In a battle of equals between two major formulations of UPA & NDA, it is the regional parties who could walk away with significant advantage & use that to force their hand in any government formation

By Anil Anand & Suneel Koul

There is something extraordinary about Indian elections. For one, these exemplify the truest character of our nation, the epitome of the most vibrant & functional democracy of the world. Second, these allow the citizenry to exercise their inalienable right to vote & graduate into a new world order based on their assessment of the current order. India has eternally remained wedded to the democratic values since civilisation dawned on planet earth. Elections are a crowning glory, a testimony of India’s values & commitment to her people & to the constitution. Given the most diverse socio-political-religious -economic canvass, elections in India offer adequate space for various formations; regional & national to take shape & in such arithmetic & chemistry between varying factions, resides the inclusive, pluralistic & representative spirit of our nation, our India.  

2019 is no different. That a viable ‘third alternative’ can well turn out to be the dark horse of the impending exercise beginning April 11th, the same is well within the realms of possibilities. The worry though is that the prospective partners of this elusive amalgamation continue to play truant with each other even as elections are just a shot away. Time is not on their side & with BJP already several miles ahead, we are afraid that the disparate opposition is falling way behind the race.    

In any competitive game or political tussle, it is the early movers with a positive outlook & courage of conviction who turn out to be the winners. In their firm & resolute advances, they send a clear message to the public that they mean business & that they can be depended upon for people’s welfare & for the good of the state. BJP undoubtedly scores high on this subject & with their robust PR machinery working overtime highlighting the post Pulwama airstrikes & Modi’s s strong & decisive personality. This PR-dominated approach encompassing outreach through social media platforms like whatsapp, face book, twitter, print & electronic media, Radio, Doordarshan & other channels of mass media, aided devotedly by a motivated work force on the ground give BJP a clear advantage as we write.  

It is here that the united Opposition or the anticipated Third Front is lagging behind. They could either form a counter to the running commentary & spin & toss the narrative around in such fashion that people become sceptical of the incumbent’s propaganda. A slogan that is credible, acceptable & inspiring confidence amongst the electorate; they have to get the messaging loud & clear.  The young, neo – rich millennial, a college student, a housewife, a farmer, industrialist or a commoner, the issues concerning their aspirations find more traction on all such media that is available on their handsets.

Now that the Election Commission of India has declared a seven-phase schedule for the crucial Lok Sabha elections, the world would be curious to know if brings back Modi for a second successive term.  It shall also test a fledgling opposition particularly Congress which is busy sewing up alliances in a bid to check the might of BJP under the Modi-Amit Shah combo. The dye has been cast, the bugle sounded and the battle lines drawn for yet another game of thrones in one of the most intense & invigorating elections ever to the parliament.

Although there are no official estimates as yet, the 2019 Lok Sabha election is believed to cost an unprecedented Rs 500 billion or a little more as per the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies. Nine hundred million voters would be voting across the country in discharge of their most important democratic duty. The number of voters has gone up by 84.3 million since the last Lok Sabha elections, said Chief Election Commissioner, Sunil Arora.  

Importantly, one of the focus areas for the political parties would be targeting youth whose numbers keep going up. For records sake 15 million or 1.50 crore first time voters between the ages of 18 to 19 will exercise their right to franchise. The first time voters account for 1.66 per cent of the total electorate

Attracting these youngsters would be an important but a daunting task for the political parties. The debate, in fact, has already begun on employment avenues that were created during the last five years of BJP led NDA rule. While the ruling dispensation has been backing its claim of having made considerable headway in this area, Congress-led opposition has hit back hard questioning these claims.

Although, any political party would ignore any section of the electorate, at its own peril, yet the rival groups will be hard pressed to convince the youth about their plans in the field of education, employment and other related areas. After all it were the strong youth force of more than 150 million first time voters that had played an important role in bringing the BJP to power in 2014. The onus this time would be more on the ruling BJP for not only convincing the younger strata of the society about the work done for them in real terms that includes job creation and also the future plans. The Congress and the other major players in the opposition camp have as onerous a task as the ruling elite of convincing the very brigade of first time and young voters about their plans to counter joblessness. The only difference being that the opposition does not have to show anything in terms of work done.

