Elections to the Lok Sabha and six Assemblies — Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana — are going to dictate the political calendar of 2019.
The Lok Sabha elections will not only overshadow all these Assembly elections but will also likely dictate, with their results, the contours of three of the state elections — Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, which will follow later in the year. While it is still about 10 weeks before the Election Commission announces the schedule for the Lok Sabha elections, the coming weeks will witness negotiations behind the scene among leaders.
Meanwhile, economy watchers will be looking out for the vote on account that the government will present, and political observers will keep an eye on the Supreme Court hearing on the Ayodhya title suit. A regular hearing leading up to a judgment may have a bearing on the election discourse.
The decisive mandate in favour of Narendra Modi in 2014 witnessed the Congress put up its worst ever performance, and the BJP’s subsequent wins in Assembly elections across the country shrank the Congress across the country.
But after 2014, it has been a see-saw between hope and despair in the Opposition camp. While it handed the BJP crushing defeats in Delhi and Bihar in 2015, the BJP had massive successes in Assam (2016), Uttar Pradesh (2017) and Tripura (2018). One of the prominent opposition faces — Nitish Kumar — jumped ship after the BJP’s return to power in Uttar Pradesh after 15 years and joined the NDA in 2017. On the other hand, the BJP struggled to retain Gujarat, home state of the Prime Minister and the party president. And months after the historic victory in Tripura, it fumbled in Karnataka in 2018.
The Opposition tasted long-delayed success just when it needed it with the Congress snatching Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh from the BJP, barely six months ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. These results not only woke BJP from its “There is not alternative” complacence but also revived the Congress as the protagonist of the Opposition alternative in 2019.
The 2019 elections present the BJP with challenges very different from the opportunities of 2014. Back then, the BJP rode anti-incumbency against UPA and galvanised support for itself with the promise of achche din that would fix everything the electorate thought was broken. Modi had a novelty factor that appeared to contrast all that seemed wrong in the then UPA. The BJP had gone into the 2014 elections as the winner of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh; this time, it goes to polls on the back of defeats in these three states. Back then, the Congress had come off defeat in Delhi; this time, the defeat in Karnataka is still fresh with the BJP.
As the current incumbent, the BJP will be without that novelty factor around Modi and the newness of being a promising opponent as a party. Its first objective would be getting control of the narrative. Its vulnerabilities as an incumbent having been exposed in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the first half of 2019 will witness the BJP hard-selling what it claims are its achievements.
So, it is going to be a display of whether or not the widely spread access to low-hanging fruits like toilets, bank accounts, LPG cylinders, modest houses, and insurance-based social security matches up to the electorate’s expectations of achche din. Expect the incumbent to amplify its claims that its delivery over 60 months has been more impressive than what had happened during the previous 60 years.
On the social and geographic chessboard of politics, the BJP will be seen recalibrating and renegotiating its stance. Having faced rebellion from dominant castes such as Jats (Haryana), Marathas (Maharashtra), Patidars (Gujarat) as well as the ambivalence of other dominant castes such as Yadavs (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), the BJP will be seen either trying to counter them or build social coalitions for the elections. The Maharashtra government’s decision on Maratha reservations, and the BJP’s flexibility in accommodating Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar in Bihar are hints to what the BJP’s approach will be. At the pan-India level, the BJP will continue its claims of taking up the causes of Dalits and the poor while the Opposition will seek to debunk these claims.
The BJP is aware that when it made the “Abki bar, Modi sarkar”in 2014, it was on a different footing than now, when it is making the appeal of “Fir ek bar, Modi sarkar” for 2019.
The Opposition enters 2019 with more hope than in the previous four years. It has got some momentum going after the Congress defeated the BJP in the Hindi heartland states. The results have not only revived the Congress as the lead Opposition but also presented the Opposition with a “India Whining” narrative against “achche din”. The first half of 2019 will witness the Opposition amplifying this rhetoric to force the incumbent to respond. Just as the anti-corruption narrative was seized by the then Opposition BJP in 2014, the present Opposition seems to be controlling the agrarian distress narrative in 2019 and forcing the BJP to respond. The Congress leadership’s recalibrated decision against overdoing secularism, too, has robbed the incumbent of a traditional counter-narrative. Expect to see Opposition leaders in temples more often.
