Cover Story

Political churning

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Tripura BJP president Biplab Kumar Deb and party general secretary Ram Madhav among supporters after winning the elections, in Agartala on March 3. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah during the swearing-in ceremony of the newly appointed Ministers in Tripura on March 9. Photo: PTI

Telugu Desam Party president N. Chandrababu Naidu addressing party legislators after the Assembly session, at Velagapudi in Guntur district on March 6. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Rajasthan pradesh Congress president Sachin Pilot (centre) with the newly elected MPs from Ajmer and Alwar, Raghu Sharma (left) and Karan Singh, in New Delhi on February 5. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

BSP leader Mayawati, a file picture. The BSP has extended its support to the Samajwadi Party in the two crucial Lok Sabha byelections in Uttar Pradesh. Photo: PTI

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav addressing a campaign rally for the Phulpur byelection on March 9. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The Bharatiya Janata Party makes significant gains in the Assembly elections in the north-eastern States, but the battles ahead will be tougher for it if the recent trends across the country are any indication.

PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi emphasised two points when he addressed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) parliamentary party meeting on March 6, three days after the party recorded a significant victory in Tripura and managed to become part of the ruling coalition in Nagaland and Meghalaya in association with regional forces. First, he exhorted BJP activists and supporters to see the electoral triumph in Tripura as an “ideological victory” since that State “was considered a bastion of Marxism for the last 25 years”. Then he added that no victory should be seen as small and that party MPs should not belittle the significance of the gains in the three small States.

A number of MPs who attended the meeting told Frontline later that there was little doubt as to what had triggered this out-of-the-ordinary exhortation from Modi. “There was some chatter among Members of Parliament of the party as well as from activists belonging to various Sangh Parivar outfits outside Parliament that the gains made in these elections to the north-eastern States did not really add substantive value or strength to the prospective national campaign for the next general election, which, under normal circumstances, should be held in April-May 2019. This must have reached Modi’s ears too, and he must have decided that this impression should not be spread by the middle-level leadership of the party and the Sangh Parivar,” a Lok Sabha member from Uttar Pradesh told Frontline. He went on to say that in the past Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah had restrained “loose talkers” in the party by holding closed-door meetings or sending private messages, but apparently the “chatter” in the context of the electoral victories in the north-eastern States was getting a bit too widespread and hence the recourse to a near-public exhortation at the parliamentary party meeting. In spite of this, this MP and many of his associates in Sangh Parivar outfits wondered whether the “loose talkers” would actually be restrained.

The line of argument among such “loose talkers” was reportedly nuanced and it raised certain questions about the election results in the north-eastern States even while fully acknowledging the growth and consolidation that the party and the Sangh Parivar have achieved in the region over the past few years. The argument, as summed up by a few MPs as well as Sangh Parivar activists, including those belonging to the parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), is as follows: “There is no doubt that the results of elections in the north-eastern States after 2014, including the recent ones, signify the substantiation of the plans and tactics devised by different Sangh Parivar outfits under the leadership of the RSS many years ago and their forceful and fruitful advancement by the BJP in the past few years under the direct supervision of Amit Shah. These sections also agreed that the particular manner in which this organisational and political plank was advanced in Tripura to inflict a crushing electoral blow on the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front was a masterstroke. They were also highly appreciative of the manoeuvres that helped the BJP rise to become partners in power in Meghalaya and Nagaland in spite of the not-so ‘spectacular’ electoral performances. While all these gains are indeed commendable, their value in the context of the next general election cannot and should not be overrated and hyper-glorified. Taken together, the three States whose results came out in the first week of March have just five parliamentary seats; two each in Tripura and Meghalaya and one in Nagaland. The entire north-eastern region, including the relatively big State of Assam, where too the BJP formed its first-ever government last year, cumulatively adds up to just 25 seats in Parliament. Given the equations as well as the permutations and combinations forced by several regional players in these States, the BJP can at best hope to add about 10 to 12 Lok Sabha seats from the region next time around.” Apparently, it was this objective calculation that the majority of those “belittling the north-east gains” were presenting in informal interactions. And this is exactly what Modi wanted to stop from spreading, especially in the middle and lower echelons of the party and the Sangh Parivar.

Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh byelections

A corollary to this political argument came up not only from the “loose talkers” but also from sections of the BJP’s political adversaries and political observers, and this corollary is likely to have aggravated the antipathy to this line of thinking. This was in reference to the political and electoral situation as it was emerging in the bigger “Hindi heartland” States, especially Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, with incumbent BJP governments. In both these States, the order of the day is the double anti-incumbency factor that may work against both the State government and the Union government as was repeatedly manifested in the byelections, ranging from parliamentary elections to Assembly and local body elections.

This trend was most emphatic in Rajasthan where the BJP has suffered a string of resounding defeats over the past two months in byelections at different levels. The Congress has been the beneficiary in all these elections. In early February, the Congress captured the Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha seats from the BJP. The victory was so comprehensive that the party led in all the 16 Assembly segments—eight segments each—of the two Lok Sabha constituencies. It also won the Mandalgarh Assembly seat in another byelection at the same time.

