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Reshaping electoral alliances ahead of 2019

Himmat Nagar : Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi holds a plough during an election campaign rally in Himmat Nagar on Saturday. PTI Photo (PTI11_11_2017_000104B) *** Local Caption ***

The Congress’ victory in the recent bye-elections in Rajasthan was not unexpected considering the widespread unhappiness that had been building up against the Vasundhara Raje regime. In the run-up to last year’s Assembly election in Gujarat, many Rajasthanis based in Surat city would say while it was a “takkar” – close contest – between the Congress and the BJP in Gujarat, the result was a “foregone conclusion” in Rajasthan.
Still, the magnitude of the victory has come as a surprise to the BJP – and to the Congress. They see it as a wave in favour of the Congress, cutting across castes as well as the urban-rural divide. The party saw a turnaround of around four lakh votes in Alwar Lok Sabha constituency and a jump of 25% in Ajmer, where its state chief Sachin Pilot had lost by 2.5 lakh votes in 2014. This and the fact that it won big in all 17 assembly segments – eight each of Alwar and Ajmer parliamentary constituencies and one of Mandalgarh – shows that it was a “vote of aakrosh”, or anger, against the Raje government.
Specifically, the victory can be attributed to two factors. One, the style of functioning of the chief minister that has angered people. Two, the clear leadership of the Congress.

Pilot was appointed the state Congress chief in 2014, a few months before the general election that brought Narendra Modi to power. He uprooted himself from Delhi and made Jaipur his home and base, visiting Delhi over the weekends to see his children. His party colleagues say Pilot has logged at least three lakh kilometres travelling up and down the state over the last four years, rebuilding the party’s support base, which had been decimated when Raje won the 2013 election by a three-fourths majority.
Slowly, the Congress under Pilot began to notch up victories, in student elections and in polls to gram panchayats and municipal corporations. Normally, bye-polls are won by the ruling party. But the Congress has bucked the trend to win six of the eight bye-polls held in the state in the last four years. In the process, the Rajasthan Congress has set a template for the party to follow in other states: entrust the leadership to people committed to working hard on the ground to reconnect with the voters.
It goes without saying that even as the bye-elections have made the popular mood clear, much will now depend on the unity Rajasthan Congress leaders – Pilot, CP Joshi and former chief minister Ashok Gehlot who still enjoys goodwill – show in the coming weeks to encash the sentiment in their favour in the upcoming Assembly election. It is not as if the BJP is going to sit back.
At a wider level, can Rajasthan be a game changer for the opposition, which is struggling to keep its head above the water?
The victory in Rajasthan has undoubtedly given heart to the Congress and many other opposition parties. For one, it might stop some regional parties from gravitating towards the BJP as they might done otherwise. Like the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which is well placed to retain power in Telangana next year. Or the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which is supposedly an ally of the Congress but may be keeping its options open, more so after the acquittal of its leaders in the 2G spectrum allocation case. Indeed, its leaders did not attend the recent meetings of opposition parties called by Sharad Pawar or Sonia Gandhi.
On the other side, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is making noises about leaving the National Democratic Alliance, claiming his Telugu Desam Party has got a raw deal in the BJP-led coalition. The Shiv Sena, the BJP’s oldest ally, has already declared that it would part company with before the next general election.
The third pole of the Indian polity comprising regional parties – some of which are allied with the BJP, others with the Congress and many unaligned – is suddenly in a state of flux. These parties are attuned to shifts on the ground that would determine outcomes in the eight states that go to polls in 2018, starting with Karnataka. How they read these shifts would have a bearing on who allies with whom in 2019.
As it is, after Gujarat, many in the opposition began to feel that the jinx could be broken. As the Congress elder P Chidambaram noted, some opposition alliances would precede the 2019 Lok Sabha election and some might follow it.
In fact, the absence of a broad opposition front of the kind seen in 1977 – which merged into a single party – or in 1989 or 1996, could be to the advantage of the Congress. It leaves room for allies disaffected with the BJP to move towards the Congress.
In the 2019 general election, large states will hold the key. If the Samajwadi Party of Akhilesh Yadav and the Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati team up in 80-seat Uttar Pradesh (though for the moment both have ruled it out and the BJP will do its utmost to prevent this from happening), and the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party join hands in Maharashtra (48 seats), with the possibility of a tacit understanding with the Shiv Sena, the BJP would find it tough in both states.
In Tamil Nadu (39 seats) and West Bengal (42 seats), it is MK Stalin and Mamata Banerjee, respectively, who are in the lead role, with or without allies. Banerjee continues to hold her ground in West Bengal as demonstrated in the recent bye-polls, though the BJP is emerging as its closest opposition in the state.
The other large state is Bihar (40 seats). Nitish Kumar’s decision to break from the grand alliance stitched ahead of the Assembly election in 2015 and ally with the BJP has garnered Lalu Prasad Yadav sympathy among the Yadavs and Muslims as also some most backward castes that used to be his supporters but had moved away. Allied with the Congress, Yadav, though serving a jail term for his role in the fodder scam, may not be the also-ran some expect him to be.
The BJP’s tactic of launching cases against opposition leaders to hurt their credibility ahead of the 2019 polls might start yielding diminishing returns beyond a point as people would realise that all those being targeted are opposed to the ruling party. Still, this strategy may gain momentum with fast-track courts being set up at the instance of the Supreme Court to try cases against politicians.
In this context, what does the flurry of activity displayed by opposition leaders in recent days add up to? Pawar leading a demonstration at the Gateway of India in Mumbai to “save the Constitution” and then holding a conclave of opposition leaders in Delhi? Sonia Gandhi calling for another meeting of opposition leaders and representatives of 17 parties turning up? Many things.
Given there is a feeling in the opposition camp that the new Congress chief, Rahul Gandhi, may find it difficult to manage relationships with allies – Trinamool Congress leaders have been driving home this point – state satraps such as Mamata Banerjee might be positioning themselves for a larger role in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, maybe its chairmanship.
However, by calling the opposition meeting the day the Union Budget was presented, Sonia Gandhi may have signaled she is not in a hurry to quit the chairmanship of the alliance. Not after Rajasthan.
These leaders would do well to remember that flexibility and power-sharing remain central to forging unity against the BJP.