Coalition politics: How to win friends and influence voters

Rasheed Kidwai | Updated on May 24, 2019

From tea parties to dinner diplomacy, coalition politics goes the whole hog to find and retain trusty allies for the long haul at the hustings and the government formation to follow

When a door closes, the wise man says, another opens. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) knows that well. Old-timers may recall an age when the party had no allies to speak of. And it felt this lack most bitterly in 1996, when the party emerged with the highest number of seats in the Lok Sabha elections — but had no allies, barring the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal, to sustain a BJP-led government at the Centre. Atal Bihari Vajpayee formed a government but, without a majority in Parliament, it fell in 13 days.

That, party leaders have often said, was the turning point for the BJP. Vajpayee and the then BJP supremo, Lal Krishna Advani, opened the party’s doors wide, warmly shaking hands with political foes of different hues. In 1998, the party was back again, having sewn up a ragtag coalition, but that lasted only about 13 months. By the time it returned to power a year later — and served its near-full term — the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition had representatives from across the country.

The BJP-led NDA is back with a bang — and is set for another five-year term. The BJP, political observers agree, may have won with a thumping majority in the just-concluded polls, but it is not going to let go of its partners — not after having won them so painstakingly over the years.

Turning point: After the 13-day debacle in 1996, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the then BJP supremo, Lal Krishna Advani, opened the BJP’s doors, warmly shaking hands with political foes of different hues   -  RAJEEV BHATT


Comparisons are often drawn between the poet-Prime Minister Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, the only other BJP leader to have completed five years at the head of a coalition government at the Centre. And while there are differences galore, in one aspect the incumbent Prime Minister Modi has not been greatly different from Vajpayee — and that is in keeping a coalition together.

Elections 2019 were fought in contrasting style by the Modi-led BJP-NDA and the Opposition. But one political fact is clear: the BJP and the Congress have, over the years, learnt the ropes of working with disparate partners. And what was once called the Third Front — a coalition which included many of the constituents who later joined either the NDA or the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) — may also have learnt from its mistakes.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the 2019 polls was the absence of any one leader that the Opposition could project as a prospective prime minister. Unlike 1977, when the mighty Indira Gandhi was defeated, and 1989, when her son Rajiv Gandhi failed to win a majority, there was no anchor to steady the Opposition ship this time.

Veteran politicians recall that when Indira Gandhi announced polls after the Emergency, the Opposition was in a state of chaos because of lack of resources and organisation. But socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan helped them unite by making it clear that he would campaign for the Opposition parties if they merged into a single entity. Subsequently, four major Opposition parties — the Congress (O), Jan Sangh, Sanyukta Socialist Party and Bharatiya Lok Dal — came together on January 23, 1977, to form the Janata Party.

Clear calls: In the BJP, all negotiations were supervised by the party president Amit Shah. If any specific government-related assurances were to be given, PM Narendra Modi was brought into the picture   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA


In 1989, the Left and the Right teamed up with Vishwanath Pratap Singh to elbow out Rajiv Gandhi, although the Congress had emerged as the single largest party. There was help at hand in 2004, too, when the Vajpayee-led BJP won fewer seats than the Congress. Former prime minister VP Singh and CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet acted swiftly, behind the scenes, to bring temperamental regional satraps together and closer to the Congress. The UPA was formed and ruled for 10 long years.

This time around, before the polls, most regional parties saw the Congress as the biggest obstacle to Opposition unity. These ranged from Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party to West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Uttar Pradesh’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The grand old party, however, did try to shed its Big Brother approach — often making it clear, informally, that party president Rahul Gandhi was not a prime ministerial candidate.


But alliances are not easy to cobble together. The Congress’s experience in negotiating with AAP for the just-concluded election is a case in point. Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee of the TMC and N Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) pitched for a Congress-AAP alliance for the seven LS seats in Delhi. Congress insiders insist that a 4-3 arrangement in favour of AAP was a done deal till the Congress realised there was something afoot. Each time the two sides met, AAP would also ask for seat adjustments in Punjab, Goa or Haryana, a Congress leader states. When the Congress insisted that the alliance was restricted to Delhi, AAP asked for five seats instead of the four agreed on earlier. An AAP insider reportedly alerted the Congress that Arvind Kejriwal’s party had hatched a plan to get the Congress defeated from the two seats and prepare the ground for the 2020 Delhi Assembly polls by suitably weakening the Congress. The revelation sealed all doors.

