Narendra Modi versus 'the rest': Opposition parties attempt to build formidable force to derail BJP surge in 2019
Uttar Pradesh by-elections in two crucial Lok Sabha constituencies where SP, backed by BSP, delivered a severe blow to the rising fortunes of the BJP.
In the recent Uttar Pradesh by-elections in two crucial Lok Sabha constituencies — Gorakhpur and Phulpur — Samajwadi Party (SP), backed by Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), delivered a severe blow to the rising fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu added to the woes of the saffron party as he decided to pull out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre, becoming the first major party to quit the ruling alliance.
The BJP lost the Gorakhpur seat to the SP by a margin of 21,961 votes. In the Phulpur constituency, which was once represented by Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, SP candidate Nagendra Pratap Singh Patel defeated BJP candidate Kaushalendra Singh by a margin of 59,613 votes. The winner pulled 3,42,796 votes while BJP candidate got 2,83,183 votes. The victory has done more than just boosting the morale of the non-BJP parties in Uttar Pradesh — they have set the tone for the 2019 General Election.
The BJP's vulnerability when elections are fought on the regional level is evident. There is no doubt that the SP-BSP combine presents a formidable social coalition if it continues to pose a stiff challenge to the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Why were Gorakhpur and Phulpur results so crucial?
The results were significant as they came almost a year after the BJP's unprecedented victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. The two Lok Sabha seats were held by current Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (Gorakhpur), and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya (Phulpur). The BJP, in 2014, had won the two seats by margins of over three lakh votes. The failure to retain the two seats has again shown the BJP's vulnerability in a contest against a combined and determined Opposition.
Mamata Banerjee, the chief of Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, called the bypoll results, and the victory for a regional party in another seat in neighbouring Bihar, the "beginning of the end" for the BJP.
— Mamata Banerjee (@MamataOfficial) March 14, 2018
In 2015 Bihar Assembly election, the BJP had been defeated by the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) which was formed by Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United), Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress despite aggressive campaigning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If the Congress — like the BSP — had not put up its candidates in Phulpur and Gorakhpur and instead decided to support the SP nominees, the victory margin of the winning candidates would have been bigger.
Any alliance between the three parties in Uttar Pradesh for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will make the going extremely difficult for the BJP, experts said and added that it could impair the saffron party's chances of returning to power at the Centre.
Uttar Pradesh has 80 Lok Sabha seats and the BJP had won 71 of these on its own in 2014, with its ally bagging another two. The poll verdict in Phulpur and Gorakhpur also showed a remarkable transfer of votes at a relatively short notice and has a lesson for the Opposition parties.
By-election results in 2018 also signalled to the idea that regional parties of India could be a possible recourse to break the Narendra Modi juggernaut in the upcoming General Elections, except in Gujarat and a few states in the Hindi heartland, where there will be a direct fight between BJP and Congress.
Sonia Gandhi's dinner party
The day SP-BSP registered the win in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi hosted a dinner party for several Opposition parties. Projecting herself as the anchor, Sonia's attempt was to cobble together a cohesive Opposition that could possibly be the force capable of taking on the somewhat irrepressible Modi wave ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha Election.
Senior politicians from 20 parties like Trinamool Congress Mamata Banerjee, Nationalist Congress Party's Sharad Pawar, SP's Ram Gopal Yadav, RJD's Tejasvi Yadav and Misa Bharti, D Raja of CPI, National Conference's Omar Abdullah, JMM's Hemant Soren, RLD's Ajit Singh, DMK's Kanimozhi and several others, dined together.
Parties like, the JD(S), which will be fighting against the Congress in the coming Karnataka Assembly elections; the BSP, which stayed away from a couple of Opposition gatherings in the recent past; and the CPM, which is opposed to any electoral understanding with the Congress, were all present.
Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala had said that at a time when the government was not allowing Parliament to function, it was obvious that leaders of various parties, who wanted to raise issues in the national interest, would get together to discuss the current political situation.
