“Regional parties will build up national parties. They alone can defeat the BJP”, said West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Mumbai after meeting NCP chief Sharad Pawar. She is busy doing spadework for uniting them. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has suddenly realised only recently that India is a union of States and therefore the terms “Centre” or “Central government” should not be used and should be replaced with “Union government”. This is being scrupulously followed in official circles in Tamil Nadu.
A senior Congress leader emphatically responded to Mamata’s stand by asserting that no non-BJP Government is ever possible without the Congress. But, TMC is firm on keeping away from the Congress and has not taken part in any Congress-led meetings or activities inside or outside Parliament.
These are preparatory to 2024 General Election to Lok Sabha eagerly awaited by small but hopefuls to come together and defeat the NDA. “Unity is strength, divided we fall”, is the motto of his election strategy. But, unity is rare among political parties though the goal may be common to all players.
This time, a planned scheme is being worked out from West Bengal to bring popular regional parties together to oust both national parties — the BJP and the Congress. It is Mamata’s grand design to pool the strength of regional parties to govern the entire nation, which in her view would mean that power will flow from the States to the Centre. Her recent victory in the Assembly election has encouraged her to think of national leadership.
She admits that a strong alternative to the present government cannot be built by any party alone. “Whoever is stronger, wherever, should do it”, she said. But Pawar, known for measured steps, does not hint at dropping the Congress or anyone, and is in favour of taking everyone along.
Mamata is aware that to play national politics, her party has to grow beyond West Bengal and contest elections in other States. It is trying to expand into the north-east, Goa, Bihar, and Haryana and in this process has acquired several local leaders from the Congress.
Union of regional parties and union of States are different. The former refers to alliances for elections and coalitions in government formations. Partners are political parties. The latter relates to governance of the nation and the nature of federalism whoever forms the union government. The actors are States and State governments. Logically, it is in this, power will flow from the States to the Union and not in the union of regional parties which is an election strategy.
Thus, in the mid-term of Modi sarkar, thoughts are floated and plans are made to dislodge the present government at the Centre in the next election in 2024. It is reported that the expertise of election strategists are hired to advise on practicalities of working out the scheme.
It is a period of hectic pre-election activities which have started this time immediately after the last election by ambitious parties taken aback by a second consecutive victory of the BJP. Stalling parliamentary proceedings is not only to prevent productive parliamentary work and thereby reduce the stature of the BJP from an extraordinarily action-oriented party to a non-performing party. It is adopted as a step towards building opposition unity.
Possibility of convening any of the two types of “unions”, that is, of regional parties or of States, depends on the ability of leadership.
A crucial development emerging in the present moves is Mamata’s proclaimed stand against both NDA and UPA. “What is UPA, there is no UPA”, she said in her own style rejecting totally the idea of Congress-led alliance to take on BJP. Though NCP is also like the TMC, a breakaway group of the Congress, Pawar’s party is in the Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance in Maharashtra along with the Congress and was in the UPA government at the Centre before 2014.
Stalin votes for UPA government at the Centre and wants to retain the Congress as a junior partner to fight election in Tamil Nadu. He is a staunch supporter of protest politics of the Congress whereas the TMC refuses to follow the line of the Congress in or outside Parliament. The DMK is not revealing its plans in the event of alliance of non-Congress opposition to the BJP. Mamata needs to work a lot to separate Congress from these two and other allies if she is serious about union of regional parties.
As part of this party politics, Mamata who is not an MP, has been unanimously chosen as the chairperson of TMC’s parliamentary party. This position will give her tremendous opportunities to interact with other Opposition parties on issues and initiate and coordinate joint opposition action in Parliament. This role is easier for her than to the Congress which remains the Opposition party to many regional parties in power in the States.
Noteworthy is the possibility, nay assurance, for continuance of identity, ideology, and social base of respective regional parties after their union.
It seems that the Congress is more worried about this development than the BJP. It has a reason. For, if a strong non-Congress opposition to the BJP emerges, the Congress which is already pushed down as the main opponent to the BJP, will lose even this place. Mid-term politics today is for leadership of a combined opposition to the NDA. The Congress has to fight the BJP and also some of the strongest BJP’s enemies – a very tough job.
To Pawar, Mamata’s intention seems to be “to set up a collective leadership platform by bringing like-minded people to provide strong alternative to the BJP. This platform should be established before 2024 elections”.
These moves in the Opposition camps show that the days of merger and acquisitions of parties are over. The history of party alliances has proved that mergers are artificial while splits are natural. They are also transient triggered by an eye on immediate benefits and dissipate as soon as the original purpose is served or failed. Constituents of Janata party, despite having tall leaders, failed to remain united. The Janata Parivar in Bihar dashed on the rock of seat sharing though both JD(U) and RJD were very keen on it. Even within States, even very small parties prefer to remain independent and join alliances and decline to merge with others and lose their identity.
The possibility of bringing together cooperative regional parties to seize power at the Centre is the principal agenda of the TMC. We have yet to see how many support this idea. Will it appeal to persons like Kejriwal and Akhilesh Yadav and Uddhav Thackeray? Will it succeed in breaking the UPA? Will it attract, for instance parties like the DMK and National Conference? Even if a union of regional parties is voted to power, can it smoothly agree on leadership and cabinet formation?
A sound federation of regional parties must precede formation of a government of regional parties at the Centre. One has to look at inter-party and inter-State politics.