A month later, the Congress repeated the sweep in local body elections when the party won four of the six zilla parishad seats, 12 of the 20 panchayat samiti seats and four of the six municipal seats. The ruling BJP won just one zilla parishad seat, eight panchayat samiti seats and two municipal body seats while independent candidates won one zilla parishad and one panchayat samiti seat. The byelection results were announced on March 7, four days after the proclamation of the Tripura results and just a day after Modi’s exhortations at the BJP parliamentary party to “not belittle this victory”.

In the byelections in Madhya Pradesh for two Assembly seats— Mungaoli and Kolaras—in March, the Congress retained both the seats despite an all-out BJP campaign led by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan himself, who had made this a prestige battle by proclaiming that he would see to it that the seats were captured by the BJP.

The tenure of the incumbent BJP governments in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh will come to an end in January 2019. So, if held on course, both these States should have Assembly elections in early 2019 or late 2018. The byelection trends have been repeatedly highlighted by the Congress leadership, including the relatively younger leaders such as Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, as clear indicators of the anti-incumbency mood in both the States. Several components of the Sangh Parivar, including those in the BJP and the RSS, agree that there is considerable merit in this contention.

Political observers in the two States also hold the same view. Taking a comprehensive and composite view of the trends as manifested in the Assembly elections in the north-eastern States as well as the byelections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Colonel (retd) Subhash Deswal, a political observer and progressive farmer, pointed out that it would be foolhardy to conclude that India had a definitive and dominating political direction at this point of time.

“What is clear is that the people are trying multiple options at different levels, trying out new political and administrative entities in some cases and returning to those who had been rejected in the not-so-distant past. All in all, a state of significant political churning, which is in stark contrast to the unidimensional domination of the Narendra Modi factor and the BJP-NDA [National Democratic Alliance] that one witnessed in the 2014 general election.”

Mutidimensional churning

This perception has wide acceptance across diverse political streams, including that of the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar, other constituents of the NDA led by the BJP, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the non-Congress, non-BJP political formulations such as the Left parties, and significant regional forces such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in Telangana and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu. While each of these political entities brings its own unique nuances and interpretations to the debate, it is widely agreed that the current political context is marked by a multidimensional churning with potentially far-reaching consequences.

Several signals of this have manifested themselves in different parts of the country. These have varying political amplitudes too and are charting an uneven trajectory, once again pregnant with diverse possibilities. The most exceptional signal, at the moment, has emanated from Andhra Pradesh, where the ruling TDP, a partner of the NDA at the national level, has walked out of the Union government protesting against the attitude shown by the senior partner, the BJP.

While withdrawing the Ministers of the TDP, party chief and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu highlighted not only complaints regarding the sustained apathy of the senior partner in the government towards the concerns and demands of Andhra Pradesh but also the personal affront displayed towards him and his TDP associates by Prime Minister Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. The resignation of the Ministers is perceived as an unambiguous signal of the TDP parting ways with the BJP to chart its own independent political course. Most significantly, this revolt by the BJP’s biggest political ally in south India bucks conventional political wisdom, which argues that minor players flock around a winner hoping to advance their political aspirations and interests.

The TDP has virtually walked out of the NDA within days of the BJP’s victory in Tripura was sought to be projected as a big one by Modi. According to the Varanasi-based political observer Kumar Mangalam Appu Singh, the TDP revolt itself is the biggest indicator that the BJP is not as comfortable as being projected by its leaders after the Tripura victory and the gains in other north-eastern States. “Modi was greeted by some BJP leaders after the Tripura verdict with slogans such as ‘ Jeet hamari jaari hein, ab Karnataka ki baari hain’ (We have won, the next will be in Karnataka)’. Notwithstanding such sloganeering, the fact of the matter is that the TDP, like many BJP MPs at the parliamentary party meet, has realised that the stock of Modi and the BJP is not what it used to be. That is exactly why it has shown the gumption to react and revolt,” Appu Singh said.

Signals from Uttar Pradesh

Yet another striking sign of the current political churning is from Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous State which sends the highest number of members to Parliament. Here, the churning has manifested itself in the form of a sudden, absolutely unexpected, proclamation of support by the BSP to its long-standing arch rival, the S.P., in two crucial Lok Sabha byelections scheduled to be held on March 11. The BJP had won these constituencies—Gorakhpur and Phulpur—in the Modi wave in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The seats got vacated as Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath was appointed Chief Minister of the State after the Assembly elections last year and Phulpur MP Keshav Prasad Maurya became his Deputy Chief Minister.

The BSP’s open support is rallying large numbers of Dalits and Muslims in favour of the S.P. candidates in both constituencies. The S.P. has its strong Other Backward Class (OBC)-Muslim support base. The coming together of the traditional rivals has made the going tough for the BJP in the very constituencies it had literally swept four years ago.

