After the making of the new Karnataka government, BJP president Amit Shah declared that the Congress-JD(S) combine was an “unholy” alliance. During the election campaign, Shah had already said that the rise of the BJP had united “cats, dogs, snakes and rats” among its rivals. No doubt, the swearing-in ceremony of the new chief minister in Bangalore has offered opposition parties a good opportunity to initiate a rapprochement in the name of anti-BJPism.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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The BJP has made very similar moves in the past, in the name of anti-Congressism. In fact, its previous incarnation, the Jana Sangh, rallied as early as the 1960s around Lohia socialists — who they used to arraign till then. In 1963 the Socialist Party, the Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh decided to put up only one candidate in four Lok Sabha byelections. Deendayal Upadhyaya lost, but JB Kripalani, Rammanohar Lohia and Minoo Masani won. In 1967, the Jana Sangh MLAs of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, joined hands not only with socialists, but also, in most of these states, with communists in coalitions known as Samyukta Vidhayak Dal. These combinations, which were clearly dominated by the Left, were short-lived everywhere. This trend culminated in the making of the 1971 pre-electoral Grand Alliance that gathered together the Jana Sangh, Swatantra Party, Congress (O), Praja Socialist Party and Samyukta Socialist Party.

Why had the Jana Sanghis joined hands with parties they used to criticise on so many grounds, including land reform, the recognition of Urdu and reservations — taking the risk of political instability? Because they resented Congress hegemony. They were fighting against Congress domination, in the name of democracy. They did it even more in the late 1970s when, in the context of the Emergency, the Jana Sangh even merged into the Janata Party, along with the socialists, the Congress (O) and Charan Singh’s Lok Dal.

In 1977-79, the Janata experiment was as shortlived as the SVD governments, because of the partners’ dissenting views (and the socialists’ attacks against the allegiance of ex-Jana Sanghis to the RSS in particular), but it restored democracy in India.

And the BJP did not stop aligning with “cats, dogs and others”, in spite of the political instability this strategy inflicted upon governance in India. In 1989, it joined hands with its arch enemies, the communists of the CPI(M), to support VP Singh (another of its bete noires, who had promised to implement the Mandal Commission report). This move enabled the Opposition to take over power, but, once again, the government could not last for long.

The opposition parties of today are doing vis-à-vis BJP the same thing those of yesterday have done against Congress — and for the same reasons: They fear the BJP’s hegemony and claim that democracy is in danger — as is evident from the erosion of key institutions (including Parliament, Election Commission, judiciary, and media) and the attacks on minorities by communal vigilante groups.

Sceptics who do not care so much for democracy or do not share the alarmist assessment mentioned above — probably because they are not affected personally by “the new normal” — look at the coming together of so many different opposition parties as pure opportunism. They apprehend the kind of political instability (especially in the present context of international tensions) that coalitions may result in. Incidentally, such views suggest that national security is supposed to prevail over democracy — a discourse that the politics of fear cultivates across the globe.

But has one-party rule delivered more than coalition governments? In fact, coalition politics does not necessarily mean instability and paralysis. The few reforms accomplished by the present government hardly compare with those initiated by the Narasimha Rao minority government in 1991-96. And the Vajpayee-led NDA in 1998-2004, as well as the two UPA-supported governments of Manmohan Singh (2004-2014), have shown that 15-plus parties’ large coalitions can combine achievements and stability. In fact, India registered its best growth rates under Congress-led coalition governments, contradicting Narendra Modi’s recent statement about the antagonism between Congress-rule and development.

But coalition politics, for being effective, needs coalition-oriented leaders, leaders who know how to decentralise power and recognise the key role states have to play in a federal system; leaders who know how to keep all the partners on board, including state party bosses with a national aura like Chandrababu Naidu. This variable needs to be emphasised because in 2019 the choice may not be between a coalition government and a one-party government: If the recent ABP News-Lokniti-CSDS “Mood of the nation” survey is right, it will be between two kinds of coalition governments.

This survey, that has been surprisingly under-reported in spite of its credibility — compared to many others which are largely publicised — shows that the BJP will be probably short of a majority. The NDA may get a total of 293-309 seats, according to this survey (that was conducted before the TDP shift to the Opposition, and before the Karnataka elections). Compared to the previous round of the “Mood of the nation” survey, that had been made in April 2017, the 2018 survey shows that the BJP has dropped from 39 per cent to 34 per cent of the voting intention, whereas the Congress has jumped from 21 to 25 per cent. Similarly, the interviewees who want Modi to continue as PM are only 37 per cent as against 44 per cent in 2017 — in contrast, the proportion of those supporting Rahul Gandhi for prime ministership has jumped from 9 per cent to 20 per cent. These trends reflect a certain disillusion: Those who are satisfied with the government have dropped from 64 to 51 per cent, whereas those who say that they are dissatisfied have jumped from 27 to 40 per cent. For the latter, jobs remain a major issue: Nothing has changed in four years on that front.

Interestingly, there are huge variations across states, but among those where dissatisfaction has increased the most are Rajasthan (which will vote in late 2018, six months before the Lok Sabha elections) and UP (where the BJP won most of the seats in 2014, allowing Modi to form a majority government).

In this context, in 2019, there is a strong probability that all kinds of political animals will have to work together — and deliver. As they’ve done before.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.