The once in few decade victory of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)–led Left Democratic Front in Kerala infused fresh energy into an Opposition that was withering on nationally since the past seven years.
The May 2 electoral victory rewrote history and allowed the Marxist-led coalition to retain a bastion. It gave a fresh lease of life marking the continuation of the Red Star over the coastal state’s horizon.
Interestingly, two key Marxist leaders interpreted the recent assembly results as indicative of the altering landscape. Kerala Chief Minister Pinaryi Vijayan, in an interview, surmised the poll outcome in the South dented the invincibility myth of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and raised the prospect of a national alternative. On his part, CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury interpreted that the people want secular forces to come together.
The Left leaders are of the view the current set of results as one in which parties and/or coalitions opposed to the BJP found acceptance among the electorate. The argument is that in Tamil Nadu it was the formation under Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) that trounced the AIADMK backed by the BJP while in West Bengal, people saw Trinamool Congress (TMC) of Mamata Banerjee most formidable to halt the BJP march. Stretching it further, results of Panchayat polls in Uttar Pradesh favoured the Samajwadi Party at the expense of the BJP while in Gujarat the Congress put up a decent show in local bodies.
How will these results have an impact on the national scene? Will it trigger a realignment of political forces opposed to the BJP? What shape would it acquire and most important where does one find the Congress in it? Can the Left parties once again marshal political parties opposed to the BJP and manage inherent contradictions?
To bring in a bit of history, since the Jan Morcha days of Vishwanath Pratap Singh Left parties especially the CPI (M) played a role in bringing disparate parties in the opposition together into forming coalition governments.
Traditionalists can argue V P Singh’s revolt against Rajiv Gandhi in the post-Bofors payoff scandal paved the way for a change of regime. While that remains the trigger without the outside support extended by CPI (M) and others, Janata Dal government would not have materialised. The BJP too lent its weight from the outside and the paradox of both the Right and Left standing behind the government was not lost.
During 1996-1998, the CPI (M) leadership found itself in a position to determine the contours of another coalition. It chiselled the United Front Government, worked on a Common Minimum Programme and created a new concept of governance model—a Steering Committee. With leaders from constituent parties comprising the Committee, it set the political compass for the coalition governments of H D Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral.
These two experiments proved crucial in 2004 when the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress sought crucial support from the four Left parties. Taking a stand to back the Manmohan Singh government, the Left parties opted out from being part of it. Political arrangements in the form of an acceptable roadmap for governance with Congress-Left coordination Committee for oversight were the instruments.
Interestingly, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi reached out to the then CPI (M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Sujreet for a pre-poll understanding, the veteran Marxist turned it down citing serious differences on economic policies. Yet, the wily political leader in him provided a way out. His suggestion: let the Congress and the Left contest and win seats in states where the parties were strong and revisit the issue after the results. The arrangement worked until 2008 when differences over the nuclear deal led to the breakdown.
It has been over a decade since any formidable arrangement could come to dislodge the incumbent government. The UPA returned to power in 2009 with a renewed mandate and in 2014, the BJP emerged on its own to wrest power though it did have a coalition. Over the years, the NDA remains an arrangement with diminished spirit with which it came into being in 1998.
While general elections are three years away, in the run-up the BJP and parties opposed to it will have numerous opportunities to roll out a strategy and fine-tune it in real time conditions. These will come over the next 30 months during elections across 12 assemblies and 1,384 seats.
Elections in five states of Goa, Manipur, Uttrakhand, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh with 690 seats are to be held in the early part of 2022 and the rest including Gujarat and Karnataka, two BJP strongholds in 2023.
Barring Punjab and Gujarat, the principal challenge to the BJP in other states would come from regional parties. For instance, it is the Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) in the Eastern part of India, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, YSR Congress and Telugu Desam in Telugu speaking areas of Southern India to a Shiv Sena in Western India.
The Congress party continues to shrink across India and until the party sorts out its leadership issue and demonstrates clarity on its ideological thrust, it would continue to drift. This also brings to fore another contradiction that the Left in general and the CPI (M) in particular would have to tackle, its understanding with the Congress.
The divide within the CPI (M) brings out two distinct streams—the Bengal line (with the Congress) and the Kerala line (no truck with the Congress) unless the Congress party’s state of flow leaves other formations with Hobson's choice. Excited by the current outcome and talking of a national alternative to the BJP, is the Opposition chasing a chimera!
—KV Prasad is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. The views expressed are personal.
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(Edited by: By Ajay Vaishnav)