What are we looking at as we head into elections in 2019 in India? A 1971 scenario or 1977 scenario, or is that 1980? These thoughts come into my mind as a slew of opposition parties try and form a 'Mahagathbandhan' (grand alliance) against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP to defeat him from power. The irony is that a lot of what Modi is saying is strikingly similar to what the then Congress prime minister Indira Gandhi and her party said in the 1970s about the opposition, in which the BJP's previous avatar, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, was a part.
Modi's own words comparing the alliance against him to 'dhanshakti' (money power) is reminiscent of Indira Gandhi's slogan, "Woh kahte hain Indira hatao, hum kahte hain garibi hatao' (They say 'Remove Indira', we say 'Remove Poverty').
I have previously written about the striking similarities between Indira Gandhi and Modi in their mix of a personality cult, an authoritarian style and populist slogans - not to speak of a culture of sycophancy built around them, passed off as fierce loyalty.
However, is 'Modi Hatao' in the same league as 'Indira Hatao'? I am not too sure. India has moved on since the days when the opposition was mainly led by weak Hindi belt leaders like Charan Singh and leaders-turned-dissidents of the undivided Indian National Congress such as Morarji Desai. In that sense, a simplistic comparison to the anti-Indira alliances of the 1970s may not be accurate.
Two things have changed.
Firstly, Congress, despite being a strong party after winning state elections recently in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, is no longer the assumed nucleus or the long lever of an anti-BJP alliance. The absence of Rahul Gandhi as well as the communist parties in last week's 'United India Rally' against Modi in Kolkata was not only conspicuous, it was symbolic. But the fact that the Congress has swept back to power in three Hindi heartland states is not something to be scoffed at.
Therefore, what we are looking at in 2019 is neither akin to a desperate attempt as in 1971, nor a dramatic coming together of opposition groups as in 1977 and nary similar to the whimper of a fragmented coalition as in 1980.
The closest we can imagine now is a scenario similar to 1996, which catapulted a virtual stranger to national politics, Karnataka's HD Deve Gowda, to the prime ministerial chair. Again, in the 1996-1998 period, Congress was strong enough to dislodge Gowda and his successor IK Gujral the way it unseated Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar in 1990. It is much less strong now.
Secondly, what we have now is a spirited alliance of regional leaders forming a more cohesive nucleus than in the past because the Trinamool Congress led by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the Telugu Desam Party led by N Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP have all region-specific ambitions in which power-sharing at the Centre is likely to be dictated by regional concerns rather than national ones.
Their 'United India Rally' last week was a visible show of strength, but it is important to remember that the Telangana Rashtra Samithi led by K Chandrasekhar Rao and the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha led by Naveen Patnaik do not easily fit into the same equation as they have reservations about the Congress.
We have therefore on hand what I call Rubik's Cube politics. Getting one colour right on two sides could mean a difficult task in getting the colours right on the other four sides.
A lot now depends on whether and how the rallying groups come up with an agenda for power sharing. I am not sure if we necessarily need a strong leadership at the Centre for a stable government, as the BJP seems to suggest. What we might need instead is a power-sharing formula.
As for UP, with its new axis between Mayawati's BSP and Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, it can be said easily that they are headed for a successful marriage of convenience because both parties have strong vote banks based on caste that can stay together because a combination of Modi and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath will ensure they love each other - or pretend they do. But national politics is a different ballgame.
The real focus now is on how this new opposition nucleus and a Congress led by Rahul Gandhi deal with each other. My guess: they will do so with a mix of pragmatism and wisdom, with clinical constituency-by-constituency calculation before the general election.
Rahul Gandhi's sending out of best wishes to Mamata Banerjee's rally without his own participation contains a strong message that implies: "We know we are not strong enough to lead. But then, neither are we small enough to be ignored or big enough to make you dance to our tunes." The Congress is showing all signs of being flexible.
Post-election, if the alliance wins a significant mandate (I don't rule it out), they will be guided by the details of the mandate in what happens next. I do not believe necessarily that they will be unstable, though they will have their ups and downs. A lot will depend on the manifesto they cobble up before the elections and the agenda they will frame later.
In the event of an uneven mandate, the BJP may steal the thunder by coming up with its own agenda to befriend regional parties. A weaker BJP might make more sense to some parties like the BJD or TRS than sleeping in the same bed as the Congress. Runaway brides eloping with a villainish intruder is the stuff of black comedy in this Rubik's Cube politics.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)