Happy Makar Sankranti, folks !! On this auspicious day, I would like to look at the road ahead for the opposition parties for the 2019 elections and explore the possibilities and the roadmap.
Amit Shah and PM Modi dreamt of a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ in 2014-15 and seemed to have been progressing fast towards that goal. In a sense, what the BJP meant when they coined the slogan “Congress Mukt Bharat” was actually “Opposition Mukt Bharat”.
If we see the latest Indian political map after the Gujarat and Himachal elections, we see that 19 states are ruled by the BJP and its allies in the NDA. Only 10 states are shared between the entire opposition camp.
The Congress rules four – Karnataka, Punjab, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The Left rules Kerala and Tripura. The Trinamool Congress rules Bengal. The TRS has Telangana, while the BJD rules Orissa. The AIADMK is in power in Tamil Nadu.
PM Modi had claimed recently that the BJP had surpassed Indira Gandhi’s record. This is true, and it has thus brought back one-party dominance into the political landscape of India.
So is it all over for Congress and the other opposition parties? Well, let us not rush to conclusions.
Let us ask a few questions whose answers will determine the road ahead for the UPA.
Gujarat elections showed to all that Congress is still alive and kicking and it has what it takes to give BJP a run for its money, even in its own bastion. Not a single pre-poll or exit poll predicted that the Congress would win 80 seats, and the BJP would get only 99. This was especially so, with the BJP claiming that anything short of 150 was a moral defeat for itself. Gujarat showed the public that the way to beat the BJP is a three-pronged strategy:
a) Hit the BJP hard on socioeconomic issues concerning people and provide a viable alternative instead of letting the narrative divert to polarizing issues like Pakistan or Love Jihad or Gau Raksha, which the BJP wants.
b) Gujarat showed that the Congress could act as a broad platform for young leaders of different communities, like Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor to come together and fight the common enemy – the BJP. This makes the Congress approachable to all and acts as a common platform, similar to how it used to be during Independence movement.
c) Rahul Gandhi made sure that the majority community, i.e. the Hindus, are not swayed away to vote for BJP, because of its Hindutva politics. This he made sure by covering all temples of strategic importance and did not shy away from showing that he is a practising Hindu. At the same time, he made sure minorities like Muslims, Christians are not alienated, and the Congress presents itself as the Grand old pan-Indian secular party. So this approach worked, and the Gujarati Hindus of all castes who were affected by the BJP voted for Congress in large numbers.
Hence Rahul Gandhi and the Congress have rediscovered their vigour and are going to use this three-pronged strategy in the state elections ahead in 2018:– Karnataka, Rajasthan, MP, Chattisgarh along with northeastern states of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura. Let us take a peek at the key states for Congress amongst the above-mentioned ones.
Has an incumbent Congress government under the strong leadership of Siddaramaiah. The Congress has done well in Karnataka, and under Siddaramaiah is a united house. The BJP seems scattered with divisions between the Yeddyurappa camp, the Ananth Kumar camp, corruption, and the stain of bad governance lingers on Yeddyurappa. JD(S) has limited influence but can emerge as a kingmaker in case of a divided house. This looks unlikely as Congress realizes the importance of protecting its south bastion and will leave no stone unturned. And with no clear alternative present to Siddaramiah, the Congress looks set to retain Karnataka.
The BJP and Vasundhara Raje are already facing a lot of heat in Rajasthan. Farmers issues and mass campaigns against BJP, ordinance which required govt permission to prosecute corrupt govt officials and several other issues. Sachin Pilot, the PCC head of Rajasthan is leading the charge from Congress to nail down and expose BJP on all the issues affecting the people. The recent local body elections were good for the Congress and bad news for the BJP. This shows the nature of wind blowing in Rajasthan and going by the yo-yo syndrome, it is Congress’s turn to take office in 2018.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan and the BJP have done brilliantly till now by consecutively ruling and keeping the Congress out of MP for three terms since 2003. The BJP has shown good governance in MP, and this is the main reason people have had confidence in BJP till now. Also, the Congress has had a weak and divided leadership till now. Well, things look certainly different now. The Vyapam Scam which led to several deaths, farmers suicides and protests, etc. have shown strong anti-incumbency. And this time we have the young Jyotiraditya Scindia leading the charge and although there are other leaders Kamal Nath & Digvijay Singh, Scindia seems the most probable CM candidate. So the Congress stands a good chance to better its performance and also probably snatch a win from the BJP if it does things right.
The BJP and Raman Singh are seated comfortably since 2003 similar to MP due to good governance and lack of credible alternative leaders in Congress. Ajit Jogi was the biggest leader for Congress, and since he left and formed the Chattisgarh Janata Congress, the Congress has been further weakened. The entire Congress leadership was wiped out in the 2013 Naxal attack. It is a significant challenge for Congress to regain the state despite anti-incumbency. The Congress would need to bring in Ajit Jogi and present a strong challenge to Raman Singh and BJP if it wants to win back Chattisgarh. Let us see how the story unfolds.
Hence the road ahead looks promising for Congress, and it is very clear that no alternative to the BJP can be forged without the Congress, it being the only pan Indian secular party. Also, the responsibility lies with the Congress to take the initiative to start building alliances and lay the foundation stone for the UPA.
