On the morning of 22nd December, on one of the many roads in Delhi that lead to Parliament, traffic had been halted to let a posse of SUVs through. At the heart of this convoy was Samajwadi Party chairman Mulayam Singh Yadav, who sat inside a Mercedes Benz SUV, looking passively at the melee around. The cars that were halted were also hulking SUVs, which are now a statement of political power on roads the way Ambassadors with red beacons once were. They were crammed with young men in bright red Nehru caps.
They disembarked from these vehicles in droves to join a sea of red--cap, flags and banners--that had packed Parliament Street. Red is SP's party colour. For good measure, they had made some tea vendors wear the caps too. All parties do this during their respective shows of strength. The vendors don't particularly mind the allegiance forced on them. Political rallies are fuelled as much by fiery ideology as sugary tea. The business tends to be excellent. The youth joining the crowd scream angry slogans, pausing once in a while to greet and hug those they know, laughing, as if at a wedding.
For that's what the 'Janata Parivar Maha Morcha' at Parliament Street that day was--the announcement of a wedding to mark the beginning of a war. On stage, at the other end of Parliament Street, sat some of India's best-known regional politicians. Representing an alliance that is still in the process of being worked out were SP's 'Netaji' Mulayam, Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav from Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), Rashtriya Janata Dal's (RJD) Lalu Prasad Yadav, Indian National Lok Dal (INLD)'s Dushyant Chautala and HD Deve Gowda of Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S).
The war they had assembled to announce, to a crowd that seemed to easily surpass a thousand, was against the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who dealt a devastating blow to their politics in the parliamentary elections this year.
Leaders of the Janata Parivar.
The alliance has a working title, 'Janata Parivar', announced by a large banner in the middle of this assembly. Translated loosely, this means: 'Family of the People'.
The Janata Legacy
There is some history to this title. In 1974, leaders Jayaprakash Narain, better known as 'JP', and Morarji Desai, brought together parties such as Congress (O) (for organisation), Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJP's predecessor), Samyukta Socialist Party and Bharatiya Lok Dal to form the 'Janata Morcha' which won Gujarat from Indira Gandhi's Congress (R) (for requisition) in 1975.
But it took the Emergency to make India truly realise the need for a united opposition. Many more leaders and parties came together with these ones to create the Janata Party. This comprised political interests as diverse as the Swantantra Party (a believer in market based economy) and the Socialist Party of George Fernandes and Raj Narain. The national elections which followed in 1977, for instance, saw the CPI (M) support (by not fielding candidates) an alliance which also had the support of the Hindu nationalist RSS. It was coalition of diverse interests united by a common opponent.
The Janata Party won 271 seats, routing Congress (R), most of them from North India's 'Hindi belt'. Gandhi herself lost to Raj Narain from the pocket borough Rae Bareli.
But the Janata Party began breaking up in two years, by 1979, also the year when JP passed away. It lost power in 1980 and disintegrated further. Its last vanguard, ironically, was Subramanian Swamy, now a controversial BJP spokesperson.
But many of those who had been involved with the party came together again on October 11, 1988, JP's Birthday, to form the 'Janata Dal' which, with allies, defeated Rajiv Gandhi in the Lok Sabha polls of 1989. Allies, once again, as ideologically opposed as the CPI(M) and the BJP. The latter withdrew support in just a year, in 1990, and the government collapsed. After a second, short and even weaker spell of power in 1996, with the outside support of Sitaram Kesri's Congress this time, the Janata Dal disintegrated, too.
Dewe Gowda, Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad on stage.
Many of those on stage have been a part of two of these Janata avatars. Deve Gowda, Nitish Kumar, Sharad Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav had been a part of the Janata Party or the JP movement that preceded it, or both. They have been Janata Dal leaders as well. So has Mulayam Singh Yadav. Then each began to form breakaway parties from the nineties onwards and have achieved varying degrees of electoral success.
The men on stage have allied, fought, separated, allied again, separated again--as it is with politics and bad marriages.
Serious talks among the men on stage began, reportedly, over lunch at Mulayam's house on 6th November this year, approximately a month after JP's birthday. What followed was news that the SP chief's grand nephew Tej Pratap would marry Lalu's daughter Raj Lakshmi.