Come May 23, 2019 and the mystery would be clear as to who would rule the country for the next five years. The political theatre of war is already heating up and it would be significant to review the preparations or intended preparations of the warring factions, BJP led alliance on one side and Congress and its potential but reluctant allies on the other. The common denominator on both sides (read BJP and Congress) is the acceptance of the fact that the coalition era is a reality and is here to stay for some more time to come. So, sewing the alliances had been the top priority for both sides and the process for which, had begun quite some time before the ECI announced the election schedule.

There was never a doubt that the ruling BJP would be at an advantageous position with resources and capacity to take and implement quick decisions. Given the serious challenge posed by the BJP, it was being expected that Congress and regional satraps such as Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party, Nationalist Congress Party, Trinamool Congress, the Left groupings, and in down south Telegu Desam Party, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, YSR Congress, Janata Dal (s) so on so forth, would act more realistically seeing the impending danger which the Modi juggernaut poses to them and act accordingly to present a formidable alternative in the form of a new front which was initially baptised as ‘Mahaghatbandhan’. The expectations have so far been belied and the opposition unity at the national levels is nowhere in sight as the country gears up for the first phase of elections polling for which would be held on April 11.

It would not be out of place to say that the BJP has taken a clear lead over its rivals that includes the Congress, in forging alliances at regional and state levels. The big plus point with the saffron party in this context, which was seen in the run up to 2014 Lok Sabha elections as well, is the centralised decision making (Modi-Shah combine is what matters) that has been facilitated to a large extent by the firm grip the two have over the party, leaving almost no ground for debate or dissent.

The BJP of Modi-era has another big advantage, which the current leadership has created for themselves, of having shed all inhibitions in either selecting the allies or permitting entry of leaders from opposition parties to join its ranks no matter what their image is. This has worked to the great advantage of the party finalise alliances this time also despite the fact that many of their existing NDA partners were expressing displeasure on the high-handed and big brother approach of the BJP. Some of them quit but there was no dearth of new ones no matter if these are very small caste based outfits with little pockets of influence,

The big area of concern for BJP would be the timely shaking of hands by foes turned friends Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party in Utter Pradesh. BSP supremo Mayawati and SP chief Akhilesh Yadav never had any problem once they decided to bury their past and work together for Lok Sabha elections. UP sends the highest number of 80 MPs to Lok Sabha and BJP had in 2014 accounted for 71 of the seats with its allies chipping in with few more seats.

The BSP-SP alliance has been a silver lining in the otherwise shoddy story of ‘Mahaghatbandhan’ formation. It had its share of controversies initially when Congress was ignored and completely left out by the two parties. Although Congress does not have much strength in the state but it was expected that at least for the sake of war of perception and moral victory the BSP-SP-Congress alliance would give a head-start to the ever fragile opposition unity efforts. That did not happen. Nonetheless, BSP-SP alliance has the potential to stop the Modi-rath at least in UP leading in reduction of seats which the BJP won last time. That should be a big area of concern for the BJP alongside the fact that it would have to contend with the fact that its two strongholds of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have Congress governments now.

The Hindi heartland that includes Bihar also, is a worrying factor for the BJP. Notwithstanding the fact that Bihar, with 40 Lok Sabha seats, has a JD (u) – BJP coalition government, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led opposition including Congress could pose serious problems provided they close their ranks and are earnest in their endeavour to defeat BJP-JD (u) – Lok Jan Shakti Party combine at the hustings. It has not been an easy ride for the opposition unity and alliance process is still an unfinished task in Bihar due to differences among parties such as RJD, Congress, Upendra Kushwaha-led RLSP and Jitan Ram Manjhi-led HAM over their demand for seats. But these prospective alliance partners are still hoping that all would be well in time without showing any inclination to budge from their stated positions in terms of demand for a particularly number of Lok Sabha seats.  

