Rahul Gandhi needs allies, and a lot of them

The loss of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, in the Tripura elections has left it clinging to power in just one state—Kerala. While it still has a healthy vote share of 43% in Tripura, the CPM’s unremitting decline in West Bengal after losing power in 2011 is not an encouraging sign for the party. It is facing a real prospect of being relegated to fourth position in West Bengal very soon. With this, there is no political party other than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress that can come to power in more than one state in the near future.

The Congress itself has been reduced to just three states (Karnataka, Punjab and Mizoram) and one Union territory (Puducherry). The BJP’s rise has also pushed some parties towards marginalization in their home states. The CPM’s woes in West Bengal have already been mentioned. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has faced a rout in Uttar Pradesh. The Tripura Congress saw a plunge from 36.5% vote share in 2013 to 1.8% in 2018. A similar fate awaits the Rahul Gandhi-led party in Odisha. But for some retrospective changes in rules by the Election Commission of India, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Communist Party of India (CPI) and BSP would have lost their national party status.

This large-scale marginalization means that the alliance needed to counter the BJP in 2019 will require a very large number of political parties. The key to defeating it will be a high index of opposition unity (IOU). So far, political tailwinds have favoured the BJP. It has managed to purloin Nitish Kumar from the successful grand alliance formula in Bihar. The CPM still sees more negatives than positives in allying with the Congress. And Mamata Banerjee has revealed that the Trinamool Congress’ offer for an alliance in Tripura was rejected by the Congress. However, at the same time, a different experiment is afoot in Uttar Pradesh. The Samajwadi Party (SP) and BSP have come together for a couple of by-polls. The result will be worth watching closely.

Once upon a time, the IOU was calculated with respect to the Congress because it was the most dominant party in the country. For the first three general elections, the opposition struggled to put together a united front. In 1967, the opposition parties made seat adjustments which helped them reduce the Congress from 361 to 283. Soon, the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal, a ragtag coalition of socialist parties and centre-right parties like Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Swatantra party, as well as several smaller parties, upstaged Congress governments in a number of states.

The “grand alliance” of opposition parties did not taste the same success in the 1971 general election in the face of Indira Gandhi’s famous “garibi hatao (remove poverty)” campaign. Opposition unity worked only if the Congress failed to create a wave in its favour. In 1977, the Janata Party, formed by the merger of leading opposition parties, gave the country its first non-Congress Union government. The disintegration of the Janata experiment led to the Congress coming back to power in 1980. The 1984 poll was once again a wave election, fought in the shadow of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

The character of national elections changed in a substantial manner after 1989. Between 1989 and 2009, the party with the second highest vote share in all but one general election secured more than 20% vote share—a rare feat before 1989. It was also the period when the average vote share of the third largest party increased from 6.5% (between 1952 and 1984) to 7.7%. During this period, the sum of the vote shares of the two largest parties fell from 57.3% to 47.4%. The immediate cause was the rise of a plethora of regional parties, and the most visible consequence was the formation of successive coalition governments at the Centre.

But these trends came to a halt in 2014. For the first time after 1977, a non-Congress party secured more than 30% of the national vote. For the first time after 1989, the second largest party in terms of vote share fell below 20%. For the first time after 1984, the third largest party fell below 4% vote share. And the combined vote share of the BJP and the Congress just inched past the halfway mark. One does not know whether 2014 was an exception to the 1989-2009 trend or the beginning of a new trend. The marginalization of non-BJP parties we have seen in the state elections since points to the latter.

If indeed it is the latter, then Rahul Gandhi will have to do an Atal Bihari Vajpayee; the veteran BJP leader had gotten two dozen parties to come together in 1999 to run the first full-term non-Congress government. Managing a large coalition is never easy and Rahul Gandhi is not known for his people management skills. But the BJP has left him with no better option. One cannot rule out informal seat-sharing arrangements between the Congress and parties like the Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal and Telugu Desam Party, which are currently in an unhappy alliance with the BJP. And then, Rahul Gandhi also has to guard against Prime Minister Narendra Modi creating a pro-poor wave in favour of the BJPlivemint

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