polity post-2014, the notion that regional forces can lead a successful political onslaught against the BJP however appears too ambitious.

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the National Conference have been in existence from pre-independence days, regionalism as a political narrative started gaining currency since the mid-1960s, when the Congress’s hold in several key Indian states started waning.

NCP’s Sharad Pawar has for long been seen as a potential leader of the united front, and is sure to get the backing of Shiv Sena leader and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray | PTI File Photo

For a long time since 1989 when TDP leader and Naidu’s father-in-law NT Rama Rao propped up an anti-Congress front with Janata Dal leader VP Singh as its face, the regional parties had been invariable kingmakers in Indian politics.

It all changed after the BJP under Narendra Modi got a majority of its own winning 282 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, severely diminishing the bargaining power of the regional outfits. But even then their combined vote share was an impressive 49 per cent. The BJP grew at the expense of another national party, the Congress.

Politics of regionalism is centred either on a strong caste-based narrative of Hindi heartland or sub-nationalist pride, especially of non-Hindi belt states.

The BJP under Narendra Modi-Amit Shah diluted its appeal with its twin strategies of Hindutva-based social engineering and co-option.

In Uttar Pradesh for instance, the BJP’s Hindutva appeal has obliterated caste dynamics that had once made the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party the most formidable forces in the state.

In Bihar, after riding piggyback on Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), the BJP has now completely marginalised it. In Assam, it has aligned its Hindutva nationalism with Assamese ethno-nationalism, thus making the once-strong regional outfit like the AGP politically irrelevant.

Similarly, in Maharashtra where the BJP was the junior partner of the Shiv Sena even a decade ago, it managed to grow at the expense of its regional ally emerging as the single largest party in 2014 and 2019 elections.

Divide and rule

The strategy clearly worked in 2019 general elections when the vote share of the regional parties saw about a five per cent drop. The decline is attributed to growing acceptance of the muscular, pro-Hindu brand of nationalism in the country, particularly in Hindi-speaking states and the fact that it exploited the unlikeliness or the impossibility of rival regional parties joining hands.

While the PDP and the NC in Jammu and Kashmir could not shed their differences, a similar case with Trinamool Congress and Left saw the BJP make significant exploits in Bengal.

In contrast, the coming together of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh managed to cut the BJP’s tally to 61 in 2019 from 71 in 2014, although it was not significant enough. Political observers feel that the BJP could have suffered a worse result had the Congress joined the Mahagathbandhan.

BSP’s Mayawati and SP’s Akhilesh Yadav came together during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, putting aside past differences | PTI File Photo

In Tamil Nadu, where regional parties occupy the ruling and opposition spaces, the DMK stitched together a grand alliance of smaller parties and the Congress and the Left to overthrow the AIADMK-BJP in both the Lok Sabha and assembly elections.

In Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha, regional parties Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party, K Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal continue to dominate the political scene, staving off the rising challenge from BJP.

In the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which is now under the President’s Rule, the political equation appears to have changed following the abrogation of Article 370. The two regional adversaries, the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), are now coming closer.

Challenges ahead

The idea of countering the growth of Hindu nationalism with sub-nationalist or caste prides is unlikely to succeed in 10 Hindi belt states that account for about 225 out of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, says former JD(U) leader and a socialist ideologue Dr Arun Srivastava.

With its Hindu nationalism plank, the BJP has created a larger constituency which can only be breached by raking up bigger national issues such as farm protest, pandemic mismanagement, weakening of national security, job loss etc, he opines.

“The paradox of regional party politics is that the very dimension that makes it a strong state player becomes a liability in national politics,” Srivastava observes.

As such, according to him, it will not be possible for any regional leader to acquire pan India acceptability. “Projecting a regional leader as the opposition face against BJP’s Narendra Modi will only weaken the case,” he added.

Keeping this equation in mind, NTR had given the leadership of the National Front of which he was the president to VP Singh, who was seen as a national leader having served as the finance minister and later the defence minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government and also seen as an anti-corruption crusader for ordering an inquiry into the HDW submarine deal and raking up the alleged corruption in Bofors deal. But even he was seen as a Thakur leader in the caste-ridden UP.

DMK leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin will be only too eager to regain its place in Delhi | PTI Photo

In the present political context, while it is essential that non-BJP parties ensure one-on-one contests against the saffron brigade, the challenger to Modi must have a national appeal, says Kolkata-based political commentator and author Nirmalya Banerjee.

Srivastava agrees, stating that at present, except for NCP leader Sharad Pawar to certain extent, no other regional leader has that appeal.

Moreover, given the divergent aspirations of different regional parties to find a common ground among them, it often becomes an insurmountable challenge.

“It’s a very difficult task to bring diverse regional parties under one platform to chart even a common minimum programme,” says Rao from his past experience.

In this context, the TMC’s recent move to expand its footprint beyond Bengal could end up creating further confusion in the regional camp as other regional satraps could view it as the Bengal party’s expansionist plan to encroach into their territory.

The TMC’s expansionist plan is not exactly akin to the TDP’s 2006 approach of strengthening the other regional forces by extending aid.

At this juncture, regional parties need more than just greater cooperation. More importantly, they also need to reinvent their regional quotient to sync with the national agenda as pointed out by Srivastava. It is only then, he adds, that these outfits can hope to enthuse the electorate beyond their core support base limited within the geographic boundaries of their respective states.

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