The past week has been exhilarating for the Opposition that hopes to upstage Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP in this summer’s general election. First, the Samajwadi Party and the BSP have managed to craft a seat-sharing arrangement that will lead to both parties contesting 38 seats each in Uttar Pradesh. Two other seats will be fought by Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok—which will also get a third seat from the SP’s quota—and the two seats of Amethi and Rae Bareli—now represented by Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi respectively—will be uncontested by the alliance.
Second, in successfully staging a grand rally at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata where representatives of nearly all the major non-NDA parties were represented, West Bengal Chief Minister has attempted to fulfil two objectives: to show her political muscle within the state and showcase her growing national importance. Both developments are significant. Together, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal account for 120 seats in the Lok Sabha. If the Opposition can get its arithmetic together in these places, it would mean two things for the BJP. First, that it would confront a challenge of monumental proportions in India’s largest state where, with its Apna Dal ally, it won 73 of the 80 seats in 2014.
Second, that its hope of compensating any possible loss in Uttar Pradesh by gains in non-traditional areas such as West Bengal will not be easy. The BJP president Amit Shah had earlier declared that the party was targeting 22 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal. As of now, that figure looks daunting. The Opposition is also likely to put up a united challenge in Bihar and Jharkand which, together, accounts for 54 seats. In Bihar, the RJD and Congress are already in alliance and in Jharkhand, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Congress have already reached a seat-sharing deal. A Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra also looks certain.
With a little more than three months to go before voting gets underway, some features of the general election are becoming clear. The most important of these is the undeniable fact that in the majority of Lok Sabha constituencies—but by no means all—the BJP will encounter a united Opposition. This does not automatically translate into straight fights. Take Uttar Pradesh as an example. The Congress has said it will contest all the 80 seats in UP. This sounds a boast and a bargaining ploy to force the SP-BSP combine into conceding at least 10 seats to the Congress. However, since both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have also set their eyes on power in Delhi and need to maximise their tally, this demand is unlikely to be met and the Congress may be forced to live up to its boast.
However, contesting 80 seats doesn’t imply Congress has the capacity to make the contest triangular on its own steam. What it does mean is that the presence of the Congress will encourage all those forces and social groups that are uneasy with the BJP and the local character of the SP-BSP will gravitate towards the Congress. The social composition of UP does not always permit a two-party situation and there will always be a temptation to make fights triangular, not uniformly but in patches.
A similar situation also prevails in West Bengal where the Congress has real presence in the border districts. The TMC is on an expansionist phase and has eyes on the Prime Minister’s chair in Delhi. It is unlikely to be realistic in accommodating the Congress and more so because the Left will ensure that all contests are going to be triangular in any case.
The second conclusion that can be drawn is that while the Opposition has taken big strides to get the arithmetic of the first-past-the-post system right, it has paid relatively little heed to what will constitute its voter appeal. Denouncing Modi and demanding his immediate banishment from India is easy and would have made sense had it been clear that the hatred of the Prime Minister and his government is overwhelming. If that is the case then crafting an alternative narrative takes second place to just getting Modi out. However, nearly all opinion polls have suggested that, anecdotal tales of rising disappointment notwithstanding, Modi’s standing as Prime Minister is still very high and high enough to secure re-election.
Consequently, unless the Opposition can combine their moves to secure the aggregation of votes with some clarity over its agenda of governance, the path is clear for Modi and the BJP to mount a blitzkrieg presidential campaign. To my mind, the contest in 2019 is going to be quite riveting. As of now, the chances of the Opposition transforming its vote into something akin to the Janata Party vote in 1977 depends on two developments. First, that the Modi government commits a few horrific blunders in the next 30 days. And second, that its election campaign misreads the pulse of the voters and strikes the wrong notes, as happened in 2004. If these two conditions are not met, arithmetic may well be subsumed by chemistry.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.