Tej Pratap is a special grand nephew. He was fielded from Mulayam's own Lok Sabha seat, Mainpuri, where he won. In fact, all five Lok Sabha seats held by SP from Uttar Pradesh belong to members of the Yadav family. A theory that does the rounds is that Mulayam's two sons marrying into upper-caste Thakur families may have alienated some of the Yadav-OBC (Other Backward Castes) vote-bank.
Some of them were also swayed away by Modi, whose own OBC status had been drummed up during the Lok Sabha polls.
And so Tej Pratap's marriage to Raj Lakshmi, daughter of friend-turned-foe-turned-friend-again Lalu, a powerful Yadav leader from a neighbouring state, may help in regaining some lost ground.
An ageing cocktail has been injected with a fresh dose of dynasty.
'Boys Will Be Boys'
The women are missing though. They are tiny islands in the red sea on December 22nd. "The SP defends women's rights," say two female SP members, defensively, to a TV reporter asking why UP has so many crimes against women. When asked to elaborate, they fall silent, then repeat themselves nervously.
"Boys will be boys. They commit mistakes," Mulayam had said, appallingly, in the run up to the national polls while opposing capital punishment for rape. This rally is full of boys.
I ask one why he is here. "Every party in the opposition does a gherao. Raises the issues that have to be raised," he says curtly, while marching. "Bas."
SP's Azam Khan is on stage. He rails against the communal comments and conversions by Hinduvawadis that have created a stir in the news of late. He is adamant about the fact that while Giriraj Singh from Bihar, who had said Modi's critics should be banished to Pakistan, has been made a Minister-of-State in the BJP government, he was restricted from campaigning by the Election Commission for his remarks on Kargil (Khan had said, equally abominably, that those who fought during India's Kargil War "were not Hindu soldiers, in fact the ones who fought for our victory were Muslim soldiers".)
He follows this up with a Urdu couplet by Wali Aasi:
"Hum khoon ke kisten to kai de chuke lekin/ Aye khaak-e-watan karz adaa kyon nahin hota."
The speeches seem well coordinated. Deve Gowda, for instance, gives his blessings in the beginning saying it's good everyone's come under "one umbrella" again. Azam Khan and Sharad Yadav attack communalism primarily. Nitish and Lalu focus on questioning the BJP and Modi on the non-delivery of promises. And Mulayam Singh Yadav addresses the youth.
"Only 31 per cent of the population voted for the BJP. Are the rest of us Haramzaade?" Sharad Yadav asks, referring to Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti's infamous speech.
41-year-old Jamshed 'Sheru' Khan, from Rampur, is wearing a tattered but thick sweater. He claims to be a "childhood friend of Azam Khan's". He says some Muslims from UP may have voted for Modi because "the best way to prevent a robbery is to make the robber in charge of the security. So they must have thought that, if he was Prime Minister, there would be no riots."
Sheru is wary of threats to downsize welfare schemes by the current government. He believes this will hit UP and Bihar the most. "We--people from UP, Bihar and West Bengal--do the chhota kaam (smaller work)," he says. "We're farm and construction workers, carpenters... so we don't get our due from the rest of India. But while we do chhota kaam, we also do a lot of the kaam."
Conversation shifts to how UP was compared to Gujarat by Modi during his Lok Sabha campaign. "Gujarat doesn't have the population density that UP does," Sheru says. "In Gujarat, there are 10 rotis for 10 people. In UP there are 10 rotis for 20 people." He adds: "Perhaps the only way out for UP is if there is the same Government in the centre and the state."
Lalu, The Star
Besides women, the JD (U) and RJD supporters are also only present in pockets at this morcha. Flashes of green (the colour of both parties) that you have to look hard to find. "Many party workers from Bihar couldn't make it because of the distance and the cold," says Ranveer Singh Yadav, a 22 year old SP member from Devaria, UP. He says that the Vaishali Express from Bihar, for instance, which was supposed to have reached Delhi by 8am in the morning with many JD (U) members, had been delayed because of the fog.