Friends and foes: BSP supremo Mayawati enjoys the support of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who believes that the former UP CM can take the RSS on   -  PTI


The Congress, which has over the years been almost wiped out in states such as Uttar Pradesh, however, knows the importance of alliances. The need for coalitions was first voiced at a party conclave in Pachmarhi in 1998 and emphasised at its Shimla Sankalp in 2003.

The party was working on pacts well before the 2019 polls were announced. A series of meetings over dinner and tea took place last year. In December 2018, former party president Sonia Gandhi and the current president Rahul Gandhi reached out to Mayawati over dinner in New Delhi. The BSP chief reportedly ruled out accommodating the Congress in a grand alliance in Uttar Pradesh, but offered to help the party in its bastions of Amethi and Rai Bareli. Mayawati was reportedly candid in pointing out that reviving the Congress’s old vote bank — a Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin combination — would not be in the BSP’s interest in Uttar Pradesh. Apparently, despite the bluntness in the conversation, Mayawati enjoys Sonia’s support, as she believes that the former UP CM can take the RSS on. Then, at a dinner party in March this year, leaders of 20 parties — including the Congress — sat together. Sonia Gandhi made sure that Jitendra Manjhi was seated next to her. He represented the Dalits, and had just left the NDA.

In an age of coalition politics, the Congress had sought to keep Banerjee in good humour, too. Over the past two decades, despite several political realignments, she had stood by 10 Janpath. Sonia Gandhi was not in active politics when Banerjee walked out of the Congress — or, rather, was expelled from it — on December 22, 1997. Sonia Gandhi had made special efforts to keep her back in the Congress, urged former AICC chief Sitaram Kesri to ensure that she stayed, and even opened the doors of her 10 Janpath residence at midnight for a last-minute meeting with the Bengal leader.

None of it worked. Banerjee left the Congress to form the TMC, promising to end the CPI(M)’s rule in West Bengal — which she did in 2011. She fell out with the Congress because of PV Narasimha Rao, Kesri and Sonia Gandhi’s inability to give her a “free hand” to take on the Left in Bengal. The Congress leaders had relied more on senior party leader and one-time Banerjee bête noire Pranab Mukherjee for strategic decisions on Bengal politics.

Sonia Gandhi’s affection for Banerjee, however, was visible when the two hugged as soon as the Bengal leader was sworn in as an NDA minister at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on October 13, 1999. “Congratulations,” Sonia Gandhi said, “But will you come back?” She didn’t — but it is worth remembering that Banerjee blocked a proposed NDA legislation that barred people of foreign origin from holding high office, mooted at one of the then government’s first cabinet meetings.


Elections are often like a gamble, with nobody clear about who the voter is going to back. It was because of this uncertainty that, in the run-up to the polls, some Congress leaders maintained that Mayawati would be more effective than Banerjee in leading an anti-BJP alliance. Despite the absence of a personal rapport — although Sonia Gandhi and Mayawati did have their heads glued together in a public display of affection at Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony last May — her caste background and the Dalit following she commands give her an advantage over other leaders, which is why the Congress would still like to court her.

New ties: Ahead of the results TDP chief N Chandrababu Naidu met a host of regional leaders, including West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee in an attempt to stitch together an alliance of Opposition parties   -  PTI


Unlike the Congress, the BJP showed in its alliance talks a sense of method and purpose — as the election results underline. All negotiations were personally supervised by BJP president Amit Shah. If any specific government-related assurances were to be given to any party, Modi was brought into the picture. The mandate from Shah was simple: Give a free hand to the negotiators. It is said that Shah was always patient and accommodating through the talks. Even for a single Lok Sabha seat in Darjeeling, the Gorkhaland Mukti Morcha leadership had easy access to Shah, Arun Jaitley, JP Nadda and other party leaders.

