Much has been made, mainly in the media, at the NDA Government’s success in securing the victory of its candidate—Janata Dal (United) MP Harivansh—for the post of Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Considering that the government does not have a working majority in the Upper House and has often been confronted with defeats or near-defeats, the victory is important.
However, in a year the political parties have already begun their campaign for the 2019 general election, the victory is purely symbolic. It was brought about by a combination of specific factors that include the failure of the non-Congress and anti-BJP parties to decide on a common candidate, the support of the AIADMK, the reluctance of the BJD and TRS (both important regional players with control over state governments) to hitch their stars to the anti-BJP bandwagon and slack floor management. Important as these are in the context of parliamentary politics, it would be wrong to exaggerate their larger political importance. There are bigger trends that need examination.
First, there is a measure of listlessness as far as the BJP is concerned. The party has slowly begun its campaign for 2019 along two autonomous paths. On the one hand, there is the Prime Minister—whose personal popularity across India is still undiminished—who has been campaigning on the strength of his record of governance. This is always a difficult exercise because no government can ever hope to satisfy every section of the electorate. There will invariably be deficiencies and unfulfilled expectations. What Narendra Modi appears to have done at this stage is to mobilise specific groups that have benefitted from its welfare schemes. This is a targeted approach based on the premise that in a general election these groups of beneficiaries, whether for the Mudra loans or the LPG spread, will in the end all add up. A generalised approach based on the totality of four years of energetic governance awaits Modi’s fifth Independence Day address from the Red Fort. At the same time, BJP President Amit Shah is running a parallel campaign that is aimed at rubbishing the Congress and the rest of the opposition, streamlining the party’s election machine at the grassroots and bolstering the self-confidence of the BJP karyakartas by invoking emotive issues such as the NRC issue.
As yet, both campaigns are different but there will come a time when they will merge. Second, the Congress seems to be focussing on two separate campaigns. There is the campaign, spearheaded by Rahul Gandhi, that is concentrating on bringing together Congress workers, lifting their mood and providing them talking points for an anti-Modi campaign. As of now, the Congress wants to puncture the government’s claims of incorruptibility by levelling allegations of corruption in an arms deal with France. The party has asked various questions and raised queries on the government’s insistence on confidentiality. But it has as yet failed to provide any supporting evidence — as the Bofors scandal did — of pay-offs. The Congress sincerely hopes that by merely repeating the charges it will convince voters that there was some hanky-panky.
The corruption allegations are coupled with a shrill campaign to suggest that the BJP is least concerned with the plight of Dalits, tribals and women. It is noticeable that the Congress has once again tried to steer clear of Muslim issues as far as possible, thereby avoiding falling into the BJP trap of being excessively dependant on the Muslim vote. On the NRC issue in Assam, the Congress spoke with a forked tongue. Within Assam, the likes of Tarun Gogoi tried to claim credit for initiating the process of weeding out illegal immigrants. In Parliament and elsewhere, however, it blamed the BJP for trying to disenfranchise Muslims by calling them foreigners.
On a parallel track, the Congress has persisted with its bid to emerge as the leader of the anti-BJP front with Rahul Gandhi as the leader. There are reports that the Congress is in an advanced stage of an all-India alliance with the BSP, a move that could add incremental votes for the party in all the three states where Assembly elections are scheduled later in the year. The Congress hopes that a good performance in these elections will give it momentum for the general election and, equally important, help in its fund-raising. However, it is significant that there has been no real evidence of any Congress revival in any of the states where it has been eclipsed into a poor third or fourth place by either the BJP or the regional parties.
Finally, as far as the regional parties are concerned, there are two trends. There are those such as the NCP, JMM and RJD that are in alliance with the Congress. Additionally, there are those such as the Trinamool Congress, AAP, CPI(M), Telugu Desam and DMK that are partial to the Congress at the national level but are wary of it in their own states. Then there are parties such as the Biju Janata Dal, YSR Congress and the Telangana Rashtriya Samity that don’t want to reveal their cards at this stage and are steadfast in maintaining equidistance between the two national parties, at least at this stage.
None of these positions are fixed. All the Opposition parties, except the Congress, Communists and their allies, are still waiting to see the tide of public opinion. If there is a sense that the momentum is with the BJP, some of the smaller groups will have no hesitation in teaming up with Modi. Others will maintain their autonomy and may even take a decision to promote triangular contests if that is expedient. At this stage nothing is fixed. Everyone has their pet theories and their alliance calculations based on the 2014 outcome but they are eagerly awaiting some indications of the public mood, especially if Modi converts the general election into a presidential poll. Politics in 2018 in India has become a massive exercise of whistling in the dark. That is why there is a search for hidden meanings in the battle over the Deputy Chairman’s post in the Rajya Sabha.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.