2019 will witness hectic backroom coordination among Opposition parties hoping to counter the organisational and polarising power of the BJP. Expect muscle-flexing as parties bicker over seat distribution, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Leaders will be working overtime to paper over these tussles behind the scenes, and there will be grand photo-opportunities to display that everything is cohesive and why the voter need not fall for BJP’s majboot vs majboor argument. Loyalists in the Congress might be called upon to refrain from raising the slogan Rahul is the Alternative (RITA), which has to potential to upset the maha gathbandhan applecart.
In the Opposition camp, the X factor includes BJD (Odisha), TRS (Telangana), YSRCP (Andhra Pradesh) and possibly AIADMK. These will be seen publicly attacking the incumbent and yet not throwing their weight behind the united Opposition effort. For BJD and YSRCP, the justification would be the Assembly elections being held along with the Lok Sabha elections. The TRS has delinked the Telangana Assembly from Lok Sabha polls and will push K Chandrashekar Rao’s ambition of a non-Congress, non-BJP front. Simultaneous elections in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha will determine the bargaining power of Naveen Patnaik and Chandrababu Naidu in government formation. Elections in Jammu and Kashmir, too, are likely to be held alongside Lok Sabha polls.
The day of election results will be one of the most keenly watched in the five years since May 16, 2014. Various permutations and combinations could be possible, depending on whom you listen to.
Given how the Opposition parties are ready to bury their rivalries to team up against the majority government, leaders from either side had begun drawing parallels with previous buildups — in the 1971, 1977 or 1989 Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP believes it will be akin to 1971 when Indira Gandhi warded off the threat of a united Opposition. “Vipaksh ka agenda ek hi hai – Modi ko hatao, BJP aur Narendra Modi ka agenda hai desh mein se avyawastha, bhrashtachar aur garibi ko hatakar sthirta aur vikas pradaan karna (Opposition has the sole agenda of removing Narendra Modi, the BJP and Narendra Modi want to eradicate anarchy, corruption and poverty from the country and provide stability and development),” Amit Shah had said some months ago, echoing Indira Gandhi in 1971.
Rather than 1977 and 1989, when the Opposition agreed on a common platform, it is now looking at 2004 so that everyone fights the BJP on their own turf and can join hands after the results.
Given the Congress’s historic low (44 Lok Sabha seats) and the BJP’s record high (282) in 2014, the Opposition remains uncertain whether any one party can dislodge the BJP as the single largest party in 2019 even while they appear optimistic of denying the BJP the majority. Some in the Opposition have speculated whether the BJP, even if it emerges the single largest party with smaller numbers, will show flexibility in extending another name to head the government in 2019. Senior BJP leaders, for their part, insist it can be no one but Modi, and are confident that the Opposition will not be able to unite on a name or cobble up the numbers to deny Modi.
The absence of a clear majority would make the second half of 2019 all the more worth watching. This will lead to debates over the President’s discretion in whom he invites to form the government, and claims about numbers as every side runs against time to cobble up 272.
The first few weeks can be expected to witness backroom negotiations to win allies, public displays of unity of purpose, bickering over portfolios and the justification of all moves made with causes like “national interest” or “nationalism”. The debate could be expected to spill into routine parliamentary works — election of the Speaker, choice of deputy Speaker and later trust vote, and then first Budget of the new government.
Which piece in the political chessboard moves which way will depend upon the numbers thrown up by the electorate in the summer of 2019. The lower the BJP slides below 272, the higher the chance of the Opposition coalition gaining the upper hand.
A clutch of Assembly elections —Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana — will follow. A lot of the contours of these elections will be shaped by the Lok Sabha results. Unless these states decide to go to polls along with the Lok Sabha, the enhanced mandate of any of the incumbent BJP chief ministers can be expected to pitch them into pole position among the party’s next generation leadership.