That the Hurriyat Conference is merely a platform and not a political party is often insufficiently appreciated. It incorporates parties such as the Muslim League—whose leading stalwarts had a march last week with a generous display of Pakistani flags—and other organisations whose ideas of a proposed Islamic state in Kashmir are even more frightening. That these parties work in tandem to pursue a separatist agenda and combat a common foe—the Indian state—is what distinguishes them from other parties in Jammu and Kashmir for whom autonomy is more a priority than separatism.
It may seem terribly unfair and even cruel to draw any analogy between the Hurriyat Conference and the yet-to-be-named political party that has brought disparate elements of the Janata parivar—minus the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha—together under a common banner and, maybe, a common election symbol. Of course, the new party with Mulayam Singh Yadav as the titular head, isn’t a separatist outfit. Its innate commitment to the Indian Constitution cannot and should not ever be questioned. Nor can it be denied that at least three of the parties that offered themselves for the merger—the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Janata Dal (United) of Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, and the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav—claim to be the inheritors of Ram Manohar Lohia’s political legacy. The INLD of Om Prakash Chauthala upholds the family legacy of Devi Lal and the Janata Dal (Secular) of H.D. Deve Gowda has no identifiable inheritance, apart from its commitment to its leader and his family.
What is also clear is that apart from the RJD and JD(U) that was engaged in a bitter turf battle in Bihar, the other constituents of the unified Janata parivar have distinct geographical spheres of influence and unquestioned leaders. In other words, apart from Bihar where the unity of the RJD and JD(U) leads to an automatic arithmetic surge in political influence, the coming together of the Janata parivar will not make any difference to ground realities in most of India.
In Parliament, particularly the Rajya Sabha, however, the unity will create an impression of a third force after the Congress and BJP.
In short, what we are witnessing is not so much the creation of a new political party but the creation of a political confederation. Mulayam Singh may well be the nominal head of the party on account of his seniority, although it is well worth asking why Lalu Yadav can’t claim this honour since they became chief ministers of their respective states in 1990. The Chief Minister of UP may even use his good offices to ensure that the merger process in Bihar is not too troublesome. But apart from changes in the letterhead, the party flag and the election symbol, the new party will be, for all practical purposes, crafted on exactly the same organisational lines as the Hurriyat Conference. Its real basis for unity is opposition to the BJP and the immediate provocation for the merger is the Bihar Assembly election scheduled for October-November this year.
Bihar is in fact the only state where the details of the confederal arrangement are yet to be satisfactorily worked out. On paper, Nitish Kumar is the Chief Minister and the JD(U) has many more MLAs than the RJD. In addition, Lalu Yadav has been statutorily ruled out from accepting any Constitutional post for the next few year on account of his conviction in the fodder scam scandal. Yet, the awkward reality is that as of today the RJD has a bigger and socially distinct following in the state. Nitish Kumar suffers from two disabilities. First, his personal popularity has taken a big knock on account of his abrupt separation from the BJP in 2013 and his patch-up with the man he painted as Bihar’s arch villain. Additionally, the manner in which Jitan Ram Manjhi was appointed and then turfed out of the Chief Ministership has proved socially damaging to Nitish.
The real issue that has to be sorted is: who gets the upper hand in Bihar? By right Lalu is the senior partner on account of both experience and electoral clout. But will Nitish agree to play second-fiddle to Lalu? Recall that it was Nitish and George Fernandes’ unwillingness to countenance Lalu’s flights of whimsy that led to the Samata Party breakaway in the mid-1990s. Nitish didn’t prevail because he upstaged Lalu within the erstwhile Janata parivar. He became a leader of consequence and Chief Minister because he entered into an alliance with the BJP. It was the BJP that propelled Nitish as the alternative to ‘Jungle Raj’ Lalu. And today, the BJP is on the other side.
Politics is never static and events shape the flow and pattern of alignments. The Janata parivar merger is essentially a psychological arrangement aimed at showing India that a cluster of states can effectively mount a serious challenge to Prime Minister Modi. The belief is that a Bihar victory can propel other local leaders such as Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee to be associated with a confederal arrangement that ensures a measure of coordinated opposition to the BJP and complete local autonomy for the participants.
It’s a model that could work, although in the past it hasn’t worked. But whether it will meaningfully take off in the first place will depend on a satisfactory resolution of the leadership tussle involving Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav in Bihar. Will Lalu be content delivering votes to make Nitish Kumar the Chief Minister? The Janata parivar model has no scope for rival claimants for the same political space.