Ally or perish

Ally or perish


2019 polls

The recent political developments in Karnataka have brought into focus the importance of alliance formation. Political alliances are short-term arrangements among long-term rivals. The act of forming alliances compels political parties to act with greater discretion and purpose to increase political capital.

A political alliance, like a strategic alliance, works on the principle of mutual benefit and trust. Parties also need to have faith in the wisdom and utility of such an alliance in preventing the division of votes. It is interesting to assess the factors and forces that go into alliance formation, given the possibility that the next parliamentary elections in India will largely be about political alliances. It may be recalled that in the 2014 national elections, the BJP had secured only 31% of the votes. The rest were dispersed and divided.

With parliamentary elections just under a year away, alliances between parties can take divergent forms and degrees. The degree to which alliances are institutionalised can differ. Most alliances tend to be asymmetrical, loose and ad hoc arrangements subject to the vagaries of political fortunes and political commitment.

Ad hoc arrangements can contain strange bedfellows, too. Many of the more recent by-poll results have shown that whenever the opposition parties have been able to sink their differences and come together, it has enhanced their chances of defeating the BJP.

The BJP’s defeat in Khairana in western UP, for example, was an eye-opener and an opportunity not lost by the opposition parties. Perhaps one lesson is that Modi is not invincible if the opposition parties could come together in a grand alliance. Even the Congress party is now coming to terms with the changed political realities on the ground. Congress has to play the role of a national statesman, by working to build national and regional alliances. The flipside for the Congress is that in many states, it increasingly has to rely on the strength of its allies/partners, rather than its own strengths. Congress, India’s grand old party, has opted to pursue this strategy. Opposition disunity and division has been the bane of Indian politics.

Arrangements of this kind can adversely affect the prospects of the BJP in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra and many more. These arrangements can take the shape of an ‘electoral understanding’ rather than an ‘electoral alliance’ as the CPI(M) has had with Congress in parliament in the past. Political parties are looking at different possibilities, based on the peculiar social and political realities and electoral prospects in the different states. In some cases, the enemy’s enemy becomes the friend. In yet others, it is a marriage of convenience.

India’s political journey has been replete with attempts made by political parties to form an alliance, especially since the late 1980s. Rather than sharing a political ideology, what brought many of these parties together were political compulsions. We are now witnessing a scenario where the bigger parties are compelled to join with a variety of regional parties/players.

Fractured mandates as well as the gradual empowerment of the regional parties have made political alliances inevitable. This has taken the form of pre-poll or post-poll alliances. Political alliances tend to ensure effective maximisation/utilisation of the campaigns and prevent the negative effects of vote dispersion.

Ideally, pre-poll alliances have many advantages since they inject the possibility of a joint manifesto or even a common minimum programme. However, the path to carving out such alliances has been fraught with challenges and dangers as past history has shown. The challenges encountered by the Congress-led UPA government as a fall-out of the nuclear deal with the United States is well-known. The dilemma has been to balance the national and sectional interests. The fact is that every party has certain constraints, being part of a political alliance.

In the Indian context, we have experienced scenarios of convergence and divergence on the basis of region, religion and caste as a by-product of alliance/coalition politics. Caste seems to have become the currency of Indian politics and is a major consideration of most political parties. The proliferation of caste-based parties, especially in North India, adds to the complex milieu. In an alliance, the challenge lies in ensuring a win-win situation for all the parties/partners.

An alliance culture

There are no perfect alliances. Political parties have to make them work by imbibing an alliance/coalition culture. Strong political alliances need to be assessed in terms of the gains that accrue and the problems that are avoided. Karnataka, perhaps, represents the beginning of a new phase of electoral/political alliances. The 2019 parliamentary elections will witness a phase where the tenuous political alliances could be redefined. Of course, it is too early to write off the BJP.

The point is that the opposition can put up a decent fight only if they ally. This will ensure maximum number of two-way contests. For the BJP, the Modi magic continues to be the trump card. Besides, the BJP will continue to have the option and comfort of forging post-poll alliances. Sustaining an anti-BJP coalition and defeating Modi will not be easy. At the same time, for the BJP to dismiss the opposition’s efforts as a ‘fictional alternative’ and ‘anarchist’, to quote Arun Jaitley, does not augur well.

A meaningful opposition is necessary for a meaningful democracy. The onus lies on the opposition to make this happen. No doubt, it is going to be a long haul and a battle of wits. For the opposition, the time has come to measure the cost of political alliances against their advantages. At this juncture, the only option available for the opposition is to ally or perish.

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Arts), Dept. of Political Science, Bangalore University)

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