HOURS BEFORE HE went on a ‘symbolic’ fast in Delhi to protest what he alleged were rising atrocities against Dalits under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule, Rahul Gandhi made a prediction for poll- bound Karnataka, only one of the two big states where his Congress party still runs a government. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, he forecast, would “collapse like never before” in the 2019 General Election. This extraordinary over-confidence was based on what he claimed was solid unity among opposition parties, but remains inexplicable. Gandhi has failed, for example, to rally other anti-BJP parties under a common banner.
The Congress president’s statement is better interpreted as a public admission that his party had little option in 2019 but to get off its high horse and tag along with regional parties that were already working to tie their wagons together, with or without the Congress in tow. “When opposition parties are united at this level, it becomes very difficult for the ruling BJP to win,” Gandhi said in Bengaluru.
In Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, states where the Congress is in direct confrontation with the BJP, the saffron party would be overrun, Gandhi boasted. And in Uttar Pradesh, with its 80 Lok Sabha seats up for grabs, he added, it was likely that the BJP would be restricted to just two seats once the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Congress joined forces. Modi himself, he held, would lose his Varanasi seat in such an event. “It’s elementary, simple,” he proclaimed, extrapolating the recent bypoll wins of an SP-BSP front in Gorakhpur and Phulpur to a state-wide rout for the ruling party there.
‘Simplistic’, however, might be a word more applicable to Gandhi’s calculations, given the innate contradictions within the motley coalition that hopes to come together against Modi. That political equations within the opposition have shifted is clear from Gandhi’s acknowledgement that the Congress, instead of leading the formation, is now willing to join a bandwagon of smaller parties. That the voice of regional parties will grow louder at its cost is also to be expected.
Today, playing a secondary role in the effort to dislodge Modi could put the Congress at an electoral disadvantage. For even a modicum of a chance of success against the NDA in elections for the 17th Lok Sabha, say analysts, the opposition needs to be led by a national party with at least 125 seats in its kitty. No party has the requisite credentials.
In the General Election of 2014, the Congress’ all-India vote share fell to a historic low of 20 per cent, pulling down its seat tally to an abysmal 44 seats, down from its earlier 162. Worse still, the Congress failed to win a single Lok Sabha constituency in ten states: Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Odisha. In the most populous state, UP, it got a shameful total of two seats, the Gandhi ‘home boroughs’ of Amethi and Rae Bareilly, and both with smaller margins of victory.
Historically, it has always been a multi-state party that has taken the helm of any joint political exercise aimed at defeating a party in power at the Centre. National leadership is considered an assurance of viability and coherent governance if such a coalition does happen to win. In 1989, VP Singh’s Janata Dal played that key role. In 1991, it was PV Narasimha Rao’s Congress and in 1998 AB Vajpayee’s BJP that provided the pivot to the country’s electorate for a regime change at the hustings. In 2004, it was Sonia Gandhi’s Congress that offered an option. Yet, today, the Congress led by her son is in no position to rally opposition forces in the same manner. It has only 48 seats in the Lok Sabha and currently rules only four states: Punjab, Mizoram and the Union Territory of Puducherry, apart from Karnataka, which is due for polls on May 12th. Besides, with the exception of Gujarat, wherever it has faced a direct contest with the BJP, it has been battered.
Leaders of powerful regional outfits remain unconvinced of Rahul's ability to challenge Modi. This is what explains Mamata Banerjee's attempts to forge a federal front of non-Congress parties against the BJP
All coalitions operate on the logic of vote transferability. The anchor party needs to have its voters swell the ballot for smaller allies in polls for seats shared with them; and vice versa. It seems improbable that the Congress can be of any aid to regional parties. In states like UP, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, it has virtually no vote base to offer allies. In states where it does have electoral support, such as Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, it is likely to be a direct contest between Congress and the BJP, with no significant third party in the fray. In total, these 12 states account for 347 Lok Sabha seats. Opposition forces joining hands here will not worry the BJP much.
