The history of India’s socialist parties — from which the various Janata Parivar entities emerged — is one of splits and mergers. If in the past its leaders, opinionated, fractious, colourful and intensely political as they are, lined up behind Congress rebels to form Central governments in 1977 and 1989, some of them also boosted the numbers of BJP-led NDA governments in 1999 and 2014. In 1996, when the minorityH.D. Deve Gowda-led United Front government came into being, it was ideologically more cohesive, but the Congress that had backed it soon withdrew support. Over the years, the Janata Parivar parties drifted from their ideological moorings in socialism to seek identity politics.They stayed afloat, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, capturing the space vacated by the Congress, and addressing the aspirations of the numerically substantial backward castes. In last year’s general election, the BJP (that had been quicker off the mark than the Congress in taking note of the aspirational OBCs back in the early 1990s, launching its “social engineering” experiment) wiped out the Janata Parivar parties in both the Hindi-belt States, taking away a major chunk of the OBC and Dalit votes that had sustained them for over two decades.
The trigger for the current moves towards a merger of six Janata Parivar parties, especially the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal located in Bihar and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, is the fear of extinction. Assembly elections are due this year in JD(U)-ruled Bihar and in 2017 in Uttar Pradesh where the SP is in power. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the three parties touched their lowest mark in two decades: the JD(U) and the RJD together won just six of Bihar’s 40 seats, and the SP a paltry five of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats. The other three parties are the Indian National Lok Dal, the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Samajwadi Janata Party. Today, as they move to merge under the leadership of the SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, having set themselves the task of doing so by April 20 when the second half of Parliament’s budget session commences, their first electoral test ahead will be in Bihar. If the merger takes place, the impact will be felt first on the streets with the anti-Land Bill agitation and then inside Parliament: the party will start with 15 MPs in the Lok Sabha and 30 in the Rajya Sabha. But though Nitish Kumar retains some appeal, the rest of its leadership, especially Mr. Mulayam Singh, Mr. Deve Gowda, the RJD’s Lalu Prasad and the INLD’s Om Prakash Chautala are jaded practitioners of dynastic politics. To remain relevant and grow, these parties, an important part of India’s political history, need to adapt to the times — for there is more to politics than mere arithmetic.