It is that time when contesting parties take the road less travelled, woo their voters with dream schemes and make promises. Each party attempts to gerrymander vote shares and appeases voters with the sole objective of winning maximum seats in the area. In the fragmented marketplace, it is naive to envisage a clear winner, who succeeds in winning two-third of the assembly benches. And thus, alliances are born.
Coalitions are essentially a permutation born out of arithmetic. They are the modus operandi, in the absence of a clear winner. A coalition government was led by Morarji Desai in March 1977, which lasted until July 1979. Since then, India has witnessed both natural coalitions (Shiv Sena-BJP) based on similar ideologies and misplaced coalitions (PDP-BJP) based on no visible common ground.
Coalitions are based on arithmetic convenience and negotiations.
Alliances are formed by parties that mutually support each other’s ideology, and see eye to eye before the commencement of elections. Alliances avoid pitching opposing candidates, display a joint show of power and leverage on each other’s vote bank.
They may be running together for a common cause or a common enemy.
The notional credibility of a pre-poll alliance is comparatively higher than the post-poll coalition. When two opposing parties collaborate post elections, to pass the test of numbers, voters of either party may stand disillusioned. They view the coalition as an arrangement purely political in nature. This triggers an air of scepticism that lingers during the entire term. Leaders need to keep proving themselves, to ensure the voters do not switch sides. Coalition members are repeatedly making ideological adjustments, to keep the numbers intact.
The 25-year-old BJP-Shiv Sena alliance was called off before the Maharashtra elections in 2014. One of the reasons being incongruous maths behind seat sharing. In October 2014, BJP fell short of 145 seats in Maharashtra. After multiple rounds of negotiations, one-time natural partners in the alliance, Shiv Sena and BJP formed the coalition government in Maharashtra. More than two years since then, and the coalition has weakened. As the two parties part ways for the 2017 BMC elections , this is the journey of a natural alliance to a claustrophobic coalition.
The BJP-PDP government in 2016 in Jammu and Kashmir is a glaring chalk and cheese coalition for the nation. Political analysts could not see beyond the rudimentary arithmetics. The latter half of 2016 is testimony to the brittle nature of this odd alliance.
Coalition is a low-risk, low-return strategy. Since the parties do not invest in the relationship before polls, they are not obliged to deliver based on each other’s manifesto.
Pre-poll alliances, on the other hand, are aspirational in nature. Since these alliances are forged way before voters hit the road, they are not solely on the basis of power and position. These alliances typically comprise of parties that either want to consolidate vote bank and/or fight against a common threat.
BJP had won 282 seats and 31% votes in the 16th Lok Sabha election in May 2014. Fast forward to November 2015, a pre-poll alliance formed between Janata Dal (United) (JDU), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and Indian National Congress (INC), proved to be decisive. The cohesive forces are visible as alliance members and share stage to send a resplendent message of unity to voters and opposition alike.
Another high-profile pre-poll alliance that deserves discussion is the INC-SP alliance in Uttar Pradesh. This alliance is a realistic leap for the national party and a risk mitigating strategy for the ruling party in the state. Obviously, both parties run the risk of losing loyal supporters and party workers, who may not approve of the alliance. This risk can be mitigated if the two leaders communicate their underlying intentions unequivocally and convince both camps of the synergy in the alliance.
INC suffered from chronic anti-incumbency in 2014 across the board. SP voters who continue to latch on the sentiment would dismiss the pre-poll alliance and even contemplate voting otherwise. INC workers who believe in the stand alone merit of their cadre would perceive this alliance equivalent to the leadership conceding even before the polls.
The political landscape is still decoding the underlying principles of a pre-poll alliance. In its current form, it is not seen as a marriage of ideologies or a struggle for a sordid cause. It is a coalition based on ‘projected numbers’ at best. With increase in the number of parties, and raised aspirations of regional parties, devices that burnish performance of alliances would need to evolve. Intuitively, alliances score better than coalitions on three main fronts:
Firstly, alliances reduce the number of contesting points in the election polygon. This reduces the probability of a hung assembly and implicitly increases the size of each slice of pie. Odd and desperate coalitions are kept at bay since the numbers are taken into account well in advance.
Secondly, the parties campaign jointly communicating their best ideas. The manifesto consists of the crème de la crème of each alliance member. Alliances tend to invest higher energy in convincing the voters about their intentions and commitment to the alliance, compared to individual party campaigns.
Thirdly, alliances form the basis of future political relationships. Alliances help parties expand their base in other regions. In April 1999, BJP lost the vote of confidence in Lok Sabha, by a margin of one vote. This prompted the BJP to scout for partners all over India, which would eventually lead to the formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) before the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Similarly, the proposed Mahagathbandhan may prove to be a decisive piece in devising the politics of tomorrow.
As we inch closer to the 2019 elections, and the oldest national party has already formed alliances in both Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, one cannot help but wonder if this is of prognostic importance. If these alliances deliver in the next two years, and more such amenable alliances are formed in the upcoming state elections before the 2019 Assembly polls, Modiji will have to make some new friends and befriend old enemies. More power to governance!