ALLIANCES: from fixity to fluidity

Mahesh Rangarajan Delhi 

As we enter the final lap to the next general elections, alliances are in a fluid state. Almost two decades ago, in the wake of his rath yatra from Somnath, then BJP President LK Advani made a prescient remark. There were now, he felt, two organising poles of Indian politics: one around the Congress and the other his own party. Yet, his own party fell short of the numbers in 1996 and in a major innovation it made a series of alliances with regional parties.

It was this ability to sew up state level alliances that underlay the stability of the third Vajpayee government, the only non-Congress formation ever to last a full term in office. Next, Congress took a leaf out of the same book and is set to complete five years at the apex of a coalition.

Much water has since flowed down the Yamuna. The foundations of the ruling alliance lay in its broad concord with the Left parties. This came undone on the rocky shoals of the Indo-US nuclear accord on which there was no meeting ground by July 2008. But the switch by the Congress from the company of Prakash Karat to Mulayam Singh Yadav has left it grasping a nettle. While the former shared an antipathy to the BJP that was ideological, Mulayam has, over the years supped with more than one kind of formation. His turf wars with the Congress will prevent him from letting it grow in the Ganga valley.

More serious for Congress is the evolution of a broad front in the Telugu speaking region. Here, the Left and the Telengana regional forces, which stood like a rock with the Congress five years ago, are now with its bete noire, N Chandrababu Naidu. Andhra more than any other state put a Congress PM back in South Block. It may yet prove the undoing what with the Maytas land scam proving grist to the mill.

An even more serious situation is fast developing in the Tamil speaking region. Tamil Nadu is experiencing a serious economic slow down with two days of power cuts a day. The Eelam issue which Karunanidhi has often played footsie with in the past has come back to haunt him. The lawyers' strike indicates a breakdown of law and order and opens the door for the revival of the fortunes of J Jayalalithaa.

Finally, there is Bihar. Over the last three years, Nitish Kumar has assiduously cultivated a sense of Bihari regional pride to transcend the frontiers of caste. His recent yatra have taken him to Dalit and Muslim bastis with the message that the government will work for the welfare of all. He is one up on Lalu for having had the rioters of Bhagalpur of 1989 sentenced. And, he is now flexing his muscle lining up for photo ops on development with no less than Nobel laureate Prof Amartya Sen.

Taken together, these three states account for as many as 162 Lok Sabha seats. This is twice the number in Uttar Pradesh. It was here that the United Progressive Alliance struck gold in May 2004. It is here that it is now skating on thin ice.

All this is in stark contrast to the great wave elections as in 1971 or in 1980. On both occasions, Congress swept to power, once with the promise of abolishing poverty forever and again for simply giving the country a government that worked. These ideas cut across community and caste, region and religion. It has become more difficult now to coin such a slogan. In place of a single idea, there are a series of steps up the ladder. Then, as now, there is a simple minimal agenda. But, it is now mediated across several parties.

It is here that the UPA managed to hold a diverse crew together for nearly five long years. Where it did not succeed was in looking ahead. Now, along with its allies, it may find the tide turn.

If it is any consolation, the rival alliance is in worse state. Assertive regionalists are muscling on Advani. In Punjab, Badal went ahead with anointing his son as deputy over his ally's objections. Orissa's Naveen Patnaik is restive about the Sangh Parivar's tensions with minorities. Nitish has reduced the local BJP to a group of camp-followers of his Bihar First agenda. The party with a difference is different: it is following where others lead in different states.

All this makes for an exciting election. The cards are up in the air and a new constellation will emerge by the end of May.