"More of us would have come," says Dina Manjhi, JD (U) zilla upadhyaksh (district vice chairman) from Gaya, Bihar. "But where is the space for them?" It is impossible to walk around Parliament Street without being jostled or pushed by an ever-swelling crowd.
Modi's voice booms from the speakers. Nitish Kumar is on the dais. He's playing an excerpt from Modi's campaign speech.
"Chor looteron se rupaye waapas lane chahiye? In rupiyo pe janata kaa adhikaar hai ki nahin hai? ... Videshi Bankon se tamaam rupaye jab aa jaayenge toh desh ke har gareeb ko 15-20 lakh rupaye yun hi mil jayenge... "
("Should we bring back the money of thieves and looters? Do the people have a right over this money or not? ... When all the money from foreign banks return then every poor person in the country will get Rs. 15 to 20 lakhs just like that.")
Then Nitish plays an excerpt from Modi's radio programme Mann Ki Baat. The PM sounds considerably more sombre.
"Mere desh waasi... Videshi bankon mein kitne rupaye hai... ye naa to mujhein pataa hai, naa sarkaar ko pataa hai, naa pichle sarkaar ko pataa... "
("People of my country... the amount of money actually there in foreign banks, neither do I know this, nor does the government, nor did the previous government... ")
This delights the crowd. There are loud peals of laughter.
"Mr. Prime Minister," says Nitish. "If you did not know how much money was in the foreign banks in the first place, how did you promise the poor 15 to 20 lakhs rupees each?"
He adds: "When bank accounts of people under the Jan-Dhan Yojana were opened, there was much publicity. Now it has come to light that there has been no transaction in five crore of the eight crore accounts under the scheme and there will be no 'accident benefit'... Even if you do not give 15 lakh rupees to each poor person, could you not at least deposit 15,000 to 20,000 rupees in their accounts so that they could avail this benefit?"
He then talks of the number of farmer suicides having shot up, and says, before finishing, that the BJP will play similar recordings of him and Lalu attacking each other from the past.
They well may.
Nitish is, after all, the anti-Lalu. He is JD(U)'s Mr. Clean to the RJD's scam-tainted leader and that's what has got him votes all these years.
I ask Manjhi whether Lalu and Nitish coming together will not lose the latter these votes. He says this isn't likely because the Janata Parivar will be seen as a "greater alliance to defeat communalist forces who have gone back on their promises". He says "Mulayam and others stepping in" will change in how the alliance is being perceived. He adds: "This alliance will give us the support of Mahadalits, Yadavs and Muslims in Bihar. Who can beat this combination?"
Lalu Prasad speaks.
"Call me if Lalu comes," says an old farmer to another, and disappears to find a place to relieve himself. Lalu Prasad Yadav, raconteur, provocateur extraordinaire, is the star of this show. Every five minutes, someone in the crowd asks, "Lalu? Lalu kab aayega?"
When he arrives, he takes off from Nitish's questions on the black money issue by invoking Baba Ramdev. He points to Ramdev's claim of there being Rs. 26.5 lakhs in foreign banks.
"Mera beta tiut karta hai. Yahaan Baitha hai."
("My son tweets. He's sitting here.")
"Beta, Baba Ramdev ko tiut karke bol do, ki aap Modiji ko correct kar do, hisaab kitaab."
("Son, tweet to Baba Ramdev and ask him to correct Mr. Modi's accounts.")
There is cheering, especially among the younger people.
Lalu pauses to let this settle. Then mocks: "Paisa Layenge (We will get back the money)."
The crowd ripples with laughter.
"Achche Din... Achche Din..."
"Modiji Banaras gayen the. Bolen, hum ko kisine nahin bulaaya. Humko Ganga maiyya ne bulaaya. Gangaji kab bulaatein hai aap toh jaante hi hain..."
("Modiji had gone to Benares. He said, no one has called me, Ganga Maiyya has called me. You all know when Gangaji calls someone...)
There is wild cheering now, which continues unabated for a while.
Lalu also asks what happened to the two crore jobs Modi had promised. To round off his performance, he hums a Bollywood number to reiterate his and Nitish's newfound love for one another:
"Bhoolo kal ki baatein/ Kal ki baat puraani... "
("Forget the issues we had with each other yesterday/ Those are old issues now and meant to be forgotten... ").