The Left Front, after the Congress, is the major opposition block which is vehemently opposed to the economic as well as the communal politics of BJP. The Left Front constitutes of the CPI(M), which is the major player, the CPI and then the smaller parties like Forward Block, the RSP and lately the CPI(ML), the SUCI etc. Left is in power currently in Kerala and Tripura. In Bengal, after 34 years of undisputed power, they are now in the opposition, with the Trinamool Congress, under Mamata, firmly in control. There is currently a debate within the CPI(M) whether to go for a broad secular alliance/understanding/front including Congress and other opposition parties or not, with Sitaram Yechury, the General Secretary & Bengal unit backing the idea and Prakash Karat , the former General Secretary with Kerala unit support opposed to it. In Kerala, the Left and the Congress are opponents, whereas in Bengal, the Left and the Congress desperately need each other’s support to challenge TMC’s minority fundamentalism on one end and BJP’s rising Majority communalism on the other end. In Tripura, which goes to polls in 2018 under the able leadership of Manik Sarkar, the BJP is the main opponent with them swallowing the entirety of Congress and TMC’s MLAs. In the assembly polls in 2018, the Left Front looks firmly in position to come back to a historic sixth term under Manik Sarkar.
Hence this tussle to come up with the political – tactical line will decide whether CPI(M) will end up in UPA–III or not. Irrespective of which way the line goes, one thing is clear for the CPI(M) – the BJP is the major opponent with its fascist tendencies. And if they do well in Kerala and Tripura and manage to cobble up an understanding or seat adjustment with Congress in Bengal, they could get around 20-25 seats. And as time and again mentioned by Sitaram Yechury, if there is one patent which Left holds, it is of outside support. Also, the CPI has openly declared its line of allying with Congress. Hence the Left could very well end up supporting the UPA, whether being part of it or from outside.
The SP-Congress alliance did not work out well for either in UP Assembly polls in 2017, thanks to lack of unity within the SP on one end and brilliant social engineering by the BJP on the other, and also due to the initial positive response to demonitisation. The BJP went on to win a historic mandate of 300+ MLA’s and Yogi Adityanath emerged as the face of Hindutva politics in UP. Akhilesh Yadav had done a nice job as CM and had managed to change the corrupt and “Gunda” tag of SP especially amongst the youth. He had brought a lot of development in the five years he ruled with Agra-Lucknow expressway, food processing units, tourism centres etc. But due to internal bickering which went public between Akhilesh, Mulayam, and Shivpal Yadav, public confidence was lost in SP, and they lost despite the alliance with Congress. Also, Mayawati and BSP due to the historical enmity with SP, fought against each other, thus splitting their votes and BJP gaining significantly.
The billion dollar question that comes to all of us is can Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati work together? It seems unlikely still, but the gaining strength of BJP and losing vote share of both may force them to join hands, and here is where the Congress and Rahul Gandhi’s alliance making skills will be seriously tested. If SP-BSP-Congress manage to build an alliance, the game will be over for BJP in UP in 2019.
Apart from the above, the other key players are the NCP in Maharashtra, DMK in Tamil Nadu, RJD in Bihar who would be key players of the UPA. There are others like TMC in Bengal, TRS in Telangana, YSR Congress in Andhra etc. who could end up supporting the UPA either from inside or outside provided Congress emerges as the single largest party.
I am no psephologist and hence cannot predict the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But there are two clear ways they can go. First, the BJP goes on to win a clear majority, if it manages to showcase its developments to people through Amit Shah’s Chanakya mind of brilliant social engineering along with PM Modi’s charismatic leadership. This option is what most political pundits may predict.
But if we take a closer look at the socio-economic issues, these are the reason for the rise of young brigade of leaders Jignesh Mevani, Kanhaiya Kumar, Hardik Patel etc. who represent different sections of society. Unless the BJP manages to rebuild the economic situation and bring back confidence amongst these social sections, the discontent is bound to rise.
Hence if the Congress can act as the umbrella for all these sections with Rahul Gandhi being the face of this united force, the Congress could manage to upset the BJP and emerge as the single largest party. The Gujarat experiment has to be pursued nationally along with a slick and aggressive social media campaign to match the BJP, which seems to be in good shoes, thanks to Divya Spandana.
So if this happens, and even if the Congress manages to get 150 odd seats and BJP goes down below 150, the Congress is more than capable to cobble up an alliance due to its secular nature and come up with a common minimum program like in 2004 with the Left and other allies. This is where the experience of senior leaders like Sitaram Yechury, Sharad Yadav, Ghulam Nabi Azad etc. will come into play. I don’t foresee a 2009 like phenomenon for the Congress, where it can win 200 + seats on its own. Not at least in 2019.
Hence to conclude, the need of the hour for the Congress and the UPA allies is to stick to basics and fight on issues of economics and social justice. The key is to keep the polarizing topics away from the political discourse how much ever BJP tries to sway the debate towards it. As the famous election slogan of Bill Clinton, in the 1992 presidential campaign goes “It’s the economy, stupid!”