By the time this appears in print election results from Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur will be out. I doubt if these will cheer the Congress ' already reeling from Mr. Quattrocchi's detention. As for the BJP, it rides piggyback on the Akalis in Punjab ' as it did on the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.
In the current electoral context the opposition never wins, it is the ruling party which loses due to its dismal record in office.
When the recent assembly poll results are out, they will be followed by the UP results in May. Then, a mid-term poll could well follow within this year because of differences among the UPA allies. In any case, a general election is just two years away. Time is running out. There is therefore urgent need for both major parties to undergo an agonizing reappraisal and to decide how they can best reinvent themselves.
The prime need is to create an instrument for governance. That implies a cohesive and stable government. Does either the BJP or Congress believe seriously that in the foreseeable future it can win a majority on its own to ensure stability? The era of coalitions has made it painfully clear that makeshift alliances are unsuited for purposive governance. What, then, is the remedy?
Some years ago when Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister, Mr. Arjun Singh and I had a conversation. He was unhappy with the state of affairs. I ventured to make a suggestion about how the Congress could reinvent itself. He seemed interested and requested a written note expanding the idea. I sent him the note. In a subsequent meeting he agreed that the idea had merit, but expressed inability to carry it out. 'If I attempt anything like this the Congress will split. And that is not something I can ever contemplate,' he said. Not too long after that he split the party. Instead of creating a suggested Indian Federal Congress as the new avatar of the Indian National Congress, he formed along with Mr. ND Tiwari, the Indian National Congress (T). He and Mr Tiwari reverted to the stale claim that they were the real Congress and therefore deserved the election symbol.
The Indian Federal Congress would have represented a genuine ideological alternative. The Congress in its halcyon days of the freedom struggle had been a genuine federal movement. Muslims, Akalis, socialists and all manner of people were part of the Congress during the freedom struggle but retained their respective organizational identities. For instance Baba Kharak Singh, the Akali leader, was also president of the Punjab Congress. The pre-independence elections in 1937 brought about the split between Congress and Muslim League after the Congress reneged on its pre-poll pact with the League.
After Independence it was once again electoral ambitions that divided Congress from the Akalis, when the former refused to accommodate the latter. Immediately after Independence, even before any election, the Congress had marginalized Mahatma Gandhi who was impelled to write in his last will and testament on the day he was assassinated that Congress should be dissolved. Thus did Congress gradually degenerate over the years from a federal movement to a centralized party, ruled eventually by a dynasty.
The BJP background is equally depressing. Its political fortunes soared only after it joined the Janata party and became its second largest group with over 90 MPs in 1977. Before the Janata party was formed, before the Emergency had been imposed, Jaya Prakash Narayan was attempting to bring about opposition unity. I had suggested a federal party as a practical step for facilitating unity. JP liked the idea of a federal party to facilitate unity, and published the proposal in his weekly journal. At the first meeting of all the opposition leaders to explore unity, he distributed the article to all those present. However, JP's efforts were overtaken by the Emergency, which led to the creation of the Janata party in abnormal circumstances. It was supposed to be a single party but functioned like a coalition. It did not become an honest federation. The rest is history.
Today, conditions have changed. However, the solution remains the same. In the given circumstances it can be stated emphatically that only a federal party can save this nation from disintegrating. How might a federal party be formed? The steps to follow are simple. To carry them out may be difficult. It is not impossible.
The following will have to be done.
First, a party programme must be formulated that addresses the most important common concerns of the nation.
Next, a constitution for a federal party must be framed which allows the federating parties to retain their respective identities at state level, but compels them to unite at the parliamentary level, to contest parliamentary polls under a single symbol. They would also have to accept a common party symbol to contest assembly elections. But in the assembly polls the election symbol of the most dominant regional party may be used by all the federal partners. This would be a transitional stage.
The parliamentary symbol could be used in Assembly elections too after the regional parties are willing to do it voluntarily. They would do it when the nationwide parliamentary symbol would seem to bring electoral advantage. The acceptance of a common election symbol, both at the level of the State and Centre, would preclude defections and post-poll horse-trading. In other words, a federal party would be an institutional mechanism for enforcing democratic functioning among political parties.
Left to themselves our present leaders seem incapable of functioning democratically. Both the Congress and BJP are multi-State parties. They are best positioned to reinvent themselves as federal parties. The formation of a single federal party covering the whole nation would attract votes. The first between BJP and Congress to implement the idea might well determine which party has the better future.