Voters across five states — in the northeast, south, northwest and the saffron heart of India — have shoved the Bharatiya Janata Party into the slough of despond, but the unkindest cut has been reserved for the Congress, which has lost its only northeastern beachhead in Mizoram after 10 years in power.
In all the states, the contests were shaped by voters deciding between bhoomiputras; albeit from the two principal political camps, giving the larger-than-life-sized presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi the grand brush-off. The wins by the Congress, indeed the sweeping change in the contiguous states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, were not crafted by the charisma of Rahul Gandhi; these were won by the hard grind of building party bases and setting up the organisation by local leaders like Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath, no matter how high profile they are in the entirely different universe of national politics. In Mizoram, the Mizo National Front and an entirely local set of parties, has swung away from the Congress, grudgingly voted in one representative from the BJP and signalled that wisdom lies in choosing leaders with local tap roots.
Miscalculating the power of parochial sentiments, couched in the idiom of Telangana nationalism, has cost the Congress. In selecting the Telegu Desam Party as its running mate, the Congress revealed its complete insensitivity to local feelings, since N. Chandrababu Naidu was vehemently opposed to the creation of Telangana. There is a lesson in this for the Congress, which has changed from being a dark horse to a party on a winning streak, oversetting Narendra Modi-Amit Shah’s designs to reign unopposed and establish an era in Indian politics that would bear their imprimatur. The Congress now needs to discover friends from within the entity that describes itself as the Federal Front to strengthen its challenge against the BJP.
In other words, the known devil on the doorstep is better than the flaming torch-bearing messiah with visions of grandeur that cause hardships to the poor and relatively poor. Parties that represent the region best are winners and make for viable allies in the only way it matters — by winning; against the BJP if that is the challenge or just simply winning the state.
Regional parties that sponsored the idea of the Federal Front will need to rework the strategy for 2019. In Karnataka, the Federal Front emerged as the underwriters for the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) partnership. The optics of the grandstand of regional leaders along with the Congress was signalled by the power of the periphery united to promote a desired outcome.
After these December election results, the regional parties will need to think hard as much about partnering with the Congress, as among themselves and over cornering the BJP. A resurgent Congress raises the spectre of competition and bargains and balancing. In some states, the Congress has poor organisation, weak leadership and low prospects; in others, it could fish for allies that could upset the current political equations. For the Congress, the numbers are crucial to how it will lead the potential coalition against the BJP. The better it is at bargaining, the greater its chances of adding to the numbers, which in turn creates pressure on the dominant anti-BJP party.
The concept of the Federal Front is posited on the idea that it would be anti-BJP and non-Congress. But it would work with the Congress to defeat the BJP. The parties would negotiate with allies and if this meant contesting against the Congress at the state level, then that would be how it worked. Complicated as this may seem, leaders like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal were emphatic that the potential Federal Front coalition would be an entity in itself. It would negotiate with the Congress on possible government formation after the seats were counted in 2019.
The Congress on the comeback trail, with three significant wins in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, is a more complicated foe and friend for regional parties. The BJP defeated on its home turf is a windfall for parties like the Trinamul Congress and the Biju Janata Dal, as the Sangh posed the noisiest challenge to leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik. It is expected that the losses of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where the appeals of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath failed to keep the voters from pushing out the Raman Singh-Shivraj Singh Chouhan governments will send the Sangh Parivar scuttling off to Uttar Pradesh to try and salvage as many of the 71 seats out of a total of 80 that it won in 2014.
Even so, the BJP will be a troublesome competitor in a state like West Bengal. Given the social dynamics of the state, the BJP can ratchet up its divisive messaging on the dangers to the Hindu majority from the near 30 per cent Muslim majority. The messaging has resonance in the state because it revives unresolved painful family memories of communal tensions before Partition and the loss of Partition itself. In Assam or even in Tripura, where the BJP has governments in power, the defeat of the party on home ground is likely to weaken its appeal, which is based on the notion that when the same parties are in power at the Centre and in the state, development, meaning the flow of funds, increases, enriching the political elites and injecting some energy into the local economies.
Across the Northeast, where regional parties or alliances prefer to partner with the winner at the Centre, the shrinking lotus pond will initiate a new set of calculations. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee will need to solve her dilemma over the Congress — can she continue to fight the party in the state and join up with it at the Centre on her own terms, which is what the idea of the Federal Front tantalisingly posed, or will she need to be more circumspect in her crude Hindu symbolism of cleansing roads with cow urine and dung?