Mulayam Singh Yadav takes the dais. The crowd rises.
"It is heartening to see so many young people here," says Mulayam. "Having braved the cold, come here, shivering... "
There is a deafening roar from the boys in red caps. They are not shivering. They are spoiling for a fight.
Mulayam's speech can hardly be said to be sharp on delivery but this is irrelevant. After the terrible loss of face in the Lok Sabha elections, it was his party's defeat of the BJP in the UP bypolls that holds a sliver of hope for this 'parivar'. The SP won seven seats, including one in Modi's Lok Sabha constituency. Netaji is at the fulcrum of this alliance.
After the rally, a cameraman gets onto the stage the politicians have vacated to film the crowd. He gestures to a group of SP supporters he seems to have fixed up with and they charge towards the camera screaming, for effect. There is no slogan, just an elated battle cry.
A Massive Spectacle
It has been a week since this showpiece of an event. On December 26, Gowda announced in Mangaluru that the Janata Parivar merger would take place before the February Budget Session of the Parliament. On December 28, MP Veerandra Kumar's Socialist Janata (Democratic) merged with the JD(U) in Thrissur, Kerala.
But the truth is, if it comes to be, the Janata Parivar will have to battle incumbency in two key Indian states--UP and Bihar.
"What have they done?" Kamlesh Sharma, a Delhi IT professional who is not a supporter of any of the parties here but had merely stopped to watch the show, asked. "What do they promise to do?"
If this rally were to be a microcosm of what the Janata Parivar stands for, they may have matched the BJP when it comes to spectacle. But what about the content?
The Lok Sabha elections and the BJP's consequent state wins this year stand testimony to the fact that Modi and the BJP have managed to sell to many, including those in UP and Bihar, the prospect of change. They have done this by appearing to have changed themselves. There are new faces and new means of reaching out. While sections of the party and the Sangh Parivar that backs it continue to raise older issues to appeal to traditional voters, there is simultaneously a thrust on newer subjects, such as development. To communicate, the BJP continues to use and explore an assortment of Internet tools--messaging services like WhatsApp and Hike--besides older social media.
But while the Janata Parivar attacked the BJP at last week's event on the twin fronts of communalization and governance, they are yet to present an alternate vision for change. Can caste arithmetic and need-based alliances alone help them retain two states?
Of a group of SP and JD(U) members leaving the rally last Monday, one held a sign saying:
"Bharat Desh Ki Ab Majboori/ Teesra Morcha Bahut Zaroori."
("India has no other option. She is in dire need of a Third Front.")
I asked them why they fared so badly in the Lok Sabha polls. "People wanted to try Modi once," said a JD(U) supporter. "They won't now that he is not fulfilling his promises."
But Modi has not even been in power for a year. And the results in Jharkhand and Jammu show people are willing to give him time to deliver.
On the day of the rally, BJP National Secretary Shrikant Sharma termed the Janata Parivar "brand ambassadors of misgovernance". But the Janata Parivar's larger problem might be that nobody knows what they are a brand ambassador for. Once again, they are united by a common, formidable opponent--but little else.
I asked the SP supporters why so many young people are joining the BJP in UP. "They were under the trance of Modi's false promises," said Prof. Jai Prakash Yadav, a party member and academic. "Now that trance is broken and they're returning to the fold."
When I asked him what the SP's promises for the youth is, he said: "Employment for all, education and social equality."
These are significant issues, but he might as well be reading out from a party manifesto written two decades ago.
A simple addition to this, for instance, could be a marked change in the party's attitude towards women. This has to go beyond the tokenism of Mulayam Singh Yadav's daughter-in-law winning a Lok Sabha election.
Another step towards a new image, taking a leaf out of their opponent's book, could be technology. "Social media is just the mood of the moment," the young SP workers told me when I asked them why they haven't used Twitter or Facebook as much. "There was radio, then TV, now social media."
When I pointed out how fruitfully the BJP seems to have used it, they said, "But the SP also distributed so many laptops to deserving young candidates in villages."
If only things were so simple.