UP By-election 2018: State-level alliances, anti-incumbency to test BJP narrative about PM's invincibility in 2019
Even as the BJP grows stronger and stronger — coupled with anti-incumbency it faces in some states — the Congress' hopes of building a broad anti-BJP coalition brighten.
Three developments seem to be presenting a challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party's political narrative around Prime Minister Narendra Modi's invincibility in 2019. First, independent of the nature of mandate in the Uttar Pradesh by-election, it is clear that the electoral arithmetic in the form of Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance has the potential to translate into political chemistry despite poll pundits claiming otherwise. Such formidable state-specific alliances could prove to be a litmus test for Modi juggernaut.
Second, the results in by-elections and local bodies elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost in a direct fight with the Congress reveal that the saffron party would find it hard to retain the maximum number of seats it won in 2014 and these losses cannot in any way be compensated by the gains in the smaller states of the North East.
Third, parties such as SP and BSP attending Sonia Gandhi's dinner meet despite the former having no alliance with Congress in the current bypoll and BSP joining hands with JDS against Congress in Karnataka reveal the imminent possibility of Congress-led mega alliance emerging before or after 2019 polls despite vulnerabilities in such an anti-BJP rainbow coalition.
The Indian national political landscape is a sum total of state-level mandates. Therefore, any national coalition should only be a combination of state-specific political alignments. Thus, there can be contradictions in the anti-BJP national coalition which Congress, especially Sonia Gandhi, is trying to stitch together, but that need not disarm the efforts to arrive at an anti-BJP national coalition.
Every political party wants to establish itself in different states. But this divergence of interests is despite a commonality of interests too. For instance, the Congress, SP and the BSP all want to gain strength on their own in Uttar Pradesh. At the same time, the common desire is to defeat the BJP. As the BJP becomes a pre-eminent player, the common cause prevails over divergent political interests. Similarly, the Congress, and the Janata Dal (S) can fight with each other at the state level and come together at the national level depending on the specific context.
The CPM is ideologically divided over joining hands with the Congress. The Left is in a direct fight with the Congress in its only remaining stronghold, Kerala. But keeping in mind the state-specific situation and the CPM's ideological stand, it cannot remain equidistant from both the Congress and the BJP when it is a choice between the two at the national level.
Mamata Banerjee was the first to positively respond to TRS chief and the Telangana chief minister Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao's idea of forming a non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front, and a TMC representative was present at Sonia Gandhi's dinner for the Opposition. Besides, the TMC-Congress bonhomie in the state Rajya Sabha elections speaks to the political possibilities.
The Indian political landscape is not monolithic. At one level, the Congress and the BJP are in direct fight in states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. The BJP faces serious anti-incumbency in these states where it received an overwhelming mandate in 2014. The saffron party is bound to lose seats here. The Gujarat election results are a clear indication of this even if the ruling BJP wants to discount the bypolls. The BJP might have won Gujarat, but Congress significantly improved its tally. The Modi-Shah duo cannot repeat the Gujarat performance in Rajasthan or elsewhere.
At the second level, the regional parties are restless with the surging BJP. States such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, and Maharashtra are examples of this. Thus, the regional parties engaged in a power struggle with BJP have to gravitate towards Congress despite serious reservations. The presence of leaders of many regional parties in Sonia Gandhi's dinner meet illustrates this.
At the third level, the state polity is vertically divided between Congress coalition with regional parties taking on BJP and its regional ally. Bihar is one such case. In states such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, both national parties are not serious players and piggy back politics reins.
Thus, even as the BJP grows stronger and stronger — coupled with anti-incumbency it faces in some states — the Congress' hopes of building a broad anti-BJP coalition brighten. But there can be many a slip between the cup and the lip depending upon the numbers game as many of these parties demonstrate utter lack of consistency in forming and breaking electoral and political alliances.
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