Why Bihar 'gathbandhan' a one-time exception
It will be a mistake to see the congregation of various leaders opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's swearing-in ceremony as the beginning of a 'mahagathbandhan' or a grand alliance at the national level.
Not only are their bases confined to different parts of the country, their respective provincial egos and ambitions are exacerbated by overt enmity as between the Trinamool Congress and the communists.
If any reminder was needed about their lack of commonality apart from their dislike of the BJP, it was Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's decision to stay away. On the other hand, the Shiv Sena's presence underlined the self-contradictory nature of the gathering.
The concept of a mahagathbandhan gained in importance after the success of the experiment in Bihar. But Bihar was a one-time affair. In any case, the idea is no more than a rehash of the united or third fronts which were favoured earlier. The difference is that while those groups were directed against the Congress, the target of the latest one is the BJP, which has replaced the tattered Grand Old Party as the numero uno in Indian politics.
However, as the back-and-forth statements of Akhilesh Yadav on the subject, and his absenteeism in Patna, show, there isn't much chance of such an alliance taking shape in his state prior to the 2017 elections. Even if similar alliances are set up in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, which go to the polls next year, they will be too rickety to replicate the Bihar experiment against the powerful regional leaders of the two states. Besides, the BJP is of hardly any importance in these states.
It's different in Assam, but there isn't much chance of an anti-BJP alliance unless the Congress, in its desperation over losing sitting legislators to the BJP, teams up with perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal of the United Democratic Front.
What such speculation indicates is that there are far too many divisions among the anti-BJP parties for them to come together. Bihar was an exception because the two former foes, and current friends, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, demonstrated remarkable maturity to forge the unity of their parties, the Janata Dal-United and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Few would have thought it possible and, even today, it is believed that their camaraderie is too fragile to last.
Arguably, it is some kind of a message which the two leaders received from the ground level, combined with their intense political antipathy towards Narendra Modi, which cemented their alliance.
In Uttar Pradesh, however, the fact that Mulayam Singh Yadav is far less antagonistic towards Modi has long been evident. After walking out of the Janata Dal (United)-RJD-Congress alliance in Bihar, which also spelt doom for the proposed Janata parivar, Mulayam Singh predicted the BJP's victory in the state. The suspicion is that the reason why Maulana Mulayam, as the BJP called him during the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, has moved closer to Modi is to save himself from too intrusive a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the disproportionate assets case against him.
In any case, the relations between the big guns of Uttar Pradesh politics - the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party - are too strained to be easily repaired. The two together had beaten the BJP in the aftermath of the Babri masjid demolition to come to power in 1993. But the threat to her life which the BSP czarina, Mayawati, felt from the SP "goons" in 1995 led to a permanent breach between the two parties.
Moreover, Mayawati is unlikely to have any interest in reviving the alliance since she believes that she has a fair chance of returning to power by benefitting from the anti-incumbency sentiments affecting the SP. If Akhilesh Yadav has at all spoken of an alliance - which he now denies - without taking permission from his domineering father, the apparent reason is that he, too, has sensed the prevailing anti-SP mood.
In the midst of these permutations and combinations, what is noteworthy is the sorry state of the Congress. As in Bihar, it will bring up the rear in Uttar Pradesh as the top positions go to the big regional players. It cannot even be too certain of success in Assam. Only in Kerala, it can expect to hold on to power as leader of the United Democratic Front.
While hoping to gain in Assam, the BJP is aware that the prized catch of Uttar Pradesh is likely to elude it since it cannot realistically hope to replicate its success of winning 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats - its ally, Apna Dal, won two - in Uttar Pradesh in the last general election. As in Bihar, there is little doubt that the Modi wave has abated in Uttar Pradesh as well.
However, the BJP will look with some satisfaction at the motley nature of the gathering in Patna. The mere presence of several chief ministers, a former prime minister and a prime minister wannabe (Rahul Gandhi) do not make a gathbandhan.