India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) talks to Rahul Gandhi, president of India's main opposition Congress party, during the "At Home" reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace after the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India, January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi - RC11030F0B40
By Sanjay Kumar
The BJP’s defeat in the recent Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh has generated a fresh debate on what might happen in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Some believe this is the beginning of the countdown for the BJP in 2019. Others believe it may be premature to predict an advantage for the Congress as the BJP got badly defeated only in Chhattisgarh. In both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the elections had resulted in virtually hung Assemblies, and the BJP is not behind the Congress in voteshare. These results may therefore have a limited impact on the Lok Sabha election. The question is — how much has the 2019 scenario really changed with the Congress forming governments in three Hindi heartland states?
The BJP’s defeat in these Assembly elections, popularly referred to as the “semi-final” before 2019, has certainly made the “final” more interesting. The match, which earlier appeared to be one-sided, is now open. These results, which indicate the disenchantment of the people against the ruling BJP government, can push Narendra Modi on the backfoot. The formation of alliances between various regional parties with or without the Congress can make the situation much more difficult for the BJP in 2019. With the formation of alliances, the road for the BJP in 2019 will become bumpy and difficult, but the BJP may still be able to remain ahead of all others, though with some difficulty.
The victory in the three states indicates the Congress is stronger now than a few years ago, but this seems limited to only these three states. There is hardly any evidence of the Congress emerging stronger in other states. Even with the sign of this revival, the Congress seems to be standing at a distance from the current popularity of the BJP. The Congress certainly can’t defeat Narendra Modi alone, and so the coming together of some Opposition parties might pose a challenge for Mr Modi in 2019, but perhaps not enough to bring the BJP below 200 seats. Even the best coordination among various political parties in forming an anti-BJP alliance can’t restrict the BJP from emerging as the single largest party in 2019.
Let me first offer a macro explanation (national) and then move towards the micro explanation (statewise). During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP registered victories with big margins in many constituencies. The BJP can lose many of those seats won in 2014 only if there is a big negative swing against it. The BJP won 42 Lok Sabha seats by a margin of more than three lakh votes, and another 75 seats by a margin of more than two lakh votes. Other BJP victories were also by a sizeable number of votes. In 38 Lok Sabha seats the BJP won by over 1.5 lakh votes and in another 52 seats it defeated its nearest rival by little more than one lakh votes. It won’t be easy for the parties in the Opposition to cover up this margin unless there is widespread anger against the ruling party.
With a setback in the three states, it is believed the BJP will suffer losses in the Hindi heartland states where it faces a bipolar contest. The results confirm there is some decline in the BJP’s popularity and a rise in that of the Congress, but one should not forget it is possible that the same voters may vote a little differently when it comes to choosing the next Prime Minister of India. While the Congress will certainly try to make the 2019 Lok Sabha election a vote on the Central government’s performance, on the other hand the BJP would certainly try to transform the 2019 battle into a referendum on Narendra Modi or a presidential-like contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. If the BJP succeeds in making the 2019 contest a presidential-type election, it will be able to cut the losses which it would have suffered otherwise if elections were contested on development issues. One could hardly deny there is some disenchantment against the ruling BJP when it comes to what this government has delivered during the last five years.
But the presidential-type election can only rescue the BJP to some extent. In many states ruled by the regional parties, the regional leaders are very popular, and given their popularity the BJP may find it difficult to gain even if it tries to turn the 2019 contest into a presidential contest. If two or more regional parties form an alliance in a large number of states, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, Punjab, Jammu& Kashmir and in Delhi, it has the potential of pushing the BJP on to the backfoot. One should not forget that the BJP did well in many of these states as the Opposition parties remained divided in their fight against the BJP in 2014. The BJP managed to benefit from the division of the anti-BJP vote. An alliance among the regional parties with or without the Congress can push the BJP on the backfoot in many of these states, except Bihar, where the Opposition alliance might find it harder to damage the prospects of the BJP/NDA. But the big question is — can many of these parties form an alliance against the BJP?
There are a few states like West Bengal and Odisha, where the BJP did not do very well in 2014, but it has the potential of emerging very strong in 2019 if the Opposition remains divided. There are enough indications of the BJP emerging very strong in these states. In West Bengal, in case the state sees a four-cornered contest (Trinamul Congress, Left parties, Congress and BJP), and Odisha has a three-cornered contest (Biju Janata Dal, Congress and BJP), the BJP could make significant gains compared to 2014.
It leaves us with a few more states, mainly in the South — Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — where the BJP’s presence is more or less as it was in 2014, except for in Kerala where it seems to have expanded its support base, but not enough to win Lok Sabha seats. All in all, the game for 2019 has become a lot more open, with Team BJP still having an advantage over Team Congress or Team Third Front.