Forming anti-BJP front not easy
Old-timers will recall how the term, grand alliance, gained prominence on the eve of the 1971 general election. The tie-up comprised the Congress (Organisation) as opposed to Indira Gandhi's Congress, the Swatantra Party, the Jan Sangh, and the Socialist Party.
The belief among the Congressmen of the so-called Syndicate whose main enemy was Indira, and of the Swatantra Party, which Jawaharlal Nehru called a party of "lords, castles, and zamindars", was that the 1969 split had weakened the Congress under Indira and that a combined opposition could topple it.
However, their expectations remained unfulfilled. The Swatantra Party of C. Rajagopalachari – India's first pro-market party - was the worst sufferer, winning only eight seats against 44 in 1967. The Jan Sangh fared better with 21 seats while the Congress (O) won 13 and the socialists five.
What the outcome showed was that a hodge-podge combination based only on an animus directed at one person and party has little chance at success. Although a similar anti-Indira group did succeed in ousting her in 1977, the reason was the widespread anger against her draconian Emergency rule. Once her electoral defeat dissipated the anger, the combine fell apart.
These lessons from the past are necessary at a time when yet another attempt is being made to set up a ramshackle alliance directed at one person and his party. If anti-Congress-ism was the cornerstone of the previous political formations, anti-BJPism is the key factor now.
What drives these occasional efforts at a tie-up of parties which have little in common is their failure to succeed individually or even as the parts of a small combine. In the present instance, it is the inability of the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress duo to make their presence felt in the U.P. elections that have led to the present tentative attempts to form a larger front.
The two parties may have been motivated by the fact that the combined vote share of the SP (21.8 per cent), the Congress (7 per cent), and the Bahujan Samaj Party (22.2 per cent) was more than that of the BJP (39.7 per cent). But in all such cases, the question has always been whether the support bases of various parties, which are not always on friendly terms, remain intact after they have been mechanically cobbled together.
As the experiences of 1977 and 1989 showed, neither the Janata Party of Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, and Jagjivan Ram, nor the Janata Dal of V.P. Singh, survived for any length of time since their constituents soon drifted apart. The fiasco of an attempt to bring some of them together again in a Janata "Parivar" last year is another example.
It is only in the states that some of these alliances have been successful, for instance in Kerala. But, as the constant bickering between the BJP and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra shows, these combines are not the best options.
It is unlikely, therefore, that the present efforts to put up a united front against the BJP at the national level will succeed. For a start, it is on the lookout for a leader, which means that it has no one who is an automatic choice. This vacuum is crucial at a time when the BJP has managed to convert the electoral battles into personality-based confrontations with Narendra Modi as almost a presidential figure.
Opponents will need someone who is capable of projecting himself if not as a larger-than-life persona like Modi, at least as a challenger with a broad appeal either because of oratorical skills or as someone with a vision who can inspire the electorate.
There is no one in the opposition ranks with these qualities. Sharad Pawar's name has come to the fore, especially after Rahul Gandhi met the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader although the Congress vice-president has hitherto been known to be averse to dealing with the elder generation either of his party or outside.
That he went nevertheless for a powwow with Pawar was seen as a sign that the Congress's massive defeat in U.P. (although Rahul thought that the party was just a "little down) had awakened him to the weakness of his party's position and the consequent need for a helping hand. The Congress alliance with the SP denoted an earlier realisation of its fallibility.
It is doubtful, however, if Pawar is the man to who can stop Modi's march towards a New India. The 76-year-old NCP leader is no longer regarded as a Maratha strongman. In any event, the most notable events in his career were the exits from and entrance to the Congress rather than any significant achievement. He first left the Congress in 1978 to form the Congress (S) named after himself, then returned to the mother party in 1987 only to leave it again 12 years later to form the NCP.
Nitish Kumar's name has been mentioned in this context. But the Bihar Chief Minister is currently too preoccupied with fending off the incipient challenge from Laloo Yadav's RJD, the number one party in the mahagathbandhan, to be able to play a larger role.
What is interesting is that neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul is in the running, suggesting that the dynasty has seen the writing on the wall about its dwindling