The countdown to the Lok Sabha elections may have begun but the question “Modi versus Who” continues to remain a riddle in the absence of a strong Opposition challenger. As of now it is an unequal war — between Brand Modi and Brand Rahul — with the former having an edge that, though, is slowly ebbing. The BJP-led government has lost lustre in the last four-and-a-half years and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has suffered an image loss while Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s approval ratings have increased.
The government has given a number of issues to the Opposition on a platter — the Rafale aircraft deal, skyrocketing oil prices, declining rupee value, jobless growth, farm distress, demonetisation fiasco and Vijaya Mallya’s escape to London et al and still the Congress has not been able to spin a political narrative to its advantage. On the other hand, attempts are made to turn the tables on the Congress by resurrecting Augusta helicopter scandal, Robert Vadra land deal and IT cases against National Herald.
Today, an election can be won even without a narrative but not without smart alliances; the most critical component in the upcoming general elections. Here again, the BJP is in advantageous position. In 2014, at the peak of Modi’s popularity, BJP bagged 282 Lok Sabha seats securing majority on its own but today, the beleaguered party badly needs the props of allies to reach the magic number.
That is why astute BJP managers are working on a two-pronged strategy — expand or at least keep the NDA intact and scuttle or constrict the Opposition alliances by manipulating the fault lines in its camp. The BJP has bought peace with Shiv Sena and JDU and though it lost the TDP, it has managed to neutralise Congress gain by reaching covert understanding with TRS in Telangana and YSR Congress in Andhra.
And in states where the BJP is unable to stop an alliance, like in Uttar Pradesh between BSP-SP-RLD-Congress, it tries to create rift within a party or front as the case may be to minimise potential electoral damage. In UP, it has co-opted expelled SP leader and Rajya Sabha MP Amar Singh to work on the fault lines in Mualayam Singh Yadav family. A few days ago former CM Akilesh Yadav’s uncle Shivpal Yadav, who along with Amar Singh had rebelled against Akhilesh’s bid to control the Samajwadi Party, floated a new outfit called Samajwadi Secular Morcha. The SSM is planning to contest a few Lok Sabha seats and Shivpal recently said he would field his elder brother Mulayam Singh (Akhilesh’s father) from Mainpuri on SSM symbol. The fledgling party can be written off but it is a spoiler nevertheless. Mulayam’s politically ambitious daughter-in-law Aparna Yadav is also on the radar of BJP-Amar Singh combo.
Coinciding with the turf war in SP, BSP chief Mayawati made a statement that her party will be compelled to go it alone if it does not get a “respectable” number of seats in the anti-BJP alliance. (Remember? Her party drew a blank in 2014 when it contested alone). Whether it is a positioning as a prelude to wreck the anti-BJP alliance or a ploy to drive a hard bargain with the Congress in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where the BSP is bargaining for a good number of seats, is not clear yet.
What is even more baffling is as to why Mayawati chose to attack the Congress for the soaring fuel prices. Addressing a presser in Lucknow last week, she blamed both the BJP and the Congress for the rise in petroleum prices. By dragging the Congress, which already paid a heavy electoral price in 2014, was she not weakening the Opposition’s battle against Modi government?
BSP is a factor in 145 Lok Sabha seats spread over UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, of which the saffron party had won 133 in 2014. A BSP-SP-RLD-Congress axis in UP and a Congress-BSP alliance in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh could be deadly for BJP. The saffron party, therefore, may go to any length to scuttle the alliances. The BSP had supped with the BJP thrice in the past.
It may be noted that the Enforcement Directorate had in December 2016, soon after the demonetisation, claimed that it detected cash deposits totaling over Rs 104 crore in an account belonging to the BSP. In June last year, an India Today TV report alleged that an income tax probe had revealed benami property up to Rs 3000 crores acquired by a relative of the BSP chief.
In Bihar, speculation is abuzz of a Samajwadi Party-like feud in RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav’s family; pitting younger son and heir apparent Tejaswi Yadav against his elder brother son Tej Pratap Yadav. State BJP leaders have made several statements to amplify the sibling rivalry ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
In Karnataka, chief minister HD Kumaraswamy has alleged that “BJP leaders are attempting to influence Central agencies to take action against leaders of the coalition”. The saffron party has been making all out efforts to split the Congress and topple the government by accentuating the fault lines within the coalition. State BJP chief BS Yeddyurappa has claimed that some Congress leaders are in touch with him and would soon join his party.
And with a view to broad base its social alliances, the BJP has reportedly sent feelers to film stars such as Madhuri Dixit, Nana Patekar, Salman Khan, Sunny Deol, Akshay Kumar and Kerala’s Mohan Lal and cricketers Virendra Sehwag and Kapil Dev to contest the LS polls on its behalf. Nevertheless, the non-NDA parties need not be nervous. After all they had garnered 61 pc votes at the zenith of Modi wave; the Opposition can emerge triumphant in 2019 if it (disproving Amit Shah who in April this year had compared them to “snakes, mongoose, cats and dogs”) forges a wider national coalition against the BJP.
(The writer is an independent journalist.)