COVER STORY

Tough match

Even a united opposition is unlikely to stop the BJP juggernaut in 2019

PTI6_22_2017_000194A Trying times: Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh with opposition party leaders announcing the presidential candidate a year ago | PTI

Adversity lays the foundation for friendships, and the setbacks suffered by political parties have often been the ground for opportunistic alliances. Like the BJP’s strong show in Karnataka forcing the nemeses—the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular)—to come together. Earlier in March, a similar alliance in Uttar Pradesh between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party had jolted the BJP in the Lok Sabha bypolls.

A silver lining for the emerging opposition unity is the result of elections in the past six months. The BJP’s victories in the assembly elections have not been as impressive as they were earlier.
In an effort to remain relevant, Mayawati has been playing strategically to form alliances everywhere, from Uttar Pradesh to Karnataka to Haryana.

For the opposition, the new arrangement between the Congress and the JD(S) is a bright spot, a trend which many non-BJP parties hope to continue. It is also the biggest challenge that the BJP would face in the Lok Sabha elections next year. In Karnataka, the Congress and the JD(S) together got 56 per cent votes. It was the division of their votes that helped the BJP win 26 seats more than the Congress, despite getting 2 per cent less vote share.

It is hard to overstate how Narendra Modi helped the BJP in Karnataka. The prime minister carpet-bombed the state with 21 campaign rallies in ten days. A similar forceful Modi campaign saved the party the blushes in the assembly elections in Gujarat in January.

The BJP’s good show in Karnataka has energised its chances in south India, which accounts for 130 Lok Sabha seats. The saffron party hopes to do better in Tamil Nadu and Kerala with its strategic alliances. And, in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it has been building a reputation as the main opposition party. “They said the BJP is a party of Hindi-speaking states,” said Modi in his thanksgiving speech after the Karnataka results were announced. “Are Goa, Gujarat, Maharashtra, the northeastern states Hindi-speaking? No. The BJP represents India and our proud diversity.”

In the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the biggest test for the BJP would come in three states it rules—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The chief ministers face varying degrees of anti-incumbency in these states.

Modi has got a five-month window before these elections. The BJP will hard-sell the Modi government’s welfare measures, asking its MPs and leaders to launch a massive outreach programme. The next few months will be used by the prime minister to enhance his image. His informal visit to China worked well in terms of optics. He will be doing the same thing in Russia soon.

Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah use the element of surprise as a strategy to catch attention. They may have a few cards up their sleeves. As a party strategist pointed out, the government collected huge revenues from oil and taxes; if these were to flow back to the people ahead of the elections, any anti-incumbency could be tackled. Also, by agreeing to a ceasefire in Kashmir during the Ramadan, the government has shown that it was not bound by the image it had created. “The issue for us in the 2019 elections would be all-round development,” said Union Minister Prakash Javadekar. “Every elections have proved that Modi is loved by all. The opposition is not able to stand before him.”

Against the common enemy: Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Against the common enemy: Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Politically, however, there are headwinds ahead. The slowing economy, widespread atrocities against dalits and minorities, and farmer agitations are likely to affect the BJP’s chances. A month ago, Union Minister Ramads Athawale of the Republican Party of India told THE WEEK that the BJP was likely to lose 20 to 30 seats in Uttar Pradesh owing to an alliance between the SP and BSP, and the anger among dalits and farmers. He, however, said the BJP would make gains in the northeast and south.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Shah keeps telling the party office bearers that the BJP would prove that the 2014 victory was not a one-off thing. “It was not because of luck,” he said. “We will again win the Lok Sabha. We have won 11 elections since 2014.”

What these victories have done is to force the opposition leaders to extend a hand of friendship. BSP chief Mayawati called UPA chair Sonia Gandhi after the Karnataka verdict. In an effort to remain relevant, Mayawati has been playing strategically to form alliances everywhere, from Uttar Pradesh to Karnataka to Haryana.

Also threatened by the BJP juggernaut are chief ministers Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal), N. Chandrababu Naidu (Andhra Pradesh), K. Chandershekar Rao (Telangana) and Arvind Kejriwal (Delhi). They have been trying to consolidate their positions and will try their best to counter the BJP. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK and a few new players are likely to trouble a possible AIADMK-BJP alliance. These five states hold 111 seats.

The BJP’s Lok Sabha tally had dropped from 282 in 2014 to 274 (five seats are currently vacant). The party is troubled by its Maharashtra ally Shiv Sena, which is planning to go solo in 2014. The Shiv Sena holds 18 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra.

There is also unease among the core BJP voters owing to demonetisation and the roll out of the goods and services tax. And, even the hardcore BJP voters are unhappy that many promises in the election manifesto, like the Ram temple, have not been fulfilled. But, they are unlikely to go away from the party. With the Supreme Court taking up the Ram temple issue, the BJP hopes that by the next Lok Sabha elections, the larger saffron ecosystem would have something to cheer about.

Friends in need: Kumaraswamy and Deve Gowda with Mayawati. Friends in need: Kumaraswamy and Deve Gowda with Mayawati.

A silver lining for the emerging opposition unity is the result of elections in the past six months. The BJP’s victories in the assembly elections have not been as impressive as they were earlier. And, the bypoll results in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar destroyed the party’s aura of invincibility.

Before a clearer picture emerges for the 2019 elections, the next big contest will be in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In all these states, the younger crop of Congress leaders are challenging the BJP chief ministers. A loss in any of these three states, which even some BJP insiders concede is a possibility, would dent Modi’s image.

Still, few people doubt the BJP chances of emerging as the single largest party in the 2019 elections. It will have the wherewithal to woo some of the non-NDA allies, even if it falls short of the majority. But, a bigger problem would emerge if it will need new allies from regional parties in the post-poll scenario.

The BJP hopes to counter the consolidation of opposition leaders with a single rhetorical flourish. “It will be Modi versus all,” Shah told his party colleagues. This will be a weapon in the hands of Modi when he once again makes it a fight between a chaiwala, an outsider in Delhi politics, and the established political class. Will the electorate listen to him again?