In its infancy, which was in the last millennium, federal coalition politics was an inchoate muddle of new leaders and fragments of old guard of politicians from mostly the Grand Old Party – the Congress. It was an anti-Congress formation that was later expanded to make it an anti-Congress, anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) force.
Federal parties, bringing together newly born forces representing the expectations of the states, have come of age and are racing to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presidential style of politics on the one hand and displace Congress as a centripetal force on the other.
With dizzying speed, events are piling up confirming the formation of a “federal front”. The meeting between K. Chadrashekar Rao, chief minister of the recently created state of Telengana, in Kolkata with West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee on Monday on the “federal front” of anti-BJP and non-Congress parties, reveals the energy that is driving the new politics of coalitions in India.
In this, Mamata Banerjee has acquired a distinctive presence as an experienced politician with cordial ties to almost every political party or leader, which underscores her years of being in parliament and serving as a Union minister in one government or another. The accumulation of political and personal capital is paying off. She is set to meet Andhra Pradesh’s Chandrababu Naidu by the end of the month and in all likelihood, a former minister of the Left Front government in West Bengal who is now with the Samajwadi Party, Kiranmaya Nanda, will meet her soon.
This is in stark contrast to the Communist Party of India Marxist and its Left partners, who are no longer politically necessary. Ironic as it is, the description of a “federal front” was used first by Prakash Karat in any meaning way after the dramatic, but disastrous, decision to pull out of the partnership with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2008. It is piquant that he met Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati soon after and despite his overtures, the CPI(M) was rejected as a potential ally by the Dalit leader, sending the Left’s dreams crashing on forging a new coalition.
The glue that once worked like magic in crafting newly-hatched coalitions and keeping them together with a ‘common minimum programme’, the CPI(M) and its partners, is in tatters. Back then, the CPI(M) was quick to recognise the emerging regional forces as democratic and secular. Between 1977 and now, much water has flown under the bridge, which had the CPI(M) as a central pillar, integrating and negotiating with regional parties and leaders to keep them hanging together.
The CPI(M) then was invested with a moral aura and a voice as well as presence in national politics with big leaders with formidable reputations. New and relatively inexperienced, regional parties and leaders were willing to be mentored by a party that had not lost its shine in the vicissitudes wrought by incumbency, that is, governance and exercise of power had not diminished its shine.
Over the last 40 years, regional parties have acquired experience; of being part of successful coalitions at the Centre, sometimes led by the Congress, sometimes by the BJP and brokering alliances at the state level too. The flexibility of Mamata Banerjee, for instance, in being part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is not exceptional, nor is her off and on relationship with the Congress in West Bengal.
Other leaders and other parties have been equally adroit in stitching up partnerships that enable them to exercise power. Under Jayalalitha, the AIADMK was in alliance with the NDA and the UPA. The Janata Dal Secular has been in partnership with the Congress as well as the BJP in Karnataka. Leaders like Mayawati have partnered the Samajwadi Party and the BJP in the past, and is on the verge of teaming up with Akhilesh Yadav now; K. Chandrasekhar Rao has been an ally of the Congress; and the Telegu Desam Party (TDP) has been a part of the Modi government, brushing aside its original antipathy to the BJP.
Regional parties are nimble; decisions are made quickly; the past is relegated to where it belongs instead of casting a shadow on the present and darkening the immediate future. And, the focus is on winning. The biggest difference that separates the CPI(M) from most of the regional parties is the baggage that the CPI(M) and the Left carries.
The SP and the BSP are the unlikeliest of partners; but post Tripura, they worked together to derail the BJP’s all-conquering machine in Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh and open up a new set of possibilities.
For the CPI(M), such a working arrangement would have been unthinkable. In the same circumstances, the CPI(M) would have turned squeamish about Mayawati’s reputation for corruption, her alliance in the past with the BJP, the failings of the SP and the likelihood that the SP-BSP or any other parties were not on the same page as the Left in resisting neo-liberalism.
While the CPI(M) has been busy dividing itself up into a minority led by Sitaram Yechury, who is as of now in the nasty unprecedented position of being unlikely to be re-elected as general secretary for a second term, and the majority led by the purifying and purposeful Prakash Karat over the exact degree of enmity against the Congress and the BJP, other political parties have begun sorting themselves out and making change happen.
What the regional parties need is a clear unequivocal line on who will be part of the fight to eject the BJP from power, stop it in its conquest of India and ensure their survival. The CPI(M) is not in a position to deliver a statement to that effect. It has too many reasons and no clear direction. Its obsession with the Congress has made it as much obsolete as too weighed under by its own complex arguments.
The complicated soul searchings of Prakash Karat and his opposition to Sitaram Yechury about many things, including the correct identity of the BJP – fascist or not quite fascist, however vital to the CPI(M) ideological position, cut no ice with regional parties fighting to survive in the Hindi heartland. The handwringing over which party – Congress or the BJP – is more neo-liberal or whether both are equally neo-liberal is a theoretical one and of no great consequence to the regional parties.
And, there are other reasons why the CPI(M) is not central to the formation of a federal coalition of regional parties. One, in its quest to remain pure and unsullied, it has not been selective in painting potential partners are untouchable. It has questioned the secular, democratic and caste or corruption-free credentials of almost every regional political leader – Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav, AIADMK, DMK, TDP and more. It refused to consider a partnership in the Bihar elections because the RJD had a dodgy reputation.
The magnificent kisan rally that reached Mumbai, the kisan rallies in Rajasthan organised and led by the CPI(M)’s peasant front has been a refreshing reminder of what the CPI(M) can do and stands for, but that is not enough. To be relevant to the federating forces that are now working overtime to forge a coalition to make the no-confidence motion against the BJP in Parliament a historic moment, when the credibility of a majority government is challenged, the CPI(M) needs to be part of the moment, rather than sitting on the side lines, pondering what it would do in April this year and how that would impact what it will do in 2019 and thereafter.
Bogged down in correctly defining the concrete conditions, the scientific explanation of materialism and the danger of neo-liberalism, who is a class enemy and what is the relationship of caste and class, the CPI(M) seems to be losing its grasp over the essentials of being a parliamentary party engaged in electoral politics where winning matters. Just when it needs to be up and running in the fight against the inequities of the BJP, the CPI(M) is going around in circles entirely self-absorbed.
Whereas the emerging federal coalition needs to know how the any non-BJP party including the CPI(M) can add to the numbers of voters needed in any or every constituency where a one-on-one fight against the BJP will take place to deliver the victories needed to form a new government at the Centre, the CPI M is busy trying to work out what ought to be its relationship with the Congress.
What the CPI(M) seems to have forgotten is that predicting the future is the job of soothsayers. Its role is to remain relevant. The earlier generation of its leaders – Harkishen Singh Surjeet, Jyoti Basu, E.M.S. Namboodripad, M. Basavapunniah. B.T. Ranadive, P. Sundarayya – were quick in responding to the forces that emerged in 1977 and pragmatic in 1996 and 2004, when coalitions were formed and Indian politics changed, of which the emergence of the BJP was a part. As Jyoti Basu once famously said: “There is a tide in the affairs of men./Which, taken at the flood,/ leads on to fortune”.
Or else the CPI M may lose its ventures, ending up with a marginalised existence in West Bengal, a seriously challenged one in Kerala and an uncertain one in Tripura in electoral politics.
This leaves open the possibility that if the CPI(M) pursues its course of maintaining its distance from the majority of political parties in India for one reason or the other, it could blossom into a party of strong movements a la Maharashtra and Rajasthan, challenging the parties in power and waging a just war against all inequities.
Shikha Mukerjee is a senior journalist based in Kolkata.