Voter rejection of the Congress in poll after poll since 2014 may not be the only hurdle that the party faces as it pushes its way along for survival. Leaders of powerful regional outfits remain unconvinced of Rahul Gandhi’s ability to challenge Modi. This is what explains West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s attempts to forge a federal front of non-Congress parties against the BJP. Not only did the Trinamool chief grab the initiative on this from Gandhi as 2019 began to loom on the horizon with Modi’s popularity threatening all other players, she made it a point to meet and consult several top leaders, including Sharad Pawar of the NCP, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of the BJD, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekara Rao of the TRS, and even the former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. In doing so, Banerjee has already cast a shadow on any future efforts by Rahul Gandhi.
THE STAKES ARE high for Rahul Gandhi. This will be the first General Election with him as president of India’s oldest political force. Since his ascent to the top, the Congress has been able to claim no more than a ‘moral victory’ in Gujarat, where it tried to turn Assembly elections into a referendum on Modi. Now, Karnataka, where the party has been forced to adopt a ‘soft Hindutva’ approach in its desperation to retain power, is Gandhi’s next test. But the do-or-die event will probably be the Lok Sabha polls of 2019. If the Congress fails to achieve victory—moral or otherwise—the very nature of politics in India could undergo as significant shift rightwards.
This will be the first general election with Rahul Gandhi as president of India's oldest political force. Since his ascent to the top, the party has been able to claim no more than a 'moral victory' in Gujarat
Apart from problems arising from the lack of a strong national party in its vanguard, an opposition platform of regional parties is bound to lose cohesion under the strains of state-level politics, where many are ranged against one another. This effect could be clearest in UP. The last time the SP and BSP ran a joint campaign was in 1993, under the slogan ‘Mile Mulayam Kanshi Ram, Hava ho Gaya Jai Shri Ram’ (As Mulayam and Kanshi Ram join hands, the slogan of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ loses force). But the panchayat polls that followed unleashed bitter feuds among the followers and workers of the two parties. Then came the infamous Guest House incident, embroiling BSP’s Mayawati in a controversy, and the two allies fell apart.
It’s in UP, too, that the Congress has not been able to recover its hold among the masses. Its ill-thought-out and hasty alliance with the SP for the state’s 2017 Assembly polls proved that the party had little to offer a regional ally by way of votes. It also exposed a flawed approach to alliance making on Rahul Gandhi’s part. Analysts estimate that the SP’s partnership with the Congress—given its low electoral stock in the state— may have cost Akhilesh Yadav’s party heavily.
The BJP swept the UP elections of 2017 by contesting almost exclusively on the strength of Modi’s appeal. The party did not even have to name a chief ministerial candidate to reduce the SP to 47 seats from a 2012 tally of 224. Its incongruous alliance with the Congress that voters recoiled from, analysts believe, worsened the outcome for the SP. Mayawati’s BSP, which had held power in UP before 2012, also saw a sizeable chunk of its Dalit vote bank shift to the BJP. However, the BSP retained 22.2 per cent of the state’s overall votes, compared to the SP’s 28.3 per cent. Together, the combined vote share of these two parties was noticeably higher than the 41.6 per cent drawn by the BJP at its peak in the state.
In the General Election of 2014, the BSP had failed to win a single seat in the Lok Sabha; the SP was reduced to single digits. But their combined vote share, at around 42 per cent, was only marginally lower than the BJP’s 42.6 per cent in the thick of that season’s Modi wave. In this arithmetic lies the hope that Rahul Gandhi has been speaking of. What he doesn’t mention was that his own party might have little to add to that figure.
Anti-Modi forces appear to be counting on not just the joint vote shares of the SP and BSP in UP from the past two polls held there, but also a slight swing away from the BJP. If this materialises, they hope, it would spell a significant drop in the saffron party’s seat tally. One such projection based on a constituency-wise analysis of Assembly poll data suggests that an SP-BSP alliance could win it 57 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats next year, leaving the BJP with only 23.
However, such projections may not only be premature but also the result of over-simplification. The 2014 and 2017 polls showed that electoral patterns in UP are volatile, with support shifting even at the nth hour in such ways that no amount of poll maths can reliably predict the outcome. Emotive issues, socio- political currents and caste equations all have roles on the ground, and armchair assumptions cannot easily be made. Despite the SP-BSP victory in Gorakhpur and Phulpur (Mayawati’s party is known to not contest bypolls), local-level tensions not only persist but have been exacerbated between the SP’s OBC (mainly Yadav) voters and the BSP’s Dalit supporters.