As things stand now, there is no clarity on whether the BSP’s support to the S.P. will continue to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. At the moment, the understanding seems to be about the S.P. helping the BSP to win a Rajya Sabha seat from Uttar Pradesh in the forthcoming elections and the BSP setting the path for it through its support in the Lok Sabha byelections. However, a medium-term alliance between the S.P. and the BSP would indeed be bad news for the BJP and its allies. Both the parties have strong support bases, with the average vote share consistently ranging between 20 and 23 per cent over the past two decades.

The coming together of the two parties has impeded the BJP’s progress in the past too. This was in the 1993 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, which were held after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by kar sevaks. The expectation within the Sangh Parivar following the demolition of the masjid on December 6, 1992, was that it had resulted in the creation of a pan-Hindu political identity. The Sangh Parivar also surmised that it would easily catapult the BJP to power. However, the broad Dalit-OBC-Muslim minority social coalition forged by the S.P. and the BSP emerged as a more potent political force and stopped the BJP and its Hindutva combine from returning to power in the State.

Proposal for a third front

Other signs of churning in the current political context have emerged from Telangana, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, although they cannot be described as prominent as the ones that have arisen from Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. One of these was in the form of the self-proclaimed first move of Telangana Chief Minister and TRS president K.Chandrasekhar Rao to forge a non-Congress, non-BJP third front. He made an announcement on the proposed front at a meeting of party workers two days after the verdict from the north-eastern States. His proposal, Chandrasekhar Rao announced, had evoked support from Trinamool Congress president and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. This was followed by a statement from the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi, who also publicly endorsed the initiative.

Both Chandrasekhar Rao and Mamata Banerjee have been in touch with DMK leader M.K. Stalin and a number of regional players in States such as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. However, these moves are yet to acquire a concrete shape. There is also a stream of opinion, both among the anti-BJP parties as well as among observers, that the TRS-initiated move keeping out the Congress, the principal opposition party at the national level, will only help the BJP in electoral terms.

While this debate is also gaining some attention, the Congress, on its part, is yet to respond to any of these signs of churning. Significantly, it has not chosen to go along the path of the BSP in the Uttar Pradesh byelections and has not supported the stronger S.P. candidates. The party has put up its own candidates in both Gorakhpur and Phulpur, practically putting an end to the S.P.-Congress alliance that existed during the Assembly elections last year. State Congress leaders such as Raj Babbar said that discussions on possible cooperation were never pursued after the stinging defeat in the Assembly elections and the party had chosen to see the byelections as independent exercises. “Things can still be worked out, but for that open discussions have to be set in motion,” Babbar told Frontline.

S.P. leaders such as Abhishek Mishra echoed the view that things could be worked out through discussions. Akhilesh Yadav, S.P. president and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, pointed out that different parties were fighting the BJP and its authoritarian ways at different levels and through different electoral battles. “The S.P. is in the forefront of the electoral battles in the Uttar Pradesh byelections. For the Congress, the next big electoral battle will be Karnataka, which is expected to have Assembly elections by May 2018. We hope that it will do well in the fight against fascist forces in that State. This needs to be advanced both individually and collectively by different secular parties,” Akhilesh Yadav said.

Debates in Left parties

Amidst all this churning and the discussions on regrouping, both collectively and individually, the Left parties are going through a kind of internal churning. The CPI(M), the largest of the mainstream Left parties, has been witnessing an intense discussion over the past few months on the question whether the Left should have an electoral understanding with the Congress in the fight against the BJP. Differing opinions on this question advanced by Sitaram Yechury, the current general gecretary, and Prakash Karat, former general secretary, have clashed at various forums, including in the Central Committee deliberations to formulate the draft political resolution for the next party congress to be held in April in Hyderabad. A final position is likely to emerge at this congress.

While the CPI(M) is in the throes of this intense debate, the Communist Party of India (CPI), the second largest component in the Left Front, has openly stated its resolution to align with the Congress in electoral battles against the BJP. Other smaller Left parties such as the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party are also likely to follow this line. This context as well as the fact that the 2018 March verdict has inflicted the biggest blow on it electorally, politically and organisationally makes it imperative for the CPI(M) to go in for some serious introspection.

Violence in Tripura

Following the shock defeat in Tripura, described by former Chief Minister Manik Sarkar as “totally unexpected”, the CPI(M) and its cadre have been targeted for rampant attacks by the BJP and other outfits in the Sangh Parivar. Sangh Parivar leaders such as Ram Madhav have openly justified these attacks, explaining them away as an explosion of pent-up feelings against the “Marxist tyranny” of the past 25 years. Even those like Tripura Governor Tataghata Roy have gone along the same lines, violating constitutional propriety of the office held by him.

In a signed article in the immediate aftermath of the Tripura verdict, Ram Madhav cited a message he had received from a foreign diplomat. The message reportedly reads as follows: “Congrats Ram! The world needs fewer communists.” As BJP and Sangh Parivar marauders in Tripura seek to literally achieve this, there is little doubt that the challenges faced by the CPI(M) are much bigger, with long-term implications for the party politically and organisationally. Evidently, the introspection that the party requires also needs to be one that recaptures its political and organisational creativity, in practical terms, beyond the urges and pressures to be insular and sectarian.

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