Mamata Banerjee’s big win in the high-prestige and high-octane West Bengal assembly election last winter has triggered the possibility of a new federal front against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Regional parties, party factions, small and big political family firms — all seem to be involved in parleys, political intrigue and even publicity-generating photo-ops. Inciting speculation and working across regions, a ‘coalition’ to take on the behemoth that is the BJP’s election machinery seems to be afoot.
Weakened states and regional parties in the Modi-Shah era have made the repeat of a 1990s-style anti-BJP coalition at the Centre seem impossible. That’s when Prashant Kishor began emerging, not as the face of a new coalition against Modi but as a strategic glue of all the regional opposition parties. Having successfully helmed campaigns starting with Modi in 2014 and every prestige regional campaign against him since then, Kishor has astutely understood that the Modi mandate cannot be contested regionally.
Unlike the 1990s, this time, Kishore realises, regional parties can’t mount that challenge on their own by keeping the Congress out.
Also read: Why ‘winners’ pick Prashant Kishor
Coalitions: then and now
The party map of India allows for such a coalition. India has over 50 political parties. Yet only two have an electoral footprint in more than one state, namely the outsized BJP and the diminishing Congress. In short, the majority of India’s parties are essentially provincial and even parochial.
Despite regional diversity, what unites these parties is, in fact, caste interest in its regional form. Touted as the floating voter of India’s psephology, the Other Backward Class (OBC) vote has been assiduously cultivated and continues to be addressed by the BJP and the Modi mandate in particular.
The BJP perhaps learnt to do so from its own electoral history in the 1990s — the prime decade of coalitions — that truly saw OBC parties mature and define India’s democratic matrix. In that decade, such coalition politics denied the BJP majority rule. In short, Mandal politics was able to halt the Mandir juggernaut.
This coalition of castes and its fragile consensus was short-lived, though. This was not only because the BJP remade itself under Modi. This was mainly due to the nature of India’s federalism that ironically guarantees power and authority to New Delhi.
Despite branding the relationship between Delhi and regions as ‘cooperative’, Modi has only made it more central, making personalised control all too visible. From Covid-19 vaccines and taxation to farm subsidies, India’s polity is now synonymous with the executive.
In turn, from West Bengal to Punjab, and from the Hindi heartland to southern India, the BJP has failed to institute its governments. Assembly election after election has shown that the province or region will not be a pale version of the Modi mandate at the Centre.
Psephologists and experts of India’s elections explain away this phenomenon as the canny operation of the Indian voter who is able to cast their vote in two distinct ways: one at the national level and another at the regional level. This might be so. The voter may not see any contradiction in voting for Modi nationally but also voting against his party regionally.
Strikingly, this tussle between centralised control and regional assertion has not led to any significant devolution of power to the states. Rather, the most striking feature of federalism has been the way it has shaped India’s multi-party democracy. In short, dominated by one national party and multiple regional parties, India’s competitive democracy is in effect competitive federalism that pits states against each other.
In pre-Covid-19 pandemic times, Modi further aced a focussed delivery of large welfare programmes, coupled with constant beating of the drum of national security ensuring his own popularity.
If the pandemic is now controlled, it will be celebrated as an outcome of Modi’s leadership. If there is devastation, it can and will be blamed on the states. Neither cooperation nor asymmetry defines this relationship. Rather India’s federalism, despite periodic competition to it, has ensured that the political capital remains Delhi.
Flexibility or ideology?
Unlike the 1990s, a new coalition cannot now be a mere sum of all the regional and family parties that can challenge Modi. The plus factor, the star campaign strategist believes, is a ‘face’. A face that can counter and distil the force against the all-too-visible Modi. Personal charisma and personality, it is assumed, will make this a two-face contest. But so far, that face remains elusive. This is despite the efforts of media, pollsters and party strategists who all have tried to project one leader or another but all in vain.
But with his access to and ease with the spectrum of Indian political leaders of all shades, it is Prashant Kishor who is, willingly or unwillingly, becoming ready for the face-off with Modi. Or this appears to be the strategy of the moment.
Coalitions in the ’90s, and since, have privileged ideological flexibility as the mode and standard operating procedure in the pursuit of power. This has made cynicism a political virtue with the only mantra being ‘you must be able to win’.
So much so that a one- time BJP member and cricketer-turned-entertainer Navjot Singh Sidhu can hold a major party unit hostage to his personal political ambition. Neither the press, nor it seems party bosses, are asking what does a Sidhu stand for apart from himself? All the more so, because pursuits such as Sidhu’s are at the cost of hard-won party structures.
This is not merely a moral question or one limited to Sidhu and the fate of the Congress in one state of Punjab. It goes to the heart of a new coalition in the Modi-era. Mainly because Modi is an ideological force. Being anti-Modi will not be sufficient for the opposition. Far from it. Kishor, too, will have to state what he stands for.
Prashant Kishor’s conversion from a strategist to a political actor is now also dependent on the Congress. If Kishor has aced electoral mathematics, then the Congress is the only other party that has any (if limited) national potency. Their coming together could be a Faustian pact for the Congress or a feast that could truly threaten Modi’s party.
Flexibility of positions, ideologies and faces belong to the Mandal-Mandir era because India now is decidedly on a hard Hindutva path. The space between cynical manoeuvring and ideological purity is narrow. The window of opportunity to remake the Indian political landscape, too, is short.
Parties, regions, caste calculus and political clans perhaps make the need for a face necessary but also impossible. This can only be done by discounting the power of ideas, and even ideology, that installed Modi in the first place.
Above all, Modi and Hindutva can now only be countered by a grand, brave and captivating idea that can recast and reset India anew.
The writer teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)