No wave, it’s war of alliances

No wave, it’s war of alliances

Friends in need: This election is still wide open, and a race is on to form the winning coalition

With the political landscape blurred after the BJP’s lost elections in five states in December and the Congress still far from being the first choice of voters, the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, unlike the 2014 edition, will not be an election driven by a massive yearning for change or hope. There is no clear pro or anti wave this time. In fact, it would have passed as an insipid affair until the Balakot airstrike and the chest-thumping thereafter brought some excitement, both cheers and jeers, into the poll game.

It is in such a state of affairs that hardboiled caste-community calculations and smart alliances begin to really matter. Whichever side sews up a socially and arithmetically strong coalition will have the last laugh. In nearly 300 seats out of the 545 Lok Sabha seats, more than the party and the candidate, it will be the strength of the alliance that will determine the outcome.

Ironically, while opposition unity has been the war cry for the last two years, it is the BJP that has managed to break new ground in alliance-making. Be it in Tamil Nadu, where it stitched up an umbrella alliance with AIADMK and other smaller parties, or Maharashtra where it managed to retain the Shiv Sena as an ally. 

Similarly, despite initial rumblings, BJP has managed to keep on board allies like Nitish Kumar’s JDU and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP in Bihar but lost the Upendra Kushwaha-led RSLP. The ‘grand alliance’ of which Congress is a part is yet to seal the deal. In UP, the SP-BSP-RLD alliance has kept Congress out. A neck-to-neck alliance battle will play out in Tamil Nadu, where DMK and Congress, which till sometime back appeared to be a far stronger combination, is now faced with a multi-party alliance led by the ruling AIADMK.

Interestingly, while the BJP coined the slogan “Majboot” (strong) versus “Majboor” (helpless) government to hammer home the strength of a single-party majority government vis-a-vis a rag-tag coalition, its top leaders, including PM Modi and party chief Amit Shah have also been desperate to retain existing allies and to draw in new ones.  While BJP made headway quickly in stitching up alliances, Congress has picked up speed, too. What we will witness in 2019 is an election battle between two alliances though the BJP might like to turn it into no more than a Modi versus Rahul fight.

The key is held by regional parties, whose performance will determine which of the two national parties will come to power in May. In Tamil Nadu, PMK and DMDK have also joined the rainbow alliance for the 39 Lok Sabha seats on which NDA is pinning high hopes. In Maharashtra, the contest seems evenly poised, with old allies Congress and NCP back as a united force to take on the BJP-Sena combine. Equally keen will be the contest in Bihar, where Nitish Kumar leads NDA to take on the alliance of Lalu Prasad’s RJD, Congress, Sharad Yadav’s LJD, Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustan Awam Morcha.

Uttar Pradesh could, for the first time in years, witness a triangular contest with Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into the political arena to steer the Congress in the state after it was snubbed by the SP-BSP-RLD alliance. With the Priyanka charm, Congress is looking to attract smaller parties to stitch up an alliance. 

With each Lok Sabha seat mattering in this battle of alliances, parties do not want to leave it to chance in even smaller states like Jharkhand, which has 14 LS seats. Congress has stitched up an alliance of four parties — with Sibu Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Babulal Marandi’s Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (P) and RJD. BJP has an alliance with JDU and All-Jharkhand Students Union.

Attempts continue to form an AAP-Congress alliance in Delhi as well as in Haryana, but strong resistance from Congress’ Delhi unit has so far been a roadblock. The Congress-JD(S) alliance in Karnataka has held up despite problems. In Andhra and Telangana, while BJP is banking on post-poll arrangements with YSR Congress and TRS, Congress is exploring options despite the good relationship between TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu and Rahul Gandhi. After the Sabrimala surge in Kerala, BJP is banking on its alliance with small parties like Bharat Dharma Sena, to take on both the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the ruling Left Democratic Front.

It’s not only the two national parties that are vying with each other for allies. The spectre of uncertainty has also spurred the hopes and ambitions of some regional leaders. The intense rivalry between Congress and BJP could brighten their chances if neither of the two main alliances is able to muster majority. In that scenario, the party with the third largest number of seats in its kitty could have the last laugh. Hence the BSP’s desperate bid to form alliances beyond UP and win as many seats as it can. It has tied with Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress in Chhattisgarh and with the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana. The BSP’s role in Punjab, which has almost 35% Dalit population, is being watched. Mayawati has also announced a tie-up with SP in Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand. In Telangana and Andhra, Mayawati has allied with Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena.

Despite the inability of AAP and Congress to come together in Delhi so far, the former has proposed an alliance in Haryana, with the INLD being the third partner, to take on the BJP. That the Congress, whose leaders have snubbed AAP in Delhi, is now carrying out a survey of its workers on the alliance question, shows both how desperate parties are for allies and how difficult it has become, given opposing ideologies and personal antagonisms, to indeed find friends in today’s politics. But the stakes are too high for all sides, and that, in the final analysis, will force strange as well as estranged bedfellows together.