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Wrong face can have a negative effect

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THE ability of any alliance to perform in elections depends quite considerably on leadership. The Nitish Kumar-led alliance performed spectacularly in Bihar in 2015. However, I doubt if the result would have been so one-sided had the alliance leadership been vested in a member of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s family. The UP election demonstrated that a

Chief Ministerial candidate isn’t an obligatory pre-condition for victory—the BJP didn’t have one, the SP-Congress and BSP did. However, a wrong face can sometimes have a negative effect.

The state of despondency in the anti-BJP ranks following the emphatic victory of the ruling party in the Uttar Pradesh election is entirely understandable. But more than normal defeats, the UP outcome had an exaggerated effect on the national Opposition for a variety of reasons. First, the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance actually expected to win the election till at least 9 am on counting day. Fed by encouraging media reports there was a belief that UP would mark the beginning of the end for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even a casual glance at the international media indicated that international community was preparing itself for a much weakened Modi after March 11. Secondly, having concluded that demonetisation was extremely unpopular and would result in a fierce anti-Modi backlash, the Opposition is wondering how it was guilty of such a monumental misjudgement. Finally, there is a sense of bitterness that the media—have earlier written off the BJP—is now glibly prophesying a Modi sweep in the 2019 general election.


The consequences of a bitter electoral setback are rarely divinely ordained. Since there is nothing resembling finality in electoral politics—there will be another chance in 2019—the shape of the Opposition in the next two years will depend almost entirely on what lessons are drawn from the experience.

In the past week, the post-election assessments have been purely arithmetical in nature. The Opposition parties, particularly the Congress, appear to have concluded that the BJP sweep was entirely an outcome of the first-past-the-post system that exaggerates a nominal plurality in popular votes. Their conclusion, therefore, is that individual egos must be set aside and a Grand Alliance of all anti-BJP parties forged. In short, the Mahagathbandhan of Bihar must be replicated wherever possible. In UP, it is being suggested that the BSP must now team up with the BSP and bury bitter memories of 1993. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has suggested a Grand Alliance without specifying whether or not such an alliance should include the Left parties and the Congress. There is also no unanimity in Maharashtra over the inclusion of the Shiv Sena—which swings between measured cooperation and visceral hostility to the BJP—in the Congress-NCP combination. In Odisha, the leader of the Biju Janata Dal group in the Lok Sabha was rapped on the knuckles by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik for suggesting a tie-up with the Congress.

That the run-up to the Lok Sabha election will witness some local alliances isn’t in any doubt. Telangana, for example, is certain to see the rump Congress attach itself to either the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi or the YSR Congress. Likewise, there will be some political churning in a post-Jayalalithaa Tamil Nadu. Nor will the alliances only be confined to the anti-BJP forces. A growing outfit such as the BJP is certain to draw in some more smaller parties into the National Democratic Alliance, not least in the North-east.

The efficacy of pre-election alliances depends on a combination of arithmetic and leadership. Some parties, most notably the BSP and the CPI(M), are good at transferring their votes to alliance partners. Others such as the Congress are less able to command the total allegiance of their core support. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, the SP-Congress vote in 2017 was lower than the sum of the two parties fighting separately in 2012. The Congress, in particular, lost heavily and a large chunk of its supporters seems to have opted for the BJP. In the West Bengal election of last year, the CPI(M) transferred its vote to the Congress, but there was no reciprocity. Consequently, the Congress—a very weak force—won more seats than the CPI(M), otherwise the main opposition to the Trinamool Congress.

The ability of any alliance to perform in elections depends quite considerably on leadership. The Nitish Kumar-led alliance performed spectacularly in Bihar in 2015. However, I doubt if the result would have been so one-sided had the alliance leadership been vested in a member of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s family. The UP election demonstrated that a Chief Ministerial candidate isn’t an obligatory pre-condition for victory—the BJP didn’t have one, the SP-Congress and BSP did. However, a wrong face can sometimes have a negative effect.

In the 2004 general election, Vajpayee lost mainly on account of the NDA’s disastrous performance in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and West Bengal. However, the NDA wasn’t defeated by any alternative Prime Minister. It was an anti-incumbency vote that saw the NDA move into the opposition benches. The UPA was a post-election arrangement that owed its birth to the midwifery of the Left.

To my mind there will an anti-Modi combination in the general election of 2019, mainly in North India. However, this will be a combination that will bank on arithmetic alone. The Congress may want the leadership but will be content to put its claim on hold for the sake of a post-election harvest. It will not be a total, coherent alliance but is likely to resemble the Grand Alliance against Indira Gandhi in 1971 that included the Congress (O), Jana Sangh, Swatantra and the Socialists. There was no projected leader and the outcome was disastrous.

In 1971, Indira Gandhi’s victory owed to the fact that she had captured the political imagination. For Modi too, the road to victory in 2019 will depend on his ability to convince India that it is on the right road. If the political argument is won, the arithmetic of the past becomes less consequential.

The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha