Federal front formation makes sense
With the end of the crucial set of Assembly polls in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, and Kerala, politicking has already started for the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. Mamata Banerjee, the biggest winner of this round in terms of percentage of seats, made that very clear. These Assembly polls were crucial as they come to define the nature of the forces that would be the principal adversaries come 2019. So, after the results are out and the dust has settled, what does it look like?
Firstly, let's focus on what it does not look like. If one were to believe media narratives coming out of Delhi, the results had to do with whether this was a further step towards the BJP dream of Congress-mukt-Bharat or not. Notwithstanding the fact that the Hindi expression “Congress-mukt-Bharat” doesn’t mean anything in most parts of the non-Hindi regions of the Indian Union.
The Congress still won double the number of Assembly seats, across the states, compared to the BJP. That underlines the fact that Hindi-Hindustan heavy support base of the BJP still makes it an irrelevant force in most non-Hindi states, notwithstanding its spectacular success in Assam, in alliance with Asom Gana Parishad and Bodoland People's Front. While Delhi may engage in the debate it is most comfortable with, that is, a Congress-BJP duel, these elections signal that a very different alternative to these so-called “national” parties may be brewing.
This round of Assembly elections gives out a strong message – that parties with a strong base in the homelands of large linguistic nationalities of the Indian Union can give the “nationals” a run for their money. That these parties, like the Trinamool or the AIADMK of Tamil Nadu, are also strong votaries of federalism and opposers of a domineering, almost imperial Union government at Delhi, is not surprising.
Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and many other non-Hindi states have long been bastions of federalist politics. These tendencies towards greater decentralisation and hence more grassroots and efficient government have long been articulated by various parties, the Dravidian parties being at the forefront.
It is now that there are pro-federalism parties in power that typically don’t mince words when they say that they stand for a redistribution of power between centre and state, with the wish that the states are strengthened.
A super-centralised Union government is not a natural state of being of the Indian Union. It is a legacy of the super-majority that the Congress acquired from a very limited electorate, especially after the exit of the Muslim League from the Indian scene. This tussle between the Centre, the site of accumulated monetary resource and power, and the states, the site of real governance and service delivery, is an old one. The triumph of both the Trinamool and the AIADMK will no doubt strengthen the calls for a 2019 front of strong federalist parties coming together. Mamata Banerjee has unsuccessfully tried to do this in 2014 itself, but the Congress still served as the major anti-BJP pole and hence that plan didn’t get much traction.
With most of the opposition parties looking towards 2019 Lok Sabha election as a battle royale, it is important to remember that the Modi wave created a feeble ripple in both Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, where both AIADMK and the Trinamool had won more than 75 percent of the Lok Sabha seats in their states. In 2016, while AIADMK has held on to power on its own, bucking the periodic regime-change trend of Tamil Nadu, the Trinamool has strengthened itself in an unprecedented manner. In both the states, the “national” parties seem marginal or irrelevant. It is from this reality of irrelevance of super-centralisation supporting parties like the Congress or BJP in many parts of the Indian Union that the dream of a federal front starts taking shape.
Within a short time of her crushing victory, Mamata Banerjee made it clear that preparation for Lok Sabha 2019 was on her mind. She has been developing political chemistry with the Aam Aadmi Party, which aims to be a federal party of the Punjab-Haryana-Delhi region. Parts of the Hindi-belt, for long beyond the ambit of ethnolinguistic identity centric politics, have seen these issues being brought to the forefront. Thus, Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar have no illusions of a “national” Janata alternative, but would no doubt want to push Bihar's interest in any 2019 political formation.
2019 is still quite some time away, but this election has not been good news for the Congress in the sense that the rise of federalist forces has weakened its claim to be the “natural” pivot around which all other anti-BJP, secular forces would be forced to coalesce. Given that most of the federalist parties are no less secular than the Congress, they have the potential to break away from the secular-communal axis of politics and stand out as a secular, federalist formation that stands against communalism and centralisation of power.
If the Congress does not revive, the old party may even be forced to play second fiddle to such a front and support it if need be. The grand alliance in Bihar has shown that the Congress, for the sake of survival, has learned to read writings on the wall. Whether it can accept the same in an India-wide sense is an open question. The Congress would ideally want an alliance with the CPI(M), that gives its a critical mass with the claim of being a central pivot. It also gives it a modicum of ideological heft.
Among the major bases of the CPI(M), the Congress-CPI(M) relationship has been least antagonistic in Bengal in recent times. A success story in Bengal would have really scuttled any talk of Mamata's federal front dream. But with the embarrassing defeat of the Congress-CPI(M) alliance, the winds in the sail of a “secular, progressive” alliance with Congress and CPI(M) as two pillars look quite shaky.
The only two states where CPI(M) now holds power (Kerala and Tripura) are also states where the Congress is their principal enemy with the CPI(M) leaders of those states openly critical of the Bengal experiment of allying with the Congress.
One thing that goes against the federalist parties is that they are not exactly the hot favourites for big corporates whose influence in election outcomes was most starkly seen in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. One can never know by how much the “national” parties blessed by big corporates outspend their federalist rivals. But if one goes by the ratio of helicopters used by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and RJD-JD(U) led alliance in Bihar, its at least 5 is to 1.
That the NDA still lost, shows that people power matters. In an interview given by Mamata Banerjee shortly after her victory, she reiterated her support for government funding of all election expenditure, as a way to level the very unequal playing field created by big corporate donations that typically favour “national” parties like the Congress and the BJP. The Assembly elections of 2016 are clearly opening moves in the 2019 battle for Delhi.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)