Will 2019 be a repeat of 1996?

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu (R) presents a bouquet to former prime minister HD Devegowda as Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy (L) looks on, before a meeting in Bengaluru on Thursday. PTI

Anand Mishra

New Delhi, DHNS: Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu meeting JD (S) chief and former prime minister H D Deve Gowda on Thursday brings back the memory of the United Front from the 90s, even as questions of the durability or the very possibility of such an alternative remains.

H D Deve Gowda became the prime minister of United Front government heading a motley group of socialist parties, backed by the Left and Congress from outside, after the 1996 Lok Sabha polls threw a fractured verdict in which the BJP had emerged as the single largest party.  Naidu was the convenor of the United Front then.

Now, after parting ways with the NDA, Naidu has held back-to-back meetings with Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal, Farooq Abdullah, Sharad Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy, and now his father Deve Gowda, and the question in the minds of political pundits is: will 2019 be another 1996?

But much has changed since then. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an aggressive campaigner and the BJP under Amit Shah has turned into a well-oiled election machine.
The Left, which was a formidable force then, is now in disarray after having lost badly in West Bengal and Tripura, and the resurgent Hindutva politics may further shrink its space in the 2019 polls.

The socialist parties of the Janata Parivar are no longer a united force with different states having different offshoot parties, like the Samajwadi Party in UP, JD (U) and RJD in Bihar, Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana, Biju Janata Dal in Odisha and JD (S) in Karantaka. Within many of these parties, family feuds are raging.

In two of the earlier alliance arrangement, of the National Front (NF) in 1989-1991 and United Front (UF) in 1996-1998, both the Left and the Janata Dal (JD) had played key roles.

V P Singh’s ascent to power in ’89 on an anti-Congress plank was helped by 143 seats from the JD and 45 seats from the Left. Similarly, in the governments headed by H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral, 46 MPs of the JD and 44 MPs of the Left were key blocks.

In both these experiments, the party backing the government from outside — BJP to the NF and Congress to the UF — ultimately withdrew support.

On the contrary, coalition governments formed by the BJP and Congress — NDA and UPA — had completed their tenures, though the first such attempt by Vajpayee during his second term as PM lasted only 13 months. He completed a full term on his third go.

It is keeping such past experiences in mind that many Opposition leaders are insisting on the need to have the Congress in the Opposition, while the Congress itself is not particular on its leader becoming the prime ministerial face.

Despite these niceties, chinks are visible.

BSP’s decision to contest separately from the Congress in the crucial elections for Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan has come as a dampener for Opposition unity.

And by the time the Lok Sabha polls approach, the traditional rivalry between the CPM and TMC in West Bengal, the Congress and AAP in Delhi, the SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh, and the BJD and Congress in Odisha will also be at full play. In August, the NDA managed to win the support of BJD and TRS for its nominee for Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman post.

As such challenges pile up, Opposition unity seems easier said than done.

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Will 2019 be a repeat of 1996?

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