2019: Modi's BJP vs the rest?

2019: Modi's BJP vs the rest?

Ever since the BJP lost two UP bypolls to the Samajwadi Party-BSP combine, expectations have suddenly risen about the possibilities of the Opposition coming together to take on the Narendra Modi-led BJP in 2019.

The reason is not far to seek. The Gorakhpur and Phulpur victories (and Araria in Bihar won convincingly by the RJD) are being attributed not only to a low voter turnout or inner party dissensions, as made out by the BJP brass, they could possibly be reflective of a changing popular mood. For, a 3.5-lakh vote-swing in both Gorakhpur and Phulpur, that too only a year after the BJP swept the UP assembly polls, is unusual, to say the least. Incumbent governments are rarely known to lose byelections.

The BJP's allies are also restive. The TDP's exit from the NDA may have something to do with a perceived weakening of the BJP, though it is also because of the Chandrababu Naidu-Jagan Reddy competitive politics.

The Shiv Sena has declared its intention to walk out of the NDA before the 2019 general elections, although there are now reports that BJP is actively wooing afresh its oldest ally. Other allies, too, who had been silent for four years, given the BJP's victory run, even as they privately chafed against the BJP's 'big brother' attitude, have suddenly found the courage to ask the party to "introspect".

Mamata Banerjee, Modi's harshest critic, decided to take the bull by the horn and arrived in Delhi last week to confer with other regional party leaders to explore forming a Third Front. She met not just those arraigned against the BJP but also regional parties in the NDA, such as Shiv Sena, and those in the UPA, such as DMK and SP. She particularly complimented BSP chief Mayawati and promised to go to Lucknow if the SP-BSP organised a rally there. And she reached out to those who have been "non-aligned" (like the TRS and AAP), belonging neither to a BJP nor a Congress-led coalition.

Theoretically, it should be easy enough for these parties to form a joint front, for most of them do not threaten each other (except Mamata and the Left in West Bengal or the TDP and YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh). The formation of a 'Federal Front', or whatever name is given it - Chandrababu Naidu has floated the idea of a 'Southern Front', which may have traction because of the perceived "treatment" meted out by the North to the South would give a psychological boost to each of these parties in their respective states. But they would add little value to each other. KCR won't make a difference in West Bengal, nor Mamata in Telangana.

More importantly, and this would be a consideration for many of them, they may like to keep their options open, and see which way the political winds blow in the coming months. Their decision-making would be influenced by who could be better placed to form government in 2019.

Given the Congress's continuous decline - barring Punjab and Gujarat, where the party made gains - and the strong position the regional parties find themselves in, Mamata Banerjee has taken an early initiative to get as many regional parties to band together as possible. Mamata, who met Sonia Gandhi, has stated that she would like the Congress to come on board.

The regional satraps are acutely conscious of the danger that a resurgent BJP poses to each one of them. But they would like, if possible, to keep the leadership of any opposition combine in their hands this time around, preferring therefore the 1996 model, rather than the 2004 one. In 1996, it was a post-poll alliance of regional parties, supported by the Congress from the outside. In 2009, it was a pre-poll tie-up led by the Congress, with regional groupings supporting it.

The 'Federal Front' plus the Congress, without which an opposition government would not be possible in 2019 may happen after the elections rather than before it, were arithmetic to allow this.

Of course, if the Congress manages to retain Karnataka in May, it will improve its bargaining position vis-a-vis the regional parties. And this will get reinforced if it goes on to win Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, all three reeling under anti-incumbency. But for all that, Congress has to get its act together.

While the regional parties have their own areas of influence - Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, UP, Bihar, West Bengal -- the Congress could score wherever it is pitted directly against the BJP (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Assam). It is also a player in Kerala and Maharashtra. It goes without saying that the Congress will be taken seriously again only if it starts to win elections.

Regardless of the final shape and tally, the Opposition is in a position to bring down the BJP below the majority mark if parties unite in only three states -- UP, Bihar and Maharashtra -- which account for 168 seats. If the SP-BSP alliance, which has brought about a qualitative shift in Indian politics, holds for 2019, and Congress and NCP join hands in Maharashtra, which is likely, and the growing sympathy for the RJD-Congress combine holds in Bihar, then there is every possibility of the BJP losing upwards of 70 seats. Additionally, it is tipped also to lose some seats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where it had peaked in 2014. Some of those losses would be offset by its gains in eastern (Odisha) and north-eastern states. But even so, the majority mark looks difficult - unless Narendra Modi can pull some rabbits out of the hat between now and April-May 2019.

At the end of the day, Opposition parties will have to programmatically evolve and market a 'Brand Opposition' rather than fall into the BJP's trap of pitching the election as a Modi vs Rahul battle.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based senior journalist and political analyst)


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