The meeting was held to come up with an option for a Third Front which was non-BJP and non-Congress. The Indian Express quoted CPI's S Sudhakar Reddy who said, "It is more of a mobilisation… that so many people are ready to be in the fight against the BJP. There was some talk of a Third Front. The purpose, I think, was also to clarify. Maybe, that one of the reasons… whether they are in this front, or in the so-called non-Congress, non-BJP front… Maybe there will be some discussions and meetings in the later stages."
The dinner hosted by Sonia was reminiscent of the lunch she had hosted for Opposition leaders on 5 February, 2004, after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government had cut short the duration of that Lok Sabha.
Opposition cobbling up a viable alternative to Modi's BJP
The electoral wins and losses in the past four years clearly signal that coalitions are more important for poll outcomes now than in 2014. The bypoll results also hint towards the alliances that the Opposition should concentrate on building. NCP's Sharad Pawar, who is emerging as a key interlocutor among Opposition parties, said a coalition of "like-minded" parties could challenge BJP and Modi in 2019. Pawar said that the current mood in the country, particularly of farmers and middle class, and even youth was "against" Modi who has "failed to provide jobs to the youth."
In an interview with The Wire, Pawar said that the need to bring together a coalition of "like-minded" parties arose when BJP Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde declared that there was a need to make substantial changes in the Constitution. "It was decided that we should meet at the national level too, and I informally called a meeting here in Delhi where the Congress and other parties also joined in."
Confident that a secular front will take the mantle in 2019, Pawar gave the example of what had happened in 2004. "Vajpayee was the most popular prime minister at the time, though he was not happy with the way things were going… But who would have believed Manmohan Singh would become prime minister? I believe if like-minded forces come together and work, I will not be surprised if we collectively form the government."
Pawar, reportedly, also spent almost 90 minutes discussing the political scenario after BJP's shock defeats in Phulpur and Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh and its inability to wrest Araria seat in Bihar from the RJD with Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
"As of today, Modi has a comfortable position in Parliament, his party is in power in many states. But the situation emerging is there is a big change in the mood of the farming community, the middle class, minorities, even youth," Pawar said. Sonia has been holding meetings of like-minded Opposition parties to discuss ways to take on the Modi government. Some senior leaders, including Pawar and Mamata, are also expected to make renewed efforts to emerge as the pivot of Opposition unity.
While BJP's estranged ally Shiv Sena said that the bypoll results will give a boost to the Opposition, the NCP said it showed that a united opposition can defeat the BJP-led regime.
The NCP termed the BJP's defeat as a "shape of things to come". "The results of the by-elections in UP and Bihar will give a boost to the Opposition", an editorial in the Sena mouthpiece 'Saamana' said, adding that people are now out of their "illusionary world".
Enthused by his party's strong showing in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls, Akhilesh Yadav declined to respond to a volley of questions on SP's future course of action on stitching any pre-poll alliance. "No one can say anything about the future," Yadav said when asked about the possibility of the bitter rivals – the SP and the BSP – coming together again.
The CPI said fielding a common Opposition candidate against the BJP would be the best strategy to defeat the lead party of the ruling NDA in the next Lok Sabha elections. CPI's Reddy said it is possible to adopt such an approach in most of the states.
However, Mamata's TMC also is of the view a broad platform against Modi-led BJP could be self-defeating, as it would offer him an opportunity to "paint all Opposition with the same brush of their leaders being involved in corruption, and they coming together to defeat him since he provided an honest government."
CPM's Sitaram Yechury, however, feels any broad platform of Opposition parties should first agree on a policy agenda. He says mere arithmetic of 'index of opposition unity' may not work.
However, to turn this moral victory into material success, the Opposition has a mammoth journey ahead of them. Like this article in The Indian Express argues, "but the real groundwork awaits the non-BJP parties at the state level in three respects: Actual hard political work of mobilising the people locally (like what the Kisan Morcha did in Maharashtra), then arriving at mutually agreeable seat-sharing and finally convincing their core voters to transfer their votes to alliance partners. Not many parties have the patience or the ability for this."
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