Compare it with the NDA scenario. The three NDA partners BJP, Nitish Kumar-led JD (u) and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJSP have already announced their seat arrangement. The first two parties will contest 17 each while Paswan has settled for six seats including assurance for a Rajya Sabha re-nomination for himself in the NDA quota.

The BJP had in 2014 contested on 31 seats in Bihar and had won 22, but agreed to give up its claim on even its winning seats to accommodate Kumar, who had fought against the party in the last general elections. The BJP’s move to surrender its last won seats took everyone by surprise given the party’s hunger for expansion at any cost. However, it also reflects its new found sense of accommodation in the face of ever developing political situations. 

This spirit of accommodation of the BJP was also visible in Maharashtra as well where despite five years of blowing hot and cold by its alliance partner Shiv Sena which at times threatened to walk out of the arrangement. They have finally agreed to distribute 48 seats in the proportion of BJP 25 and Shiv Sena 23.

All eyes are now riveted on Congress as to how the over century old party plans its next move under such trying circumstances and with unrelenting Modi Government persistently building pressure on it by attacking from all sides. The party has just concluded its working committee meeting in Ahmadabad before it went into alliance formation exercise with a renewed vigour. By organising the CWC meeting in Gujarat the party wished to deliver a message that, apart from it being the home turf of PM Modi, it wished to move ahead with Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals to counter the “saffron agenda”.

A big gain for the party after being left out of the opposition alliance in UP is the advent of Priyanka Gandhi on the political scene. Although she was appointed All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of crucial eastern UP that also includes Modi’s constituency Varanasi, it is felt that her services would be utilised in rest of the country as well. Squarely based on the premise that she resembles her much dynamic grandmother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi both in terms of looks and mannerism and that she is politically savvy, the Congress rank and file has been enthused by her entry into politics. But she herself would have to walk an extra mile to prove her worth both for Congress and the party chief Rahul Gandhi.

She along with another AICC general secretary in charge of western part of the UP, Jyotiraditya Scindia, have difficult task to galvanise the organisation in the state and at the same time to be prepared for elections. They are running against time as election schedule has already been announced. Priyanka will have to formulate and declare her plan for UP without any delay. Although Congress has governments in the neighbouring Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where the party is expecting to do well in Lok Sabha elections, but a rejuvenated party in UP would be an advantage for Congress to consolidate its position in the Hindi heartland of course that includes Bihar as well.

Southern India had always been a stronghold and saviour for the Congress but not anymore now. Barring Karnataka where Congress is in power in alliance with JD (s), and Kerala, it is in a bad state in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. Despite an early alliance with TDP’s N Chandra Babu Naidu, it would still have to cover a lot of ground to expect a reasonable performance in Andhra Pradesh as well in neighbouring newly carved state of Telangana. Telangana has in fact Congress’ Achilles heel in the region.

The BJP’s aggressive approach to find new territories such as Kerala in the south and West Bengal, where Congress has been decimated by Trinamool Congress and is now working out an understanding with the Left parties, in the East has resulted in political unrest in these areas. So, to keep its base in tact in Kerala in the face of an aggressive BJP prepared to go to any length would be quite a task for the Congress.

Despite having been out of reckoning in Tamil Naidu for the past many decades, Congress secured an advantage in the Dravidian state as it found a strong ally in DMK in the very beginning. The DMK’s newly anointed chief Stalin was perhaps the first opposition leader to declare Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition parties. He did not retract despite objections raised by many opposition parties.

It is advantage BJP at this stage but it would be naive to totally discount the opposition in particular Congress. Congress might be seemingly down but it is certainly not out and is very well in the game. Much would depend on how the party and its strategists draw their electoral plans and at the same time deal with the potential alliance partners. After all, the Congress is new to alliance politics despite having run a coalition government for 10 years.