Abki baar, mili juli sarkar

Monday | 22 July, 2024

Dear reader,

Elections in India offer unending excitement and drama.

The just-concluded Lok Sabha election saw a highly polarised campaign that gravitated between “mangalsutra” and “mujra” pitch on the one hand and “Samvidhhan khatre mein hai” war cry on the other. These and the exit polls, which predicted a thumping hat-trick for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were enough to expect a clear mandate, or so went conventional wisdom.

The results ensured that the pollsters’ luck ran out and many a politician went into a tailspin. For the regional satraps on both sides of the aisle, it was that time yet again to dust off their calling cards and prepare to make a statement. After all, the ruling BJP could get only 240 seats, 32 short of a simple majority. And the Congress, seemingly heading the opposition bloc, was not much better, at 99.

The results spawned a meme fest on social media. “AB KI BAAR- Mili JULIE SARKAR” said one message on WhatsApp with posters of three famous Hindi movies of the same name, parodying the BJP’s much-hyped slogan “Abki baar, 400 paar”.

On a serious note, regional satraps such as N. Chandrababu Naidu (Telugu Desam Party), Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal [United]), Chirag Paswan, Jayant Chaudhary, Eknath Shinde, Ajit Pawar, and many others suddenly seemed significant within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The scene was not very different within the opposition block, where the Samajwadi Party was the showstopper with its spectacular result in Uttar Pradesh (winning 37 seats: 32 more than it won in 2019). No less important was Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress yet again left Modi short for the third time in West Bengal, belying all predictions.

As the action moved to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg (Modi’s residence) and 10 Rajaji Marg (Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s residence), where the NDA and INDIA bloc leaders respectively met, the renewed media spotlight on regional leaders took me back to a time when they were the ones who made news in the capital—the United Front government of 1996-98, the National Front engagement of 1989-90, the Vajpayee era of 1996-2004, and the UPA-I era of 2004-09, when regional satraps called the shots.

If Vajpayee was at the mercy of Jayalalithaa (AIADMK), Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress), and Mayawati (Bahujan Samaj Party), Manmohan Singh had to contend with the pulls and pressures of a whole bunch of allies in the UPA.

The context could be different this time because the BJP, which leads the NDA, has 240 MPs and Modi is no pushover, but the mandate makes it clear that the BJP cannot ignore its allies’ demands to form an NDA coordination committee as it did in the past.

I recall how the Modi government, during its two terms, firmly shut the door on demands, from the Shiv Sena and the Lok Janshakti Party, for the appointment of an NDA convenor or a coordination committee.

The Sena had, in 2015, demanded such a panel to work out a consensus on controversial policy decisions before they were brought to Parliament. In 2019, after Modi 2.0, the LJP, the JD(U), and Apna Dal made the same demand. Barring Uddhav Thackeray’s Sena, all the others are still part of the NDA as Modi 3.0 takes over the reins.

There is no doubt that the smaller parties will have more of the BJP’s ear this time in a government dependent on their support. One hears that the TDP and the JD(U) have already begun hard bargaining for portfolios.

In the opposition camp, the Congress is somewhat cautious but at least two regional parties have been raring to explore the possibilities of forming a government.

For the time being caution is the key, but the future is pregnant with possibilities. Meanwhile, the opposition too is thinking of having a convener to carry out its political outreach effectively. Remember, that post, or its absence, was one of the reasons why Nitish Kumar eventually left the INDIA bloc, an idea that he gave shape to.

Chandrababu Naidu, now a key NDA ally, had been the convenor of the United Front in 1996 and played a key role in mustering support for the formation of the H.D. Deve Gowda government. He is likely to be appointed the NDA’s national convenor.

“How do I attend this meeting if I am not a part of the NDA,” was the question Naidu hurled back at a cheeky reporter who asked him if he remained a part of the NDA after the alliance meeting at 7 RCR (7LKM now), which elected Narendra Modi as the leader of the NDA.

The video clip of the meeting on social media showed Modi in an animated chat with Naidu sitting next to him and Nitish sitting next to Naidu. In the politics section of the microblogging site X, Naidu was trending for some time.

The coming days will be more exasperating for all concerned as hard bargaining over plum portfolios continues. For journalists in Delhi, exciting times are ahead given that “something has changed in the last few hours” will keep them on their toes.

In what used to be called “pahunch patrakarita” (access journalism) by some journalist friends, the media in UPI times reported with much excitement whose cars had reached 7 LKM during every meeting of the Congress core group, which used to take key decisions, and then one important functionary, who was known for his silence more than his speech, used to drop some vague hints while craning his neck out of the car window, which went on to make headlines the next day. During the hours-long meetings, at times spanning until midnight, some street vendors also made a quick buck.

All of this was missing in the last 10 years of the Modi government—the days of juicy titbits from Cabinet meetings that used to be leaked out selectively. Chirag Paswan’s father, the late Ram Vilas Paswan, was the favourite of mediapersons during UPA-I and then in Modi’s first tenure. The other was Union Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh of the RJD in the UPA-I government.

I can disclose this now as both of them are no more. That was when journalists covering the government could lay their hands on Cabinet notes often. Some even received messages on their mobile when Cabinet meetings were going on.

The excitement of such news breaks ended as Cabinet meetings in the Modi dispensation became secret affairs. With a weakened Modi, journalists are hoping for a return to the good old times.

“As the coalition era begins, so does OUT-STANDING reporting. Video outside 7 LKM,” a young Delhi journalist wrote on X as Prime Minister Narendra Modi began a meeting with NDA allies before staking a claim to form the government for the third time.

Many in newsroom chambers and political circles wonder whether Modi will be able to run a coalition government successfully: after all, he is not known to be a consensus builder. But then who knows the hidden traits of a powerful politician.

American philosopher John C. Lilly, who wore many hats—physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, and writer—once said: “The experienced, wise, energetic, intelligent individual functioning in a loose coalition with others in a wide network is far more effective than he is in a tightly organised group.”

The election is over and the nation’s politics is taking on a new shape. Perhaps it’s time for me as well to take a break with this last episode of Poll Vault. I will see you soon in another form and format. Until then, keep reading and keep asking questions, because only then we will get answers.

Anand Mishra | Political Editor, Frontline

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