And take the case of the party’s UP ally Apna Dal, a regional outfit largely representing the interests of the Kurmi community. When the Dal decided to break away from the NDA, Shah and his men ensured that the channels were kept open with the family of Apna Dal leader Anupriya Patel, who teamed up with the BJP despite her mother Krishna’s advice to side with the Congress. A word was sent to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath to accommodate the “legitimate demands” of the Apna Dal. While the feud in the family-led party continued through the electoral campaign, Shah managed to keep a large number of Kurmi votes with the BJP.

Before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls were formally announced, the Congress was working on a strategic partnership with the small but significant players in Uttar Pradesh. Talks were held with the leaders of parties such as Nishad, Apna Dal, Mahan Dal, Suheldeo Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP), Peace Party and others. Congress managers were aware that non-Yadav OBC groups such as the Kurmis, Koeris, Lodhs, Jats and Sunars outnumbered the Yadavs, a community that largely backs the Samajwadi Party, in the state. None of the parties tied up with the Congress, however, except for the SBSP. The Congress’s loss was the BJP’s gain. The Apna Dal and Nishad Party firmly sided with the saffron party.

For Shah, the Nishad Party was an important player in eastern Uttar Pradesh. In the 2018 Lok Sabha bye-election in Gorakhpur, the SP had fielded Praveen Nishad, the son of the Nishad Party chief Sanjay Nishad. His victory against the BJP’s Upendra Dutt Shukla was significant as Nishad was supported by the BSP. And that laid the foundation for the mahagathbandhan — grand alliance — of the Opposition in UP. However, less than a year later, thanks largely to Shah’s relentless efforts, the Nishad Party had switched sides to partner the BJP in the 2019 election.

Like the BSP founder, the late Kanshi Ram, Shah has cracked a formula to counter the influential Yadavs in the state. The BJP president successfully brought the Kurmis, Saini, Shakya, Kushwaha, Maurya, Rajbhar and Nishad communities into its fold. Each important caste leader was given a coveted ministerial berth in Adityanath’s UP cabinet. Adityanath also set up a four-member panel under Justice Rajvendra Kumar to identity 78 smaller backward castes that had not benefited from caste-based reservation in jobs and educational institutions.

With the BJP-led NDA sweep, what do the results indicate for the Congress? The spotlight is back on Sonia Gandhi. She had earlier opted for voluntary retirement from politics, but is believed to be having a rethink.

The ‘Remove the Gandhis to save the Congress’ cry is going to get shriller with each passing day, but for the Gandhis, saying no to politics has never been an option. In the 1950s, Indira Gandhi reportedly wanted to leave India and settle abroad. But domestic political compulsions pushed her into active politics in 1959, when she served as Congress president. Rajiv Gandhi had little to do with politics but was drawn into it after his brother Sanjay’s death in an air crash. In 1984, Sonia Gandhi did all she could to stop Rajiv from occupying the prime minister’s seat following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And Sonia Gandhi stayed away from politics until she gave in to the demands in 1998 of the Congress rank and file, which was convinced that Rao and Kesri had weakened the party’s organisational and ideological frame.

Sonia Gandhi has, over the years, come to learn the nitty gritty of coalition politics. For a decade from 2004-14, she cemented her ties with Opposition leaders. Congress insiders stress that she showed respect to senior leaders, which helped in the thawing of ties with parties such as the NCP and the DMK. They point to her able handling of allies and alliance leaders such as Sharad Pawar, Mayawati and the late M Karunanidhi. There was a time when leaders of her party accused the DMK of being soft on the LTTE, the Sri Lankan militant outfit behind Rajiv Gandhi’s killing. But that is seemingly no longer on the agenda. Once, a party veteran recalls, she and SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav were together at a dinner hosted by CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee. Sonia Gandhi was tucking into a piece of hilsa when Singh said to her in what may have been a political warning, “Madam, be careful. It’s a hilsa, and it has bones that may hurt you.” Sonia retorted, “Main kaanton se joojhna janti hoon (I know how to deal with thorns).”

She has a new bed of thorns to deal with.

Rasheed Kidwai, a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, is the author of 24 Akbar Road

Published on May 24, 2019

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