Big doors often swing on little hinges. The late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s public “sacking” of his foreign secretary A P Venkateswaran was the beginning of his downfall, despite his 415 MP majority at the time — something that even his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru had not attained. Even though Gorakhpur and Phulpur were mere bypolls, they may turn out to be the “little hinges” which turn the popular mood. The BJP’s defeat in the constituencies of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister and the deputy chief minister, only a year after the party won a stupendous victory in the state, points to a change in mood.
The results were made possible not just by the coming together of Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav but also of the Samajwadi Party and the BSP workers collaborating at the ground level to confront an upper caste assertion in UP. The victories in Gorakhpur and Phulpur have suddenly raised the Opposition’s hopes. Demonetisation, the unplanned implementation of GST, farmers’ distress and the loss of jobs in the informal sector, have contributed to dent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal in sections which had swung to his side in 2014, and again in 2017 in UP.
Though state satraps have begun to make noises about the creation of a Third Front or a Federal Front — Mamata Banerjee made a trip to Delhi to meet other Opposition leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, and Chandrababu Naidu, after quitting the NDA, conferred with 15 non-NDA party leaders — these are more by way of optics. More crucial will be the extent to which the anti-BJP parties can prevent a division in the Opposition votes in all the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies by either effecting one-on-one contests or through strategic battles.
The BJP would naturally like to pitch the fight as a Modi versus Rahul battle. Not having a charismatic or acceptable leader to lead the charge against the Modi-led-NDA is a handicap the Opposition suffers from. Also given the contradictions amongst them — for example, in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress and the Left parties are pitted against each other — a pre-poll front of Opposition parties would, at best, be a partial one. In any case, Mamata Banerjee is not going to make a difference in Telengana or K Chandrasekhar Rao in West Bengal. That is why the Opposition will have to fashion a strategy other than forging an umbrella front of “Congress plus regional parties”.
Opposition unity could actually make a difference in UP, Maharashtra, Bihar, and Jharkhand — states that account for 182 seats. If unity takes shape here, the BJP could lose upwards of 70 seats, though some of these losses would be offset by its gains in the east and the northeast.
Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have declared that their alliance is here to stay. They may also rope in the Congress and Ajit Singh’s RLD. Bihar already has a RJD-Congress alliance and ironically Lalu Prasad, in jail and convicted in the fourth fodder scam case, is reportedly gaining sympathy by the day. There are indications of a Congress-NCP alliance taking shape in Maharashtra. This could make the going tough for the BJP, which is reaching out once again to its oldest but most disaffected ally, the Shiv Sena.
The three Hindi heartland states going to the polls at the end of the year also have the potential to deprive the BJP of a majority — the party had peaked in these states last time. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh are low hanging fruits for the Congress but will India’s Grand Old Party make the grade this time?
Rahul Gandhi has positioned himself unambiguously against Modi. He tried to present a young face of the party at the party’s recent plenary, while promising to use the experience of the old guard. For the first time in four years, Congressmen and women looked upbeat that the BJP’s return to power in 2019 need not be a given. The trouble with the Congress, however, is that it has not moved beyond the politics of patronage. It would be inconceivable for the Congress today to organise a 180-km march of farmers and tribals to Mumbai, that the Left organisations mobilised, or to mount “hulla bol” rallies at the taluka level like the ones taken out by the NCP in Maharashtra, or for its leaders to undertake a 2,000-km “padayatra” through 13 districts of Andhra Pradesh that Jaganmohan Reddy did to demand special status for the state.
While a groundswell of support is a sine qua non for any electoral victory, the Congress will have to move beyond drawing room strategising, particularly when the opponent is as formidable as the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo. The party will be taken seriously only when it starts to win elections. For that reason, Karnataka has acquired an importance all its own; the poll outcome is expected to set the tone for the 2019 battle. So, the 2019 Opposition story may be more about ground-level arithmetic than about chemistry at the top. The question of who will lead the Opposition alliance, were it to have the requisite numbers, may have to be settled after the elections.
The Congress’s recent resolve to adopt a “pragmatic” approach to aligning with like-minded parties to defeat BJP and RSS is noticeable. Rahul Gandhi has been reaching out to some of the state satraps like Sharad Pawar. With Rahul Gandhi unlikely to be accepted as the head of a coalition government — unless the Congress can notch up 200 seats, which looks highly unlikely — would Sonia Gandhi prefer a non-Congress leader?
The BJP will try to win sympathy for the PM by making it a Modi versus the rest (trying to gang up against him) battle. In UP, the party is getting ready to play its “Mandal” card. It has proposed a committee to earmark a quota for the most backward castes (MBCs) within the larger OBC quota, with a view to driving a wedge between the MBCs and the more dominant Yadavs. It was the Yadav-MBC-Dalit-Muslim axis, forged by Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, which led to their spectacular victories in Gorakhpur and Phulpur.
What can be said with certainty today is that possibilities have suddenly opened up for the Opposition. Disaffection with the government will exert its own pressure on the Opposition parties to coalesce.