New Delhi: A year before India gets into the thick of Lok Sabha elections due in the summer of 2019, the political scenario in the country is beginning to witness some unexpected churn, leading political parties and observers to believe that the results of the next general election may not be a foregone conclusion as it was assumed until much of last year.
A series of political and economic developments, starting with the troubles caused by the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax in the middle of last year are seen to be hurting the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government at the Centre and states ruled by his party.
The economic hardship caused by demonetisation and GST, job losses, farm distress, the BJP’s struggle to retain Gujarat, losses in bypolls in Rajasthan, a union budget seen as anti-middle class, restive NDA members and a stock market in free fall after the budget are seen to be giving opposition parties an opening to work on their strategies.
While the Lok Sabha elections due next year are the big challenge, a series of assembly elections due this year will also be a major test for the BJP as it will be fighting against incumbency in many of these key states.
Seven states are due to elect new assemblies this year – Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. The BJP rules the last three states, and has actually been in power in MP and Chhattisgarh since 2003.
A recent survey by CSDS Lokniti suggests that a mere 3-5 per cent vote swing in these two states – something not unlikely due to the anti-incumbency at play – could spell bad news for the BJP and bring its rule to an end there.
The grand old party may have lost the 2017 assembly elections in Gujarat, but it did put in its best performance in nearly two decades. The mood among party workers is upbeat, and the Rajasthan bypolls have only given the party some momentum.
“The Congress hopes to gain electorally from rural unrest, which is visible in the states going to the polls this year; more so because they are largely rural,” says CSDS director Sanjay Kumar. “By these parameters, it is reasonable for the Congress to hope for a better 2018.”
In Karnataka, the BJP is expected to give a serious fight to the incumbent Congress, but political analysts give the edge to the latter at the moment.
In 2014, the BJP did not need any allies to form a government after it single-handedly won 282 seats. But the party stuck with its allies and shared power in the NDA government. It was an exceptional performance by the BJP – it virtually swept the Hindi heartland, winning 73 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh (its ally Apna Dal won two more), all the seats on offer in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi, seven of 10 in Haryana, 27 of 29 in Madhya Pradesh, etc.
But the underlying politics in these states and the nature of contests elsewhere is something that is overlooked while making electoral calculations, says Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam. A key determinant, he says, is how many seats the BJP and the Congress fight directly with virtually no other serious opponents.
“There are 193 Lok Sabha seats where the Congress and the BJP are in a direct fight. Currently, BJP holds most of them, but even a small change in the scenario would be a loss for them,” Nirupam says.
If that happens, the BJP will once again need to lean on its allies to retain power. But there’s trouble in the NDA family.
The BJP’s oldest ally, the Shiv Sena, is on its way out — both parties are still together in the state and central governments, but have fought recent elections as separate entities, amid a lot of public posturing against each other.
“This was a demand for long within the party – to part ways with the BJP,” says Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut. “Our leader Uddhav-ji (Thackeray) has already announced our decision to go our separate ways. Our ministers will resign from the government at the right time.”
Tensions have also surfaced in Andhra Pradesh, where Telugu Desam Party supremo Chandrababu Naidu is threatening to withdraw from the NDA. Naidu has been regularly complaining about the Centre ignoring his state, and denying funds to his dream project of developing the state capital in Vijayawada. This has only intensified since the budget last week.
Losing the TDP would be a blow, since the TDP currently holds 15 of the 25 seats in bifurcated Andhra Pradesh. The BJP itself has two MPs, while Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress has eight.
In Bihar, the BJP has managed to regain a powerful ally in Nitish Kumar, even forming a government with him after the fall of the JD(U)-RJD-Congress Grand Alliance. But this has meant distancing from other partners such as Union minister Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustan Awam Morcha, who are now cosying up to Lalu Prasad Yadav. Manjhi could take away with him some Mahadalit votes from the NDA.
“The biggest advantage the BJP has over the opposition is brand Modi and its election machinery,” says CSDS’s Kumar. “If BJP can win Gujarat after 22 years of anti-incumbency, it can invest the same resources to win states such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.”
A real opposition revival can only happen if the BJP loses a state election. In most of the upcoming states, it’s a direct Congress-BJP battle, so it would be a big victory for the Congress. Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot says “I can assure you that you will now see us win states. We almost did it in Gujarat and now you saw in Rajasthan.”
Although some senior BJP leaders have said that the Rajasthan results are a cause for concern, the party is putting on a brave face. “Elections and by-elections happen throughout the year. We win some and we lose some,” said Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. “Don’t draw any conclusion out of this. The popularity of Prime Minister Modi is for everyone to see.”
While that is a clear indication that Prime Minister Modi remains the biggest mascot of the ruling party, the opposition seems confident of being able to challenge his ability to carry 2019 entirely on his own. A fight is on the cards in 2019 and politically, 2018 is not expected to be any less exciting either.