Telangana Chief Minister, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao, popularly referred to as KCR, seems to be trying to replicate his mentor, Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR). The ochre-clad former film star took then united Andhra Pradesh by storm in 1983 and then initiated moves for a unified front of non-Congress parties by hosting a conclave in Vijayawada on his birthday, 28 May that year. Victory of Telugu Desam Party in AP and the formation of a non-Congress regime led by Janata Party’s Rama Krishna Hegde in Karnataka had made January 1983 a watershed in opposition politics. Later that year, Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference won in J&K—in all three states Congress was defeated in former strongholds. This gave fillip to effort to revive non-Congress unity, which had been in shambles since failure of the 1977-79 Janata experiment. BJP was a taboo for the conclave parties then. Congress is sought to be shunned by some proponents of “federal” unity now.
The effort to unite regional forces against the Centre seems to be rolling—it remains to be seen if it gathers moss. The NTR-initiated effort in 1983-84 did not yield result. Will KCR succeed where NTR did not? In his “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” Karl Marx had written: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy second as farce.” 1983-84 effort, which saw conclaves at Srinagar and Calcutta (as it was called in 1984) and several meetings in New Delhi, ended in tragedy. Sharad Pawar and Farooq Abdullah are among the 24-odd leaders who attended these conclaves. They perhaps can share their experience with the initiators of present moves.
KCR turned 68 on 17 February—full page advertisements in national media greeted him and hoardings in his praise were put up in all important squares of PM Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency, Varanasi. KCR repeated his 2017 call for a “Federal Front”, first made when he greeted Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata after she retained power the first time, on the eve of his birthday. Though he did not refer to NTR’s “Vijaywada spirit”, the binding dictum of a series of opposition conclaves which preceded the 1984 general elections, in effect he was trying to bring Hyderabad, the city from where NTR ruled, back into national discourse. Vijayawada, where the conclave politics germinated, is not under KCR; it is part of truncated Andhra Pradesh, where too a non-BJP regime is in power: but CM Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress does not share KCR’s point of view. TDP, the party which initiated the conclaves, is also opposed to KCR’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS).
As these lines appear in print, KCR is expected to sup with Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai on 20 February. His call for united action against the BJP in Centre has been reciprocated by Tamil Nadu CM M.K. Stalin and by Mamata Banerjee. Former PM H.D. Deve Gowda, a beneficiary of the clout wielded by regional parties in New Delhi in 1996, has endorsed KCR. And so has Bihar’s Lalu Prasad Yadav—prior to the announcement KCR had sent a special aircraft to fly in RJD chief, Tejashwi Yadav and discussed possibilities of an anti-Modi front. Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav has not been pulled in yet—but will have a role post 10 March UP results. KCR is seeking a national platform. Mamata is keen to emerge as the anti-Modi face. Stalin seeks the niche his father M. Karunanidhi enjoyed in New Delhi.
Mutual distrust and individual rigidity stood in the way of finding a common path in 1983-84. There were diverse priorities. Just as Mamata Banerjee is averse to playing ball with Congress now, BJP-led NDA (of which Charan Singh-Biju Patnaik’s Lok Dal was a partner) was taboo then. The Left had a dominant role, including hosting the conclave in Calcutta—it is unlikely that the CPM CM of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, will either play, or be at all asked to play, a similar role in the current exercise.
Since 2014, when BJP came to power on its own, the two forums where state CMs periodically interacted with PM have been somewhat dormant. Inter State Council, which is part of Home Ministry, has hardly met. With the abolition of Planning Commission, collaterally National Development Council has ceased to exist—CMs are members of the Niti Ayog’s Governing Council—this too has not been an active forum. State CMs, therefore, have their respective issues and some are also chagrined (as in West Bengal) by the role played by Governor. Recent changes in the rules governing deputation of IAS, IPS and IFS officers have also created a chasm. Some states, especially, Tamil Nadu, have been opposed to NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) being the sole criterion for medical college admissions. NEET has been upheld by Supreme Court, but some state Assemblies have been passing resolutions against its implementation. During the pandemic PM chaired almost two dozen virtual meetings with CMs—but these interactions did not provide the fora which Inter State Council or NDC could.
The first salvo in the current round of unity of regional parties against the BJP regime in Centre was fired by Stalin on NEET issue. KCR, who had lost ground to BJP in Hyderabad civic polls and in a recent Assembly by-election, wants to control his turf—Assembly polls are due in Telangana in December 2023 and BJP is TRS’ principal opponent. TRS had sided with BJP at the Centre in recent past—KCR’s absence from PM’s programme in Hyderabad when he went to unveil the statue of sage Ramanujacharya was the first salvo fired by TRS against BJP. While DMK’s angst primarily stems from administrative issues,KCR’s concern is primarily political. He wants to project himself as a pivot in national opposition politics a la NTR.
Mamata Banerjee was quick to applaud KCR. However, her rider that Congress be kept out of the exercise may not cut ice. KCR has openly lauded Rahul Gandhi and even joined issues with Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma over his critique of Rahul Gandhi. DMK is an ally of Congress in Tamil Nadu. Uddhav Thackrey runs a government in which Congress is a partner. Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren’s JMM too is a partner of Congress. Above all, the patriarch of all these regional forces, Sharad Pawar of NCP, is certain that no anti-Modi front can emerge sans Congress. Hence, there are sharp differences of perception among the regional parties ab initio in 2022.
Regional parties had a field day in New Delhi between 1996 and 2004. The UPA led by Congress was constrained by regional pressures, but Congress was the dominant force. Since 2014, when for the first time since 1984 Lok Sabha saw a ruling party with a clear majority; regional parties have lost their dominance over New Delhi. The departure of Shiv Sena and Akali Dal from NDA has put BJP on the driver’s seat firmly. Power and influence of regional parties are inversely proportional to the strength of national parties.
While regional forces try yet another “federal front” exercise, BJP is concentrating on demolishing its sole national challenger—Congress. In 166 of the 282 seats won by BJP in 2014 and in 175 of the 303 in 2019 the party defeated was Congress. In 2014, Congress defeated BJP in 23 seats and the number fell to 15 in 2019.The contest in 200 seats is between national parties—the BJP is trying to consolidate its numbers in this segment while trying to stave off the challenge from regional forces.