As the time of the next national extravaganza of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections draws closer, moves are under way to take on the now all-powerful Bharatiya Janata Party. Since no single party, including the Congress, has the guts or strength to face the Narendra Modi hurricane all alone, moves to bring all ‘like-minded’ political forces together began about six months ago. They called it a ‘Mahagathbandhan’ (grand alliance) of democratic parties. This move received huge media attention and coverage. However, the edifice seems to have begun cracking even before the foundation is in place. God only knows what will happen when elections actually take place.
Recent developments involving some strong champions of the possible ‘national alternative’ are a strong indicators. BJP president Amit Shah, pulled off the daunting feat of puncturing the so-called ‘Federal Front’ dreamt up by Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, which envisaged her at the Centre, with other regional satraps by her side? One of the components of the ‘Front’, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, has pushed his state into early elections while unceremoniously calling Rahul Gandhi “the biggest buffoon in the country”. This slur was music to Shah’s ears as he achieved his twin objectives — KCR’s move all but announces support for Modi after the election; and the Federal Front appears to be dead on arrival.
No Plan; No Purpose
Like in the past, the opposition has been caught without a plan or purpose while Modi and Shah worked the phones to KCR after the election for the post of deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha last month. In which the Telangana CM sided with the BJP by asking his MPs to abstain from voting, which meant the government needed fewer votes to win. With KCR now firmly in the BJP’s camp, senior Congress leaders are sending out rather public feelers to Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and the party has announced ‘talks’ for a partnership in the forthcoming elections in Telangana and to counter the KCR-BJP combine.
While the BJP has moved quickly to stack up its allies ahead of next year’s general election, the opposition has done little beyond talk, rather vacuously, of a ‘Mahagathbandhan’. Even as Rahul Gandhi is on his Kailash yatra, Shah has already made two trips across India, virtually touching down in every constituency. Rahul, often presented as the main opponent to Modi in 2019, appears to have once again delegated the task of managing alliances to his mother Sonia Gandhi. This should be considered a ‘failure’ on the part of Rahul, who is angling for the Prime Minister’s post.
Sonia has made Congress leader Kamal Nath the party in-charge in Madhya Pradesh, and he was to have initiated seat-sharing talks with BSP chief Mayawati months ago. However, all he has achieved is deadlock. Mayawati has not yielded an inch on her demand: Either a three-state alliance or nothing. Meanwhile, the political buzz is Shah is determined to spike her alliance with Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. There are unconfirmed reports that Shah has reached out to Mayawati through one of her trusted aides for talks; there’s also speculation about how the corruption case against her being investigated by the CBI could be used to pressure her. Loose talk, perhaps, but it’s getting credence from the fact that Mayawati has toned down attacks on the BJP and has not been meeting Akhilesh Yadav. “It’s time we called in the big guns and got Sonia Gandhi to speak to her. She does not listen to us,” says an exasperated Congress leader involved in talks with Mayawati.
UP, Bihar and Maharashtra are the critical states that could pose a challenge to Modi and Shah — those three states alone hold 168 Lok Sabha seats. If the opposition, which seems to be the gang that could not shoot straight, gets its alliance act together, it could pose a serious threat to the BJP. The Congress is still hoping to get back Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who crossed over to the BJP’s side. But Tejashwi Yadav, the main opposition leader in Bihar, has vetoed that option even as Shah is working on ironing out problems with Nitish Kumar over seat-sharing in Bihar. Once again, the BJP works with precision and is, quite simply, on it.
For Maharashtra is one more example of the incredible laziness of the opposition. The Congress has yet to sign a deal with Sharad Pawar’s NCP and has not even tried to break up the BJP’s oldest alliance with the Shiv Sena. As for the Sena, it has long been threatening to break up with Modi but hasn’t done so. In any case, the Shiv Sena on its side could also prove to be suicidal as this could jeopardize the alliance’s image in the north, The three states that will vote soon — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — where the Congress seemed to stand a strong chance till recently because of anti-incumbency against the BJP now seem open again.
Failed to Weave Anti-Modi Narrative
Despite the record hike in fuel prices, the falling value of the rupee, deep agrarian distress, the report card on the failure of demonetisation, the opposition can’t seem to weave a narrative (or even hit the streets) against the BJP. As elections draw closer, no opposition unity is evident. The regional heavyweights are guarding their citadels and the Congress can’t seem to function as the fulcrum of opposition unity. So will the challenge to Modi in 2019 evaporate?
Shah, with his regional lieutenants is surely and working towards defeating the opposition’s plan to create a ‘one-on-one’ situation at the national level. That will be the key to the 2019 verdict.
Bharatkumar Raut is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS).