Still a year away, the battle lines are already drawn for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Both NDA and UPA are pulling up its socks and wooing the allies. While the NDA is cautiously taking steps to retain the power, UPA is geared up to wrest power from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In between, certain regional parties are nurturing the formation of an ambitious non-BJP, non-Congress third front. It is interesting to see how the BJP will manage the magnitude of these political distresses and continue to dominate Indian politics or will pave the way for a new political alignment in 2019.
After the Modi tsunami swept across the country in 2014, the aftershocks continued to decimate the opposition. The upswing continued and the BJP juggernauts Modi and Shah made sure the Lotus blooms across the country.
From just 5 states in 2014, the number of states ruled by BJP has gone up to 20 states in 2018. A spectacular show indeed as the BJP has witnessed an unprecedented expansion, reinforcing its status as one of the principal party of Indian politics. It is not a mere exaggeration that the saffron party has been on a roll since the Narendra Modi led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in May 2014. Of course, the critical and undenying factor that has worked well for the success of BJP is the towering personality of Modi at the helm and the remarkable organizational skills of party president Amit Shah.
Starting with a stupendous win in Uttar Pradesh in early 2017, till the Gujarat election at the end of the year, the year 2017 happened to be the best ever electoral year for the BJP. At a time when everyone thought that BJP is perfectly poised ahead of the 17th general election due in 2019, the party begin to feel the weakening effect of the current or the slowdown of the waves, during the Gujarat 2017 election. After many years, one could see the resurgence of the grand old party – Congress at the 2017 Gujarat elections. Indeed the results of Gujarat was an eye opener for BJP though the party managed to scrap through for a record sixth consecutive term.
Soon after the grand show in 2014, the opposition parties rallied around to form a formidable alliance to stop BJP’s growth trajectory. That has resulted in the formation of “Mahagathbhandhan” in Bihar. It proved to be a brilliant move by the likes of RJD, JDU and Congress which ultimately succeeded in forming the government in 2015. It is another story that barely after a year, BJP successfully broke the JDU and RJD alliance and partnered with his former ally Nitish Kumar to form the government by ousting the corrupt Lallu Yadav.
Even in the Gujarat elections, finally Modi had to leverage his personal clout to ensure victory. During the final leg of the campaign the party had to organise as many rallies as possible with Modi as the central figure to gain the momentum to nudge the Congress to the second position.
Start of fading of the Modi magic?
After the Gujarat elections, the BJP pulled up its socks and as expected regained the lost ground. Predictably, the party routed the Congress in Himachal Pradesh after surviving the scare in Gujarat.
But it was short lived as the party received the drubbing at the hands of Congress in the by-elections in Rajasthan, in Feb 2018, where the saffron party is in power. For the Congress, it proved to be on the comeback trail by its success in the Chitrakoot assembly by-election in Madhya Pradesh, another BJP-ruled state.
Rajasthan by polls loss worried BJP especially when BJP is in power in both at the state and the Centre. The voters of Ajmer and Alwar have elected Congress candidates in the Lok Sabha by polls by wide margins. And the voters of Mandalgarh have elected a Congress legislator for the state assembly. All three seats were held by the BJP earlier.
The scale of the losses are certainly a warning signal for the BJP at the Centre and a stinging rebuke to the BJP in the state and raised questions on Vasundhara Raje’s leadership. It has set the tone for the Rajasthan state assembly elections at the end of the year and also some signs for the 2019 general elections. On the other hand it was a shot in the arm for the Congress and the victory was a big morale boost for the Congress.
Following the drubbing it faced in Rajasthan, by losing the Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha seats, BJP also lost the Uluberia parliamentary seat in West Bengal which Trinamool Congress retained. It was a jolt to BJP as its overall reputation started to fade and was expected to have a bearing on the 2019 general election.
The results of these by-elections, made everyone to talk about the ebbing of the saffron tide after “Tsunami” in 2014. There was little doubt that the BJP has reasons to be concerned as decline in the influence of the BJP was evident. A close scrutiny of the results indicate that while in Gujarat, the urbanites stood behind the BJP, in Rajasthan all the sections have voted against the ruling party.
The fact that the party has taken the setbacks it received in the by polls seriously, is reflected in its emphasis on the rural areas in the budget. Further, the National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS), dubbed as “Modicare”, to provide health insurance cover for 50 crore people mostly from rural areas, is a pointer that the BJP was trying to make amends by reaching out to the vulnerable sections.
The rise of saffron flags in the parts of the country where it was never given any chance to establish itself until a couple of years back, was a spectacular achievement. For the BJP literally to rise from level zero to forming the government was a remarkable journey of triumph. Indeed the results of the North East could not be sweeter for the BJP as the “Red” has turned “Saffron”.
The results of the Gujarat elections did project Rahul Gandhi as the principal challenger to Modi. By giving a tough fight to BJP, especially on its home turf in Gujarat, Rahul Gandhi has earned the right to politically challenge Modi. But, the reputation did not last long, as Congress faced the worst drubbing in the North East.
After the debacle in the bypolls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, the saffron hue shone bright across the North East. With resounding victories, the BJP nullified the myth that in North East, hitherto, primarily considered a Christian bastion with strong communists’ ideologies, the BJP’s Hindutva and nationalistic ideologies will have no takers.
The results of the North East elections clearly emphasize three aspects. Left was left with nothing, resurgent Congress was tamed and stopped in its tracks and the BJP surged ahead. If the results of the North East are any indication of Modi’s ambitious second term in the high office, well it looks like that the BJP is well on its way.
There are some voices in the opposition which claimed that the three North Eastern states Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland add up to a mere "0.70 per cent of India's population, and accounted for only 5 Lok Sabha constituencies, BJP’s victory should not be construed as great. But, indeed BJP made a spectacular progress in the Northeast enough to make an impact on the overall national political discourse.
In Tripura, the BJP dramatically ended the two decades rule of Manik Sankar and the Left fortresses came crumbling down under the weight of BJP pushing it to cling on to only one state – Kerala. The Congress which came back strongly in Gujarat completely retreated in the North East. Currently, the Congress has been reduced to just three states (Karnataka, Punjab and Mizoram) and one Union territory (Puducherry).
BJP has now become a powerful brother of seven sisters in the North East. BJP’s Tripura victory is astounding as in Tripura, the country's last remaining fortress of red crumbled. In the 2013 assembly elections, BJP had failed to win a single seat in Tripura while CPI (M) had emerged victorious by winning 49 seats. In 2018, BJP won a landslide victory and formed its own government. BJP won 35 seats on its own, while its ally, the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), was victorious in 8 constituencies. The outgoing CPI (M) bagged 16 seats in total. The Left front party had won 50 out of the 60 Assembly constituencies in the state in 2013.
In the Christian-majority Nagaland, BJP formed the government with its pre-poll ally Nationalist Democratic People's Party (NDPP). In Meghalaya, another Christian-dominated state, the BJP formed the government with its ally National People's Party (NPP).
Congress has been wiped out in Tripura and rendered redundant in Nagaland, the state which Congress had been ruling for the past 10 years. Further, in Meghalaya it is significant to note that the BJP performed despite the Church openly campaigning against it with all its might. But, the results clearly shows that the people, including Christians, have obviously did not adhere to Church’s diktat.
With the resounding performance in the North Eastern states, it would not be wrong for the BJP to claim that it is a pan-India party, ruling 15 states on its own and overall 20 states with its allies among the 29 Indian states. The ability to rise from zero and trounce the opponents in their best guarded fortress not only energised BJP rank and file but also underlined their belief in the leadership of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo.
Demoralising UP Losses
At a time when the results of the North East elections gave the impetus for the BJP to take on Congress with renewed energy in Karnataka and later in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and the upcoming 2019 general election, it received a major jolt from Uttar Pradesh.
The euphoria over the astounding North East victory was wiped out for the BJP by the demoralising losses in three Lok Sabha constituencies – two in Uttar Pradesh - Gorakhpur and Phulpur - and one in Bihar’s Araria. The Uttar Pradesh by polls literally sent shock waves across the BJP camp. The shock was huge because Gorakhpur is Yogi Adityanath’s home turf – which he vacated after becoming the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Yogi won five times from the Gorakhpur constituency and also Gorakhpur houses his Gorakhnath ashram. Similarly Phulpur, is the constituency vacated by Yogi’s deputy CM, Keshav Prasad Maurya.
The loss literally created ripples in the political circuits of not only Uttar Pradesh but across the country, because the BJP had won both seats by a huge margin of over 3 lakh votes in 2014. Both the MP seats were won by an opportunistic partnership between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), who buried the two decades of intense rivalry and joined hands to take on the BJP. The last-minute alliance stitched up by Mayawati and Akhilesh did the trick much to the chagrin of both Yogi and BJP.
The success is now seen as a new potential alliance that may pose a serious challenge to the BJP all over Uttar Pradesh in 2019. Indeed it was a rude shock for the BJP and also clearly a wake-up call. Further, for the BJP Yogi Adithyanath is a star campaigner and also a Hindutva firebrand national icon. Once, he was even touted to be an alternative to Modi, but losing in his own backyard is a serious setback to his reputation and also casts a cloud on his shining future. Later Yogi admitted that it was complacency and the BJP underestimated the SP-BSP alliance that led to the unexpected result.
Further, in the neighbouring Bihar it was a shot in the arm for both Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the young Tejashwi. Despite the RJD supremo Lallu Prasad Yadav is in jail, RJD pulled it off in the face of the Janata Dal (United) JDU and BJP that rules in both the state and the Centre. It is altogether a different story for the Congress as its candidates lost their security deposits in Phulpur.
Lok Sabha Losses
The fact of the matter is that in the last two years, the BJP has lost 10 Lok Sabha by polls — starting from Amritsar in the early 2017 to Araria in 2018. The other seats include Srinagar, Malappuram, Gurdaspur, Ajmer, Alwar, Uluberia, Gorakhpur and Phulpur. So far, six Lok Sabha by polls have been held in 2018 and the BJP has failed to win a single seat across four states - Rajasthan, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The BJP had won seven of these seats in the past. Especially, BJP’s loss in three Lok Sabha by polls - Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh, and Araria in Bihar - is an alarm bell for the saffron party and it took away the sheen from its emphatic win in the Northeast.
The UP experiment - Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supporting Samajwadi Party (SP) - has given the required ammunition for the opposition parties for the 2019 general election. The opposition is naturally emphatic and claims that the results of the by polls is a clear message that people are angry with the BJP for its “arrogance and misrule”. While the BJP is expanding its rule in many states where it had negligible presence earlier, the losing streak in the Lok Sabha by polls rings an alarm for the party ahead of 2019 elections for sure.
In a blatant attempt to woo anti-BJP forces, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi hosted a grand dinner in which as many as 20 Opposition parties got together and explored the possibility of forging a broader unity ahead of the 2019 general elections. Though, the congress is desperate to lead it is very apparent that not many leaders are willing to accept the leadership of the new Congress chief Rahul Gandhi.
Before the dust settled down on the Uttar Pradesh poll losses, BJP faced yet another setback. Its trusted ally for well over a decade, Telugu Desam Party (TDP), walked out of NDA in protest against non sanctioning of “Special Category” status to Andhra Pradesh.
TDP leader and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu ended his party’s four-year alliance with the BJP. Chandrababu Naidu, said “BJP allies are fighting for their rights in Parliament but the Prime Minister Modi did not have time to address their concerns”. TDP, which has 16 MPs in Lok Sabha, walked out of NDA. Naidu added, he was forced to do so “in the interest of the people of Andhra Pradesh”.
Following the walk out, TDP gave notice to move a no-confidence motion against the BJP-led government in the Lok Sabha. Prior to TDP’s no-confidence motion against the BJP, Naidu’s arch rival and YSR Congress Party leader Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy gave a no-trust motion notice, which literally put TDP on the back foot.
While the TDP has 16 MPs in the Lok Sabha and the YSR Congress has 9 MPs, both parties are seeking support from various other parties and push for a no-confidence motion vigorously to reach the coveted mark of 50 MPs. A trust vote in Lok Sabha has to be backed by at least 50 members to be admitted. The moves gathered momentum with a clutch of opposition parties, including the Congress and the Left which have instantly supported the motion, in the hope of sharpening their attack on the ruling NDA.
Further, its allies Shiv Sena, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have decided not to support the motion. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) has also ruled out its support for the no-confidence motion against the NDA government.
Is the Government scared?
Everyone knows that if the “no confidence” motion is allowed, it will test the nerves of the warring sides and issue will be resolved. The outcome will provide a clear indication of the evolving nature of political realignment in the country in the run-up to the next Lok Sabha elections. It will expose the fence sitters. If no-confidence motions fall, obviously Modi will emerge stronger and would also get the impetus to further challenge the opposition. The government can legitimately get down to the business of working on welfare programmes and attending to the problems of the people.
Though BJP exuded confidence that it has the numbers to ride out of the crisis, the question that remains unanswered is that why is the government scared of admitting the no-confidence motion? The no-trust motion is yet to be admitted and the BJP is not ready to take it lying down.
The opposition parties have started blaming the government as it is resorting to all sorts of tricks to stall the motion on one pretext or the other. The speaker continues to rule out the admission of the motion citing the ruckus created by the AIADMK and the TRS. The opposition is also attacking the BJP that it is hand in glove with the AIADMK and the TRS as the government has not bothered to dissuade both the regional parties from the disruptions and clear the way for admission, discussion and vote on no-confidence motions against the BJP led NDA government.
Possible Third Front?
The ‘no confidence” motion cannot be seen in isolation as a political issue of Andhra Pradesh. Certainly it has national implications in terms of perception and political equations which cannot be simply dismissed. The special status issue has turned the political heat on the Modi government. The exit of key ally TDP from NDA has indeed provided enough ammunition for the opposition. Further, the recent setbacks in the Uttar Pradesh by polls have emboldened the anti-BJP forces and they are looking forward to tighten their grip. It is clear that the parties look for their own gains with a possible electoral reverses.
At a time when the anti-BJP forces are converging and consolidating their attack on the centre, the party has already begun the fire fighting exercise by reaching out to the allies. It is really testing time for the BJP with a sulking Shiva Sena, a disgruntled AIADMK and unhappy BJD. Following TDP, Nitish Kumar led Janata Dal (United) which returned to NDA fold after dumping Lallu’s RJD, has started demanding the centre to accord the special status to Bihar.
Already, the party has witnessed the combined might of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh. Though on one side the opposition parties are rallying with TDP and YSR Congress to support the move in keeping with their anti-BJP stance, parties like Trinamool Congress are looking to take the lead in attacking BJP while Congress is trying its best to clearly underline Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. On the other hand, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) is pitching for its leadership and play a pivotal role. In fact TRS chief and Telangana Chief Minister Chnaderasekar has met Mamta Banerjee in Kolkata. Well, it looks like that the crystallization of an alternative front for 2019 elections has already began.
While it is a million dollar question, whether the opposition will be able to bring everyone under one umbrella and take on the BJP or it may just fizzle out like the “Mahaghatbandan” of Bihar. The concept of a grand alliance for 2019, may in all probability hit a wall as some of them wanted to keep even Congress out at the same time some are not open to the non-Congress path. Over the years the Indian voters have summarily rejected coalitions that have been built on loose foundations or hastily formed opportunistic political alliance. Further, the regional parties that are pitching in for non-BJP and non-Congress front are however non relevant outside their states and their vote bank will not add up to each other’s share nationally. In such a scenario, the aspiration of forming the third front itself will not be certain.
Whether it is the emergence of the third front or the resurgence of the Congress, the fact remains that the BJP is currently demoralised after setbacks in the recent by polls. Also, if the government is demoralised, it will result in the opposition gaining the upper hand. Further, the outcomes of the bypolls have forced some of allies to come out of the closet. Some have started to assert themselves some have started to openly criticise the government BJP and some have started to work on realignments. Such non cooperation and open confrontations by the allies will for sure affect the NDA's performance in the 2019 elections.
Under these circumstances, even if the first no-confidence motion against the BJP government is admitted, which in all probability the government will defeat the motion. But, it will not turn out to be a just test of majority for the BJP. It will be more about the challenge to the legitimacy of Modi’s leadership and it will not augur well for BJP in the run up to the 2019 elections. It all depends on how the BJP manages the distress of the allies in the coming months as coalitions are more important for poll outcomes.