First they came together against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1977. Then they came together to defeat Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. On those occasions it had taken support of the Bhartiya Janata Party (known as Jan Sangh in ’77) to oppose the Congress. Now, India’s hoary socialists want to come together once again to oppose the Bhartiya Janata Party.
On November 6, there was a meeting at Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s residence at 16 Ashoka Road in New Delhi. Apart from the host, there was former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, and the Bihar leader Sharad Yadav. There were a number of second-rung leaders as well.
They discussed plans to ask the government to build a memorial in the name of former prime minister Chaudhry Charan Singh, but that was an excuse. The real purpose was to announce that they would all be together in opposing the Narendra Modi government in and out of parliament. Their poster boy Nitish Kumar even announced that this unity could lead to all of them coming together to form a single political party.
They will have a lot more meetings to make that happen, and in that time they will be cornering the Narendra Modi government on promises unkept: bringing back black money, raising the price at which the government buys agricultural produce, and creating jobs. Those three will address the middle class, the farmers and the youth.
Doomed to failure
It’s an experiment doomed to fail, and fail so spectacularly that few will hear the whimper.
On both occasions in the past, 1977 and 1989, their experiment didn’t last long. They formed unstable governments with a lot of infighting. Nobody else proved so short of being able to govern the country as the Janata governments.
Yet, they became the force that caused tectonic shifts in national politics. It’s another matter that on both occassions, they unwittingly strengthened Hindu nationalism, an ideology they opposed. In 1977, they served the need of the hour, giving India’s voters an alternative to vote out an undemocratic regime. In 1989, they used their time in power to unleash in politics the power of India’s middle castes, the peasants officially known as the Other Backward Classes. As the BJP chose the Mandir route, the Janata cabal had a counter in Mandal.
This time, there is no big idea. They don’t know what they are opposing, and they don’t know what they are proposing.
The VP Singh government in 1989-’90 had accepted the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and implemented reservations in central government jobs and colleges for the Other Backward Classes. This had been widely opposed by the upper caste-dominated middle class and the BJP. They soon lost power and Congress party returned to power with Narasimha Rao’s minority government, but “Mandal” became a political force to reckon with. Mandal swept away the key states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, making them difficult for both the Congress and the BJP. The big idea was social justice for the OBCs, getting them access to power and resources dominated by the upper castes.
Two and a half decades later, Mandal has run its course. People have got reservations and power. Just before the 2014 general elections, the Manmohan SIngh-led Congress government gave the Jat community OBC status, and thus access to reservations. They still didn’t get the Jat vote, not in western Uttar Pradesh and not in Haryana. The writing is on the wall.
Just five years ago, the BJP seemed to be such a defeated force that some wondered if the Vajpayee years was their peak. Was the party over? Having lost two consecutive elections, the BJP was forced to take orders from its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. The RSS ordered Advani to be replaced by Nitin Gadkari as the BJP president. It seems a long time ago. Five years seem like a century. In those five years, Narendra Modi sharpened his knives, made the RSS bend before him and rendered the Delhi stalwarts of the BJP irrelevant.
Modi sold the idea of good governance. Modi’s ideas may have its critics, but the critics will have to concede that the Indian electorate put its stamp of approval on Modi. What the people want is good governance. That may mean different things at the state and central levels. Are the so-called Janta leaders able to provide that in their states in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Karnataka?
The Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh threw away its strong 2012 mandate by not being able to control law and order. The BJP took advantage of that and exploited every inter-religious spark. Having lost the 2014 general elections, the Samajwadi Party government responded by halting the free distribution of laptops.
In Bihar, Nitish Kumar performed very well in his first term from 2005 to 2010, but that was easy, given the dark age that was the reign of his predecessor Lalu Yadav. Re-elected in 2010, Nitish Kumar’s focus on governance seems to have been distracted by the political need to part ways with the BJP, given his opposition to Narendra Modi. Nitish Kumar took moral responsibility for his party’s poor performance in the 2009 general elections and resigned, Thereafter, his party has joined hands with the same Lalu Yadav from whose government it had attempted to contrast itself.
In Karnataka, Deve Gowda’s party, led by his son, has failed to use its brief stints in power to distinguish itself. The Uttar Pradesh and Bihar leaders basically rule using the politics of caste and patronage with Yadav and other OBC communities, In Karanataka, Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) does the same with the Vokkaliga and Lingayat communities.
Using caste arithmetic to win elections does not work well for these leaders anyway. The obvious problem with Janata Parivar 2.0 is that as in the past, they may not be able to stay together for long. But that is not the main problem. The first issue is that coming together just to stand united against Modi is not enough. They need a new idea, and it doesn’t seem to be in sight.