Kejriwal’s elusive politics in era of coalitions

In the first-past-the-post system that India inherited from the Westminster model, an important corollary of the simple majority norm is the index of Opposition unity. The more fragmented the Opposition, the easier it is for the incumbent to buck anti-incumbency and remain in power.

Radhika Ramaseshan
Senior journalist

On May 23, when the Indian electors pronounce their verdict on who will rule the 17th Lok Sabha, the performance of the federal parties will be keenly watched. In states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, these entities or coalitions of entities — that emerged and grew on their distinctive ideologies or provincialism —seriously challenged the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) instead of the Congress.  

Indeed, if the regional forces outnumber the BJP on their respective turfs, their combined output may unlock the space for putting together a federal front, although India’s experience with similar experiments in the past was not a happy one.  So far, no glue to bind the disparate parties is visible, not even ‘secularism’ that served as an expedient fig leaf in the recent past.  

Some, like Bihar’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Karnataka’s Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S), fought the poll in tandem with the Congress, while the others went solo, although, with the exception of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), they identified the BJP as their principal adversary. It’s fair to infer that UP’s gathbandhan, comprising the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), or the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) will not become part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). They would rather do business with the Congress in a post-poll scenario.

A state party that could rue its decision to go it alone is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The AAP’s success in the 2013 and 2015 Assembly elections spurred its founder and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s aspirations to spread his wings the country over, but these were clipped sooner than he realised. The AAP and the Congress were locked in protracted discussions over contesting the Delhi Lok Sabha poll together but the talks ran into issues that arose from Kejriwal’s ambition to extend the prospective alliance to other states, which the Congress refused. The negotiations eventually failed. 

In the first-past-the-post system that India inherited from the Westminster model, an important corollary of the simple majority norm is the index of Opposition unity. The more fragmented the Opposition, the easier it is for the incumbent to buck anti-incumbency and remain in power. 

Kejriwal must be watching the developments in next-door UP where the gathbandhan is giving the BJP leviathan a run for its money, despite the gathbandhan’s manifest lack of resources and a somewhat disorganised campaign. Had the AAP and the Congress teamed up, the BJP might have been denied a repeat of 2014 when it won all seven seats in the national capital.

From all accounts, the Congress was ready to cede three seats in Delhi, but Kejriwal sought an alliance in Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh as well. When the exercise fell through, Kejriwal’s response was that an alliance was unnecessary because the Congress was any way not placed to swing a single seat in Delhi.  His logic was that it made sense for the AAP to fight all seats independently. 

Kejriwal harked to the past to shore up his arguments, saying that his party was birthed by opposition to the Congress’ ‘corruption’, but added superciliously that now was the time to come together to ‘defeat’ the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo. Run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

He concluded his case with the averment that he was prepared to back a non-BJP formation at the Centre, provided it granted Delhi full statehood. The statement seemed more like an effort to quell the speculation that he played into the BJP’s hands by rebuffing the Congress. 

Even a federacy of state parties needs a ballast at the Centre to keep a modicum of stability and ensure that the potential contradictions and conflicts do not keel over. The Congress or the BJP have played anchors in the past, the Congress less effectively than the BJP. Notice how even the larger regional parties handle one or both the ‘mainstream’ parties tactfully. After blowing hot towards the Congress, Mayawati, the BSP president, eventually offered support to Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, when he most needed to level a bitter fight with the BJP in Amethi. The TRS president, K Chandrasekhar Rao, is trying to warm up to the Congress. 

In India: Government and Politics in a Developing Nation, political scientists Stanley A Kochanek and Robert L Hardgrave noted, “The rise of the BJP in the 1990s, its success in cobbling together a diverse coalition of caste and regional parties that ruled for six years from 1998 to 2004 (and now since 2014) and the formation of the Congress-led UPA government in 2004 may indicate that the Indian party system is entering a new era of ‘bi-nodal’ coalition politics organised around the two largest national parties: the BJP and the Congress (I).” 

In other words, Kejriwal — who accused the Modi government of relentlessly harassing him and thwarting his government’s working but dismissed the Congress as unworthy of his hand — will have to make peace with one of the two, come the new Lok Sabha, unless, like the BJD, he keeps an ‘equidistance’ from the Congress and the BJP.

There’s a more substantive reason for the AAP’s solo act. Delhi goes to the polls in early 2020 and the AAP has the highest stake in keeping power. If Kejriwal loses the only territory he sits over, he means little, regionally or nationally. It serves his political intent to tell the cadre that it will have to gear up for a hard fight on its own, without leaning on a crutch. Had he gone with the Congress in the parliamentary elections, extending the partnership to the Delhi poll might have been the next logical step. A thought Kejriwal will not countenance.

However, he came a little closer to seeking a toehold in Haryana, where the AAP partnered the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) and got three of the 10 Lok Sabha seats to contest. Like most regional bosses, Kejriwal’s politics is about saving his turf, but unlike some of them, he yet refuses to compromise with the mainline parties.

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