The Congress’s alliance with three regional parties in Jharkhand, announced on Thursday, fits a template that could make it enduring. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal have joined hands with the Congress, which sends 14 MPs to the Lok Sabha. The seat-sharing agreement gives seven seats to the Congress, four to the JMM, two to the JVM and one to the RJD. In turn, the JMM gets a larger share of seats in the Assembly election, that will also take place in 2019. In the 2014 Assembly election, the BJP won the State with 31% of the vote. Collectively, constituents of the new alliance got 47% of the vote. Alliances don’t only turn on arithmetic. What makes this alliance potent is the synergy among its partners, with ground reports indicating that workers of these parties have developed a certain comfort level with one another. Collectively, they have command over all the regions, and appeal to all social groups of the State. As much as a third of the State’s population is tribal, and the alliance is expected to reach out to this section. These factors explain the sweep that the alliance of the Congress, the JMM, the RJD and the CPI had in 2004. That was the last time Jharkhand had a rainbow alliance — it won 13 of the 14 seats, while the BJP won only one seat, Koderma.
State-level alliances will hold the key in the election this year. A countrywide alliance involving vote transfer from one regional party to another is impractical. A national grand alliance against the BJP will be more optics than substance. In Uttar Pradesh, the alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party has unsettled the BJP, while the Congress’s efforts to assert its own space by introducing Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as a front-line campaigner has opened up the field to further possibilities of political realignment. Regional parties function with their focus primarily on local power calculations, and an appreciation of that factor by regional leaders and the Congress can be the basis of stronger bonds. The confusion in the non-BJP camp in Uttar Pradesh is partly due to the lack of appreciation on this point, while the contrasting picture of synergy among them in Bihar and Jharkhand is driven by an acknowledgement of mutual interests. While chemistry and arithmetic are both important, potential participants in a non-BJP coalition must also be mindful of optics. Regional leaders hopping around to make a show of a nascent grand alliance may not add up to much, even as they render it vulnerable to attacks — of the sort lobbed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he termed it a Mahamilavat, or grand adulteration. They will do better by staying grand, and staying regional.