Social friction between the two broad groups has reportedly been aggravated by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the SC/ ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and the perceived reluctance of the Modi Government to appeal against its dilution, which set off massive protests by Dalits in several parts of the country. Observers say that this is because in recent years UP’s Dalits have suffered worse at the hands of OBC tormentors than upper-castes. Given the divide between the two caste groups, the jury is still out on whether the SP-BSP partnership will survive long enough to fight the 2019 polls jointly. One deal-breaker could be a failure of quid pro quo: while Mayawati may be able to transfer her party’s committed Dalit votes to the SP, Akhilesh Yadav’s party may prove unable to return that favour. This could take the alliance apart.
Analysts also suggest that the ire among Dalits over what they consider a reduction of safeguards against oppression might work against the BSP. The protests were led largely by Jatavs, the BSP’s core support base, and their aggression could push non-Jatav Dalits towards the BJP next year. Given the complexities, the SP and BSP may have figured they have little choice but to pool resources and fight together. But this in itself cannot guarantee them victory.
CALLS FOR OPPOSITION unity are beset by similar problems in other states. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, the ruling TDP has recently broken away from the NDA, but the two main parties ranged against the BJP, the YSR Congress of Jaganmohan Reddy and the Indian National Congress, both constitute its opposition at the state level. In next-door Telangana, ruled by the TRS, the situation is no different. How local foes will smoothly be able to unite against the BJP at the national level in 2019 remains unclear.
While Mayawati may be able to transfer the BSP's committed Dalit votes to the SP, Akhilesh Yadav may prove unable to return that favour. This could take the alliance apart
In Tamil Nadu, although the ruling AIADMK is widely identified as a BJP ally now, it is likely to present itself to the electorate as an independent party— as seen in its Cauvery waters agitation—with no truck with the country’s ruling party if this serves its interests. The DMK, which is still a part of the Congress- led UPA, has been voicing stiff opposition to the Modi Government at the Centre. The traditional pattern has been for one of Tamil Nadu’s two major parties to win power in the state while the other is armed with more seats in the Lok Sabha. But with the AIADMK’s J Jayalalithaa gone and new politicians having emerged, little can be said of the state’s preferences at this point.
Then, there are a clutch of ‘neutral’ such as the BJD in Odisha that are inclined neither towards the Congress nor BJP. Even the TRS, despite talks with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool, appears keen to keep its options open for 2019.
The BJP did not even have to name a chief ministerial candidate to reduce Akhilesh Yadav's SP to 47 seats in the UP polls of 2017 from a 2012 tally of 224
The Trinamool’s arch rival in Bengal, the CPM is no less determined to contain the BJP’s rise. Its own survival as a party is at threat too, and it has been raising questions about a post-poll scenario in 2019. The Congress has been in touch with the CPM, but these ties can only be sustained at the cost of the Trinamool. In Kerala, meanwhile, the Congress and CPM are the two main opponents.
Forces opposed to Modi constantly harp on the 69 per cent of voters who did not back the BJP in 2014 to bolster their claim that opposition unity would work wonders in 2019. Modi, they hope, will ‘somehow’ be defeated by the numbers he hasn’t been able to win over. Politics, however, does not work this way. In 1977, diverse political forces came together to topple Indira Gandhi, talking dreamily of the same kind of unity, but after winning power, this anti-Indira coalition came apart even before it could complete a single parliamentary term.
In Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu's ruling TDP has broken away from NDA, but the two main anti-BJP parties, the YSR Congress and Congress, constitute its opposition at the state level
The 2019 General Election, though, will perhaps mirror the one in 1971. On one side would be Modi. On the other, everybody else. With the BJP portraying it as a presidential poll, the opposition’s ‘somehow’ theory will come up short. And Rahul Gandhi may not be able to bear the pressure of being pitted against Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. This may have played on Banerjee’s mind as she sought to create a wide federal front.
What makes the challenge steeper still is that the BJP electoral machine is now in better shape than it was in 2014. The party is in power at the Centre with a majority, and also in 21 states, including some where it had no influence four years ago. Most importantly, it has in Modi a leader with a strong national appeal and a campaigner extraordinaire. To remain relevant, the opposition needs more than illusions of unity.