Miss Mamata Banerjee above all else is a political animal. She takes her decisions with her ear close to the ground. That is how democracy should work. But the danger is that sometimes the immediate priorities of the public ignore the long term needs of the nation. Right now Miss Banerjee’s snubs to the Congress party indicate that the days of the UPA government are numbered. Its credibility with the public seems to have been irretrievably damaged. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) participation in the UPA coalition may not last long after the forthcoming assembly election results. A mid-term general election cannot be ruled out. Similar rumblings are heard within another UPA ally, Mr. Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party (NCP.
However, if events post assembly polls do lead up to a mid-term election the TMC cannot ally with the BJP led NDA alliance. It cannot possibly alienate its current Muslim support. It is reasonable to infer therefore that the idea of a new combine of regional parties precluding the Congress, the BJP and the Left Front may be under consideration. That is an obvious option that should have been considered much earlier.
In most major states there exist political powerful formations outside the Congress and the BJP. In Tamil Nadu there are AIDMK and DMK, in Karnataka there is JD(S), in Andhra there are Telegu Desam and now the Rajshekhar Reddy Congress, in UP there are BSP and SP, in Bihar there is the JD (U), in Punjab there is the Akali Dal, in Orissa there is the Biju Janata Dal, in Assam there is AGP, in Maharashtra there are NCP and Shiv Sena --- indeed in most states a non-Congress, non-BJP potential ally exists. In addition there is so much disenchantment within both the Congress and BJP that in the event of a new formation emerging the possibility of strong state units of both parties and even their central leaders defecting to it cannot be dismissed. In other words there exists a strong possibility of creating a powerful new non-Congress, non-BJP front that can govern the nation.
That is why Miss Mamata Banerjee and other regional leaders should pause and consider the necessary steps required to ensure that if a new formation does emerge it should not fail like earlier experiments. One common grievance of regional parties, and indeed of all state governments even belonging to national parties, is that federalism is being given short shrift by succeeding central governments. And in a large multilingual, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation like India democracy without genuine federalism becomes hollow. Without decentralized self-rule at all tiers of governance from the local level upward there cannot be genuine democracy. The demand by regional parties for federalism is therefore fully justified. But equally, regional parties must recognize that without a strong unfettered executive at the centre there cannot be effective governance in the nation. And India has never required more urgently national cohesion and effective governance in both the domestic and international spheres of policy making than it does today.
In the light of this if the regional parties do decide to proceed with the effort of forging a new national alternative there are three steps that suggest themselves to ensure lasting success. These relate to the appropriate policy agenda, the appropriate organizational structure, and a necessary systemic change. Let us consider them in that order.
Before regional parties start negotiating any alliance their leaders must first agree on a national policy agenda. Without that being done the chance of a meaningful and stable alternative will be doomed at the outset. The policy agenda should avoid populist platitudes that have immediate appeal, such as ending corruption or bringing down prices. Instead concrete systemic changes that will address the problems of federalism, corruption and governance need to be formulated. The preparation of a draft policy agenda that may serve as the basis of discussion should pose no problem. It can be prepared in a day. Once an agreed policy agenda is achieved there should be a nationwide movement by all partners of the proposed alliance to educate the public about its advantages. This would not only enhance popular support but also achieve a sense of unity among the partners through a common campaign. The need to attract new entrants into the movement and eventually into the proposed alternative should be encouraged. The constituency that was attracted by the Jan Lokpal movement would be an obvious target to approach.
While a nationwide movement to popularize a common agenda is under way the alliance partners should create the organizational structure required for cohesive, democratic functioning. No coalition offers promise of lasting stability. Only a properly constructed federation might do that. Therefore for a new alternative to succeed it would be essential that in the first instance it contests parliamentary elections under a single common symbol. That would rule out threats of defection and pressure tactics. At the national level therefore the alliance must be a single federal party allowing at the initial stage regional parties to retain separate identities. Clearly a federal parliamentary party would have to devise democratic norms with a parliamentary board and a candidate-selection process that all the regional parties must accept. Only a federation would inspire public confidence about the principled functioning and political stability of the new alternative.
Finally, the regional parties must recognize that if the federal principle implied in out Constitution deserves compliance, so does the pro-active role of the President enshrined in it. Only the authority of an executive President at the centre balanced by decentralized governance at the grass roots can ensure national unity and federal democracy at the same time. To carry out such an exercise successfully is for the regional parties very much in the realm of possibility. It should be painfully clear by now that unless there is systemic political reform the present governance drift will not be halted. Regional parties have the opportunity to seize the moment and introduce desired change. Will they rise to the challenge? Miss Mamata Banerjee has made clear her willingness to cut ties with the present arrangement. Will she also initiate steps to forge